For two weeks, barely anyone knew that a prominent Australian television anchor who has worked for the Chinese Government’s English news channel had been detained.
Friends were worried — she had not responded to messages for a while and it wasn’t until Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed Australian officials had an “initial consular visit” with Cheng Lei on August 27 that details of what had happened started to appear.
Ms Cheng had been in custody, under China’s “residential surveillance at a designated location” scheme, for at least 13 days at that point, despite charges having yet to be laid against her.
So what does that mean for her? Can she speak to lawyers? Was she locked up because of Australia’s souring relations with China?
If you’re after a deeper dive into who Ms Cheng is and why she is being detained, have a look here at what we know so far.
What is residential surveillance?
Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location is a form of detention regularly used by authorities in China against individuals accused of endangering state security.
UTS China Studies professor Feng Chongyi told the ABC it was an “arbitrary detention” mechanism that violates international human rights laws.
“Chinese authorities have been routinely using this measure of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location,” he said.
“The location is usually facilities run by the secret police.
“The victim is usually held in solitary confinement, sealed off from the outside world for up to six months and subjected to continuous interrogations, sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.”
From here, Dr Feng expects Ms Cheng will be formally detained, arrested and imprisoned.
He is familiar with the process, having been detained by authorities in China for a week in 2017.
He said the detention that he faced was a form of “border control”, which was different from what Ms Cheng was experiencing.
Dr Feng said Ms Cheng’s situation was similar to that of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who was also placed under residential surveillance.
“Given the information I gathered, I couldn’t make a clear judgment of what happened to her, but my guess is, endangering national security could be a broad reason.”
He said he was shocked by the news.
“She worked for the state media, and I haven’t seen that she’s made any inappropriate remarks … that means she can’t be counted as a dissident,” he said.
Chinese-Australian lawyer Hanbing Shen, who is based in Sydney, said usually police can only detain people for 24 hours.
“After 24 hours, if there is no new evidence, they must release them,” he said.
“The only difference in treating foreign citizens is that Chinese public security organs usually inform the consulate or embassy of the country where the citizens are located, so they participate.
“In previous trials, the staff of the consulate or embassy can attend the trial, but the premise is that the case does not involve Chinese state secrets.”
Can she speak to lawyers about her case?
Xikui Ding is a high-profile human rights lawyer based in Beijing.
He told the ABC there were restrictions around meeting a lawyer, depending on what charges have been laid.
“If it is a common crime, such as murder and robbery, the meeting does not need the approval of any authority,” he said.
“The lawyer can visit with [their] mobile phone.”
Even though Ms Cheng has not been charged, her treatment seems more in line with accusations around spying or meddling in national affairs.
“However, if it involves crimes endangering national security, such as espionage, it must be approved by the authorities,” Mr Ding said.
“Foreign citizens who commit crimes are treated the same as Chinese citizens.”
Mr Shen said Chinese law prevented Ms Cheng from flying in an Australian lawyer to defend her.
“Because Chinese law clearly stipulates that all licensed lawyers in China must be citizens of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
“If state secrets are involved, the Government may send a designated lawyer.”
Mr Shen said the detention appeared to be part of the normal procedures and questioned whether she had been disappeared.
“Personally, I think that no country will violate the most basic procedure in a more important case like this, otherwise it will be a little stupid.
“Quite frankly, China has not disappeared this person at present.
“They informed the [Australian] embassy in the first time, so I think it may not be suitable to use the word ‘disappear’.”
Dr Feng said lawyers would help “a great deal”, but only if they were able to meet Ms Deng.
What does this have to do with frosty Sino-Australia relations?
Tensions between Australia and China have been high this year, after Australia in April called for an international investigation into the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
Beijing has said it was angered by the move, and has since blocked some Australian beef imports, placed tariffs on Australian barley and launched an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine.
In July, the Government warned there was a risk of arbitrary detention of Australian citizens in China, but China dismissed that as disinformation.
Dr Feng said Australia needed to apply more pressure on China over these kinds of cases and could do so by “pushing for legal transparency and protection of basic human rights”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement that Chinese authorities should disclose their reasons for holding Ms Cheng or release her.
Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, said: “China — the world’s number one jailer of journalists — must make clear whether her detention has anything to do with her media work.”