Australia has not been informed why Chinese authorities have detained Australian citizen Cheng Lei, a high-profile television anchor at state television channel CGTN in Beijing.
Cheng was picked up last month and Australia was informed on August 14, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement on Monday night.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told ABC radio on Monday that the government did not know why she was being held.
“Cheng Lei is an Australian, a journalist who has been working in China for some period of time,” he said. “I’ve actually met her and been interviewed by her while overseas myself. I feel for her family very much at this point in time, and it’s why we will do what we can to assist her as we would and have any Australian in these sorts of circumstances.”
Tensions between Beijing and Canberra have been running high since the Australian government called for an international inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus. Beijing has since imposed trade tariffs and anti-dumping probes on multiple Australian products.
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
No access to family, lawyer
Cheng Lei works as a business anchor for CGTN, the international channel of Chinese state television, but the broadcaster appears to have removed her profile from its website.
Cheng is being held under what China calls “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) – a form of detention that entails Chinese authorities holding people for as long as six months without access to family members or a lawyer and that has been criticised by the United Nations.
Elaine Pearson. Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said Cheng’s detention was “very concerning” and that the Chinese government should clarify why she was being held.
RSDL is “NOT house arrest,” Pearson wrote on Twitter. “It’s a form of secret detention without access to lawyers that can last up to six months before a suspect is formally arrested or charged. Detainees are at risk of ill-treatment and even torture.”
A statement issued by Cheng‘s family in Australia said it hoped for “a satisfactory and timely conclusion” and was in close consultation with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
#Shakeshack's first #Beijing store set to open in 12 hours' time…the staff are psyched! Loving the Beijing touches in food and decor. Opening ceremony will feature pedicabs and pesky Beijing uncles! Make shakes, not war pic.twitter.com/kkMZVZxw9r
— Cheng Lei (@ChengLeiCGTN) August 11, 2020
Australian officials spoke to Cheng at a detention facility via video link on August 27, Payne said, adding that consular officials would continue to provide support to her and her family.
Cheng’s last Tweet – about the opening of Shake Shack in Beijing – was on August 11. The link to her profile on CGTN returns an error message.