Cheng Lei is a presenter for China Global Television Network (CGTN). She has been detained in China since August 14. She is suspected of “criminal activity endangering China’s National security”. Meanwhile, the Australian Financial Review’s (AFR) Mike Smith and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Bill Birtles flew from China to Sydney after a diplomatic stand-off. Chinese Authorities questioned Smith and Birtles. According to Birtles, Chinese authorities asked him about Cheng Lei.
This comes as Chinese-Australian relations have worsened due to past allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society. China also imposed trade restrictions on Australian barley, wine, and beef. More recently, Australia supported an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. These recent tensions and other actions caused the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China to expel seventeen foreign journalists.
Chinese authorities did not detain Birtles. Instead, they told him he was part of a national security investigation and could not leave China. Birtles contacted Australia’s consular the next morning and he spent the next four days at the Australian embassy. When BBC asked him about Cheng Lei, Birtles stated, “I know her, but not particularly well, it didn’t seem like I would be the most logical person to interrogate if you wanted evidence about her case”. He said authorities also asked him about sources he used while reporting about Hong Kong’s national security law.
But what happened to Cheng? She suddenly disappeared from television in August and did not contact any friends or relatives. China later revealed she was being held at an unknown location under “residential surveillance”. A spokesperson did not provide details regarding the accusations and stated an investigation was now under way.