Cheng Lei: Why has an Australian TV anchor been detained by China?

By Frances Mao
BBC News, Sydney

image source, Getty Images
image captionAustralian journalist Cheng Lei presented a business programme on China's global news service

To millions of viewers, Cheng Lei was the face of China's English news service, someone who delivered the tightly-scripted "China story" to the world.

The Australian business journalist was a polished presenter on CGTN (China Global Television Network), and was building her popularity with a cooking show on the state media channel.

But in August 2020, she disappeared from screen, and her friends and family lost contact. Her presence was wiped from the CGTN sites.

The Australian government revealed she had been detained by Chinese authorities, held under "residential surveillance" in an unknown location.

No charges were filed then, and the reason for Ms Cheng's detention was unknown, said Australian officials.

But in September, China said she was suspected of "endangering China's national security." A few months later, in February, authorities arrested her, charging the former TV anchor with "supplying state secrets overseas."

Her family say she is innocent, and the Australian government has expressed concerns about her detention.

China's arrest of yet another Western citizen has caused alarm. And Ms Cheng's nationality has fuelled speculation her case might be linked to the breakdown in China-Australia relations.

A bicultural perspective

To observers, Ms Cheng had been a model state broadcaster who knew where the boundaries were.

In presenting a business programme - where she interviewed trade ministers and bosses of the world's biggest companies - she was often shielded from politics. But she was also trusted enough to have helmed coverage of national events.

image source, Getty Images
image captionMs Cheng anchored coverage of important events such as China's National Congress in May

With no previously known transgressions against the Chinese state, her detention has left those closest to her shocked and confused.

"I don't think she would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally," her niece Louisa Wen told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"We don't know if she's just been caught up in something that she herself didn't realise."

Born in China, Ms Cheng migrated with her family to Melbourne, Australia, when she was 10 for her father to pursue a PhD programme.

She was teased for her lack of English at school, "where there were only three Asian kids", she told an Australia China Business Council podcast last year.

But she adopted the "Australian language and humour" quickly, she said, and she still favours the nation, where her parents and two children live.

"I would still choose Australia for the lifestyle and the freedom," she said of her parents' decision in the 1980s. "I think you become a friendly, laidback and fun person."

At first she worked in finance in Melbourne - for Cadbury-Schweppes and ExxonMobil - but she grew bored of that life and moved to China in 2000 to leverage her bilingual skills.

Her journalism career started at CCTV's English-language channel in 2003 - a newsroom full of expats. She then became the CNBC's China correspondent for nine years, before re-joining CCTV - now branded CGTN - in 2013.

Savvy media operator

Geoff Raby, a longtime friend of Ms Cheng and former Australian ambassador to China, described her as "a very experienced journalist" who had "done the job for a long time in China".

He told the BBC her reporting was "thoroughly objective", and that she worked within the constraints of the state broadcaster to be as fair as possible.

image captionAustralian journalist Cheng Lei presented a business programme on China's global news service

Ms Cheng has often heralded China's economic success: its reduction of mass poverty and contribution to global prosperity. On her Twitter account she labelled herself a "passionate orator of the China story".

But she also hasn't steered away from assessing the authoritarian regime - speaking frankly in an Australian TV panel show in 2014 on censorship in Chinese media and schools.

"But also, she would often push back against foreign commentators and journalists for what she regarded as commenting without understanding the situation in China or just being plain wrong," Mr Raby said.

She understood "the context of which she's operating very well and was very careful", he said.

"So it's hard to imagine what she might have done to have brought this upon herself."

In recent years a number of Chinese media figures - TV hosts and senior officials - have mysteriously disappeared or been the subject of rumoured investigations.

However, detentions were a "rare event", Mr Raby said, and this appeared to be the first involving a foreigner. "It's not an accidental or random incident in China when they decide to take action like this."

Political pawn?

Relations between China and Australia have deteriorated in recent years.

In 2018, Australia's centre-right government banned Chinese electronics firm Huawei from tendering for its 5G network amid security concerns. It also enacted foreign interference laws widely seen as countering China's alleged intrusions.

Tensions further escalated in 2020. In April, Australia led calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic - a move which Beijing said targeted China unfairly.

In turn, Beijing has been accused of retaliating with trade blows - sanctioning Australian beef, wine and barley exports. Analysts say Australia has also been locked out of top-level bilateral meetings in the past year.

But in public statements, Australia has played down assertions that Ms Cheng may be being "used as a pawn by China to get back at Australia".

"I would not describe it in that way," Foreign Minister Minister Marise Payne said in August. "It is speculative at best to engage on that sort of premise. Our job is to ensure we are providing her with support."

Australia has raised concerns with China over Ms Cheng's treatment and conditions. But analysts say there is limited room for lobbying amid the current tensions.

Diplomats are also already grappling with China's detention of another citizen - Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who was held in January 2019 and charged several months later with espionage.

Australia has repeatedly criticised the "harsh conditions" of Mr Yang's detention and expressed concerns about his welfare.

The cases of two Canadian citizens have also aroused global concern. In 2019, China indicted former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor on spying charges. China denied that their detention was tied to Canada's arrest of a senior manager at Huawei, but many analysts characterised it as a tit-for-tat action.

There are still many unknowns in Cheng Lei's case. But for observers like Mr Raby, it is impossible to discount the timing of her detention.

"It's naive to think there is not some aspect of the bilateral relationship washing into this," he said.

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