Chinese authorities have formally arrested the detained Australian citizen Cheng Lei “on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas”, prompting fresh calls for the journalist to be treated humanely.
Cheng, an anchor for the Chinese state-owned English-language news channel China Global Television Network, has been detained in China since mid-August, but the decision to proceed to the next stage of criminal proceedings marks a blow to her hopes of release.
The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said the Australian government had been advised that Cheng had been formally arrested in China on Friday, about six months after she was first detained.
“Chinese authorities have advised that Ms Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” Payne said in a statement issued on Monday.
Amid ongoing diplomatic and trade tensions between the two countries, Payne also revealed that Australian embassy officials had visited Cheng six times since her detention, most recently on 27 January.
She said the Australian government had “raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention”.
Payne said Australia expected “basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms”.
At a subsequent press conference, Payne said Australian officials would stay in close touch with Chinese authorities about the case and “provide all possible support” to Cheng.
“Our thoughts are with Ms Cheng and her family during this difficult period,” she said.
Cheng – who was born in China but later became an Australian citizen – was working as a news anchor on a business show on CGTN. She has been detained in China since 13 August last year.
Human rights observers had raised concerns about her welfare, given she was initially taken into “residential surveillance at a designated location”.
That is a form of coercive custody that allows the Chinese ministry of public security and the ministry of state security to circumvent ordinary criminal law processes and hold subjects in undisclosed locations without formal arrest, charge, trial, or access to a lawyer, for up to six months.
Payne’s statement on Monday is not the first time the Australian government has made public developments in the case.
The Australian government first revealed on 1 September that Cheng had been detained in Beijing – two weeks after Australia was notified.
In early September, two Australian foreign correspondents in China, the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith, were urgently flown home after a tense diplomatic standoff.
They both left China after being questioned by China’s ministry of state security. They were told they were persons of interest in the investigation into Cheng.
At the time, Birtles told the ABC the episode seemed to be “one of harassment of the remaining Australian journalists” and not a “genuine effort to try and get anything useful” in the case against Cheng.
Around the same time, China’s state media outlets published details of alleged raids by Australian authorities on Chinese journalists in Australia – dating back to late June. That episode reportedly related to a foreign interference investigation.
On 8 September China’s foreign ministry confirmed that Cheng was being held on national security grounds but did not provide further details.
Concerns have also been raised about the plight of the Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun, who has been detained by Chinese authorities since early 2019. Yang has rejected espionage allegations, saying he is “innocent and will fight to the end”.
Amid a rift in diplomatic relations, Australia updated its travel advisory for China in early July to say that Chinese authorities have detained foreigners on alleged national security grounds and that Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention.
China updated its travel advice around the same time to say that Australian law enforcement agencies “have arbitrarily searched Chinese citizens and seized their articles”.