Foreign Minister Marise Payne has revealed high-profile Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who is currently detained in China, is “as well as can be expected in these circumstances”.
On Monday, Ms Payne confirmed that the journalist and broadcaster had been detained in the country since 14 August.
While being cautious not to reveal too much about her conversation, Ms Payne told 2GB’s Deborah Knight on Tuesday that officials had spoken to Ms Cheng via video link at the detention facility where she is being questioned.
“It’s difficult. It’s difficult for her family, and we are always concerned about Australians in consular situations such as this overseas, and this one is no different,” Ms Payne told Knight.
China has since refused to disclose why Ms Cheng, a prominent anchor on state-owned English news channel China Global Television Network (since December 2012), has been detained for at least two weeks without charge.
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Ms Payne also dodged a question on if she has been told “why” Ms Cheng has been held in detention.
“The process that the Chinese justice system has in these cases, Deb, is one which is a matter for them, of course,” Ms Payne told the radio host before adding “we have sought that information and I don’t want to engage in a public commentary on it”.
“And is she in good spirits or — I don’t want to have a commentary, I just want to find out how she’s going,” Ms Knight also asked, to which the Foreign Minister responded: “Well, as well as can be expected in these circumstances, I think would be the best way to put that.”
Ms Cheng is being held under “residential surveillance” at a specific location in which China is able to question someone for up to six months without charge, the ABC reports.
Her case is the latest to fray relations between Australia and China which have withered over trade, security concerns about Chinese tech and Canberra’s push for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
When asked if the Aussie journalist is being “used as a pawn by China to get back at Australia”, Ms Payne fired back at the radio host saying, “I would not describe it in that way”.
“I think it is speculative, at best, to engage on that sort of premise. Our job is to ensure we’re providing her with support and with consular assistance,” Ms Payne said.
“We will maintain close contact with Chinese authorities through this process, and importantly, as I also said, provide all possible support to her family, a number of whom are here in Australia.”
Ms Cheng, who went to University in Queensland and Monash Secondary College, before working at CNBC and moving to CGTN — has not been seen in public since being held — although Australian envoys in Beijing were able to speak to her on August 27.
A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing batted away questions over the fate of the Chinese-born journalist, who reportedly has two children in Melbourne, telling reporters he “can’t give any specifics”.
“But you know China is a country governed by law … we will handle things according to the law,” Hua Chunying recently said.
While the cause of her detention remains a mystery, earlier this year Ms Cheng had shared a number of in-depth personal updates on Facebook criticising the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
On February 16, she wrote that both she and a friend who also worked in television had been “lobbying our bosses to let us go to Wuhan to report, and not succeeding” in reference to the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Instead, they were helping doctors by sending medical supplies and raising money for them to have PPE.
“Similarly, many alumni groups are handling their own rescue missions. It is a damning vote of distrust for intermediaries,” she wrote.
Ms Cheng often shared a mix of trending topics in China as well as personal diary style updates. One post noted the most shared article on her social media feeds was one called “the whistle-giver” which profiled Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan’s Central Hospital who proved a source of information for a second whistleblowing doctor, Li Wenliang, who later died from the virus and was lauded as a hero for speaking out.
“The article lived for a few hours, then the purge started, but people kept moving it to different accounts and reporting under other guises (even with the text entirely reversed), in defiance. Many have saved screen shots of the story or pdf files, some say “it’s imprinted in my brain.” Cheng wrote.
She said she had dinner with another “friend from an international network” who had been questioned about his colleagues and whether they were “China-friendly” in their reporting.
“While food was hot and spicy, the conversation was cold and hard at times — he was questioned about what the correspondents did, whether they were China-friendly, what stories the channel chased, the angles they took, the questioning (by young and good-looking representatives from the Beijing government) happened three times until he got fed up,” she wrote.
Simon Birmingham, Australian minister for trade, tourism and investment told ABC News on Tuesday that concerns for Ms Cheng are “genuine and real”.
And she is not the only high-profile Australian being detained in China.
Writer and academic, Yang Hengjun, has been detained for more than 500 days on espionage charges.
– With wires