China detains Australian journalist over national security

The diplomatic standoff marks further deterioration in the Australia-China relationship, already buffeted by trade tensions, espionage, Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic.

Natasha ChakuUpdated: Tuesday, September 08, 2020, 09:45 PM IST
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Australian news anchor Cheng Lei. | PIC: AFP

Australian news anchor Cheng Lei was arrested in Beijing on national security grounds last month, China’s foreign ministry spokesman has revealed, speaking just hours after two other Australian journalists arrived home after fleeing the country, reports The Guardian.

On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, told a daily press conference, Cheng was “suspected of carrying out illegal activities endangering China’s national security”.

According to the Guardian report, Cheng, a business journalist for the state broadcaster CGTN, was taken into secretive detention in mid-August, the Australian government revealed last week. Consular staff were able to visit Cheng by videolink but were not told why she had been detained.

Meanwhile, two journalists from Australia working in China have been evacuated after they were questioned by Chinese police and were forced to seek refuge in Australian diplomatic missions in the communist nation amidst a diplomatic standoff between Canberra and Beijing.

The development came days after Beijing publicly confirmed the arrest of an Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, who was working for China's state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News reported.

Bill Birtles, the ABC's correspondent based in Beijing, and Mike Smith, the Australian Financial Review's (AFR) correspondent based in Shanghai, boarded a flight to Sydney on Monday night after they were questioned separately by China's Ministry of State security, the report said. They landed in Sydney on Tuesday.

With the two journalists moving out of China, Australia now has no accredited reporter left in the country for the first time since the mid-1970s.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a statement on Tuesday said consular officials had provided support to the journalists.

"The Australian Government has provided consular support to two Australian journalists in China to assist their return to Australia. Those Australians have now arrived in Australia. Our Embassy in Beijing and Consulate-General in Shanghai engaged with Chinese Government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return to Australia," she said.

Seven uniformed officers simultaneously visited the homes of Smith in Shanghai and Birtles in Beijing on Thursday morning. Both journalists were told they were persons of interest in an investigation into Cheng who was detained last month, the AFR reported.

According to ABC, the reporters were told they were banned from leaving the country and needed to organise a time to be questioned over a "national security case".

Birtles spent four days sheltering in Australia's Embassy in Beijing, while Smith took refuge in Shanghai consulate as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to safely leave the country, the report said. Smith and Birtles landed safely in Sydney on Tuesday after the "exit ban" was lifted when they submitted to a request from China's Ministry of State Security to be interviewed, the AFR reported.

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