Who is Cheng Lei and why is she being detained in China?

Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working in China, is being detained by the Chinese Government, it has emerged.

Here are five key questions exploring the highly sensitive situation.

Who is Cheng Lei?

Cheng Lei is a television anchor and business reporter for the Chinese Government English news channel, CGTN.

Ms Cheng, an Australian citizen, has worked for the state TV network in Beijing for the past eight years and is a prominent figure in the industry.

She has been involved in emceeing events for business organisations and at the embassy.

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Cheng Lei, a high-profile Australian television anchor for the Chinese Government’s English news channel, CGTN, has been detained in Beijing.

Ms Cheng is also a mother of two young children, who are currently in Melbourne with family members.

What happened to her?

Ms Cheng was detained several weeks ago, on August 14, but we only learned about her case last night when Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a statement.

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While Australian diplomats were able to talk to her via video link on August 27, friends and family say they haven’t been able to contact her.

Ms Cheng is being held under what’s called “residential surveillance at a designated location”.

ABC China correspondent Bill Birtles said that was a “euphemism for detention”.

Ms Cheng’s profile, as well as old videos of her stories, have been purged from CGTN’s website.

Listen to Bill Birtles’ report on Cheng Lei’s detainment.

What is she accused of?

We don’t know why Ms Cheng is being detained or what she’s accused of.

She has not been formally arrested or charged and could be kept for up to six months without access to lawyers — although her supporters are now arranging legal representation for her.

Ms Cheng’s family does not want to speak publicly or speculate on the reason why she was detained, but they have issued a statement saying they are in close consultation with DFAT and are doing everything they can to support her.

The statement also read:

“In China, due process will be observed and we look forward to a satisfactory and timely conclusion to the matter.

“We ask that you respect that process and understand there will be no further comment at this time.”

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Why is this unusual?

There have been previous arrests of Australians in China, including Australian writer and democracy activist Yang Hengjun, who was detained earlier in 2019.

While Ms Cheng’s detention is notable because she is Australian, it is unusual for the Chinese Government to detain its own state media presenters.

Either way, this poses yet another challenge to Australia in its increasingly tricky relationship with China.

Relations between Beijing and Canberra have been strained for some months now, especially since the Australian Government began pushing for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus.

Since then, sanctions have been slapped on beef and barley produce coming out of Australia and, more recently, questions have been asked about Australian wine.

In July, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade updated its advice for Australians in China that they could be at an increased risk of arbitrary detention.

What will happen next?

It’s hard to say.

The Government says it will continue to provide support to Ms Cheng’s family.

Mr Birmingham said China’s legal systems were different and that was a risk Australians faced when travelling overseas.

“There have long been different and difficult consular cases that exist in the Chinese relationship. There have always been other points of tension, be they on human rights or other matters,” he said.

“But we continue to be committed to working as closely as we can, and particularly in the areas of mutual interest and advantage for our two nations.”

Listen to the interview: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham speaks to Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast.

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