11 July 2024

Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, said Canberra didn’t know why Chinese authorities had detained Australian citizen Cheng Lei, as he warned that the risks for Australian businesses engaged with China had changed.

The Australian government confirmed on Monday evening that Cheng, a high-profile business anchor on Chinese state television, had been detained two weeks ago.

“Cheng Lei is an Australian, a journalist who has been working in China for some period of time,” Birmingham told ABC radio. “I’ve actually met her and been interviewed by her while overseas myself.”

“I feel for her family very much at this point in time, and it’s why we will do what we can to assist her, as we would and have any Australian in these sorts of circumstances,” he added.

Cheng hosted a business show on the English channel of China’s largest state media broadcaster, CCTV, and was a high-profile anchor on its English-language channel CGTN. But videos of her have been removed from Chinese state media websites, Reuters found.

Friends of Cheng told Reuters they noticed the videos were taken down two weeks ago, about the time of her detention, and they became concerned when they were unable to contact her.

Cheng regularly hosted Australian business forums and events in Beijing. She was well known in the Australian business community in China.

Chinese authorities have not released information on her detention, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

The Australian embassy was given consular access to Cheng via video link on Aug. 27, Birmingham said. Cheng has two children, both in Australia.

Australia’s former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, a business consultant, said Cheng was a longtime friend and experienced journalist who had interviewed him many times for her business program.

Business reporting is not usually seen as politically sensitive in China, he said, adding that he was astonished she had been detained.

“She held a degree of scepticism towards some Chinese media, but she was equally strong in arguing China’s case if foreign reporting mischaracterized China or was not based on facts,” Raby told Reuters in an interview.

A statement released by Cheng’s family on Monday night said they are in close contact with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on her case and “look forward to a satisfactory and timely conclusion to the matter.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that Chinese authorities should disclose their reasons for holding 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.”

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 Australian beef imports, placed dumping tariffs on Australian barley, and launched an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine.

Birmingham told television network Nine that many of the trade measures lacked substance.

“I’ve been very concerned at the number of different trade issues that have come our way this year, that I think changes the risk profile for Australian businesses in engaging with China,” he said.