The national flags of Australia and China are displayed before a portrait of Mao Zedong facing Tiananmen Square.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP via Getty Images
The Australian government said Friday that it remained seriously concerned about the welfare of a Chinese-born Australian journalist a year after she was first detained in China.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne used the first anniversary of Cheng Lei’s detention on Aug. 13 to tell China that Australia expected “basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms.”
“The Australian government remains seriously concerned about Ms. Cheng’s detention and welfare and has regularly raised these issues at senior levels,” Payne said in a statement. “We are particularly concerned that one year into her detention, there remains a lack of transparency about the reasons for Ms. Cheng’s detention,” she added.
In February, China formally arrested the 46-year-old journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas. The allegations, which could result a penalty of life in prison or even death, are highly unusual for an employee of a media outlet tightly controlled by China’s ruling Communist Party.
Cheng’s two children, aged 10 and 12, live with their grandmother in the Australian city of Melbourne. The National Press Clubs of the United States and Australia as well as the reporter’s former CGTN colleagues and friends have recently written open letters calling for her immediate release.
“Cheng Lei’s yearlong detention is an assault on journalism and on human rights. Cheng is a single mother of two. Her children have been living with their grandmother in Australia without knowing if they will ever be reunited with their mother,” a U.S. National Press Club statement said.
“China has tried to make Cheng disappear, but the world has not forgotten about her or the several dozen other reporters unjustly jailed in China,” the statement added. Worsening bilateral relations since Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic are suspected by many to be the cause of Cheng’s arrest.
A month before Cheng was detained, Australia warned its citizens of a risk of arbitrary detention in China. China dismissed the warning as disinformation.
Before the last two journalists working for Australian media in China left the country in September, they were questioned by Chinese authorities about Cheng. Australian Broadcasting Corp. reporter Bill Birtles and The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith were told they were “persons of interest” in an investigation into Cheng.
Australia has criticized China for charging Chinese Australian spy novelist Yang Hengjun with espionage. He has been detained since January 2019.
Australian Karm Gilespie was sentenced to death in China last year, seven years after he was arrested and charged with attempting to board an international flight with more than 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds) of methamphetamine. Some observers suspect that such a severe sentence so long after the crime was related to the bilateral rift.
Cheng was an anchor for CGTN’s BizAsia program. She was born in China and worked in finance in Australia before returning to China and starting a career in journalism with CCTV in Beijing in 2003.