China says Australian TV anchor probed for security violation

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – China confirmed that a high-profile Australian television anchor who was detained last month is under investigation for a state security violation, after two other Australian correspondents were forced to flee Beijing.

Ms Cheng Lei, a journalist and television anchor who was working for the Chinese government’s English-language news channel, CGTN, “is suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security”, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday (Sept 8).

“Now this case is being handled according to law, and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed,” Mr Zhao said.

The comments come amid a broader deterioration in the China-Australia relationship, and shortly after two other Australian journalists fled the country after being questioned by Chinese authorities. 

Mr Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corp’s Beijing correspondent, and Mr Mike Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s Shanghai correspondent, left the country after Chinese police demanded interviews with them, according to Mr Smith.

The two men were initially banned from leaving and spent five days under consular protection until Australian diplomats could negotiate their departure. 

Mr Zhao didn’t respond to a question Tuesday about whether the two journalists had been questioned in relation to Ms Cheng’s case.  

Tensions between the nations have been simmering for years over national security issues, highlighted by Australia’s decision in 2018 to ban Huawei Technologies Co from building its 5G network. 

They’ve worsened dramatically since April, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus.

Since then, China has placed tariffs on Australian barley, banned certain meat products and launched an anti-dumping probe into its wine exports. 

Still, China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, driven by the nation’s appetite for resources like iron ore and coal.  

Ms Cheng has hosted business shows as a CGTN anchor since 2012 and was well known among Beijing’s small circle of diplomats and journalists.

She had previously served as China correspondent for CNBC, after graduating from the University of Queensland with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and serving a stint as an accountant at Cadbury Schweppes, according to her LinkedIn profile. 

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on Sept 1 that he didn’t know why Ms Cheng had been detained and that Australian authorities were working out what consular assistance they could provide.

The union representing journalists in Australia issued a statement condemning the treatment of the two men and the “secret detention” of Ms Cheng. 

Mr Zhao appeared to try and ease the growing fear of arbitrary detention due to the incidents, saying China “sticks to the basic principle of opening up”.

“China always welcomes foreign journalists, including those hired by Chinese media outlets, to work and report in the country,” he said.

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