The journalist is suspected of “criminal activity that endangered China’s national security.” She was detained on August 14.
The announcement came after the last two Australian journalists working in China arrived in Sydney after five days of diplomatic deadlock.
Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Mike Smith of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) landed in Australia on Tuesday.
Chinese authorities questioned the two before leaving. Birtles “was not asked about what he worked in China or about his behavior,” ABC reported, but about Cheng.
ABC said Australian diplomats last week advised Birtles and the television network’s management to leave China. He was supposed to fly last Thursday, but the situation escalated on Wednesday night when seven Chinese police officers entered the reporter’s apartment while he was having a farewell party. Police told him he could not leave the country and that he would be questioned about a “national security case”.
Birtles immediately contacted the Australian Consulate and he was taken to the Australian Embassy, where he spent the next four days.
Smith, based in Shanghai, was also visited by police, prompting him to go to the Australian Consulate in the city.
They were only allowed to leave the country if they were interrogated by the police.
“I know Cheng Lei, but not well, and Mike Smith from Shanghai met her once in his life. We didn’t seem like the best people to talk to, if you really wanted to talk about her situation, ”Birtles said.
The AFR leadership said it was happy that both journalists were safe. “This incident, which involved two journalists doing their usual work, is unfortunate and disturbing and is not in the interest of a cooperative relationship between Australia and China,” the statement said.
Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years. There have been allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society in the past, but ties broke down after Canberra launched an international investigation into the origin of the new coronavirus pandemic and expressed concern about human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China reported on Monday that 17 foreign journalists – a record number – had been expelled from the country in the first half of 2020.
Cheng Lei is an Australian citizen based in Beijing. She is a well-known journalist in the economic field and works for the English language station CGTN.
In August of this year, he disappeared from the small screen and severed ties with friends and relatives. China later announced that she had been detained under house surveillance in an undisclosed location. The reasons were not announced at that time.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the government had detained her “for national security reasons” and said authorities had taken action against her. He added that an investigation is ongoing.
No further details were provided. At the time of her detention, it was believed that Australian nationality could be a factor, given the deteriorating relations between Beijing and Canberra.