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China detains Australian anchor for Chinese state-run TV network

The China Central Television building in Beijing on Aug. 21. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
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Chinese authorities have detained an Australian TV anchor working for a Chinese state-run broadcaster, Australia’s Foreign Ministry said Monday. The move could strain increasingly fraught Chinese-Australian relations.

“The Australian Government has been informed that an Australian citizen, Ms. Cheng Lei, has been detained in China,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Cheng is a high-profile anchor covering business and politics for CGTN, China’s English-language state broadcaster, which is owned by China Central Television. She is well known among Australian expatriates in Beijing, and has personal and professional ties to the Australian business community.

In her statement, Payne said Australian officials were notified of Cheng’s detention on Aug. 14, and were able to speak with her by video call on Thursday, according to the ABC. Cheng is being held in Beijing and has not been charged with any crime, the broadcaster reported.

Under Chinese law, suspects can be questioned for months without facing formal charges.

Australian diplomats have not said Cheng’s detention was born of international strain. But it comes in the context of mounting tension between the two countries. Australia has condemned a sweeping security law that Beijing recently imposed on Hong Kong. The Australian government has also leveled criticism against Chinese military activities in the South China Sea and against Beijing’s human rights violations targeting the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

Earlier this year, Australia demanded an inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic, drawing fierce rebukes from Beijing. Last week, a senior Chinese diplomat in Australia called the push for an inquiry a betrayal.

China has targeted Australian exports of beef, wine and other goods with investigations or tariffs this year, in what some Australian observers said were attempts to punish the Australian government for its political demands.

Australia earlier this summer warned its citizens that they could be at risk of arbitrary detention if they travel to China.

Last year, Yang Hengjun, an Australian citizen and writer, was detained amid apparent espionage accusations. He is still being held by Chinese authorities. Human rights advocates fear that Yang may have been tortured.

TV anchor Cheng was born in China and became an Australian citizen after moving to Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

She subsequently moved back to China, where she worked for the English-language CCTV, the predecessor of CGTN, the ABC reported. Cheng left CCTV to become a correspondent for financial news network CNBC Asia, before returning to China’s state-run broadcaster eight years ago.

Cheng’s profile page on CGTN’s website was inaccessible on Monday.

Gerry Shih contributed to this report.