China says an Australian journalist has been detained in China for several weeks on national security grounds, China has said.
Cheng Lei, a presenter for the China Global Television Network (CGTN), suspects “criminal activity endangering China’s national security.”
He has been detained since August 14.
The announcement comes after the last two journalists working for the Australian media in China flew to Sydney after five days of diplomatic stalemate.
Bill Bartles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Mike Smith of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) landed in Sydney on Tuesday.
Chinese authorities interrogated the two before they left. Mr Bartles told the BBC he had been asked about Mrs Cheng.
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Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years.
There have been allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society in the past, but relations deteriorated after the Canberras backed an international investigation into the source of the coronavirus epidemic.
The Chinese Foreign Reporters Club said on Monday that a record 1 foreign journalist had been expelled from the country in the first half of 2020.
What happened to Cheng Lei?
Miss Cheng, an Australian citizen based in Beijing, is a high-profile, respected business journalist for the English-language channel CGTN.
In August, he suddenly disappeared from television and lost contact with friends and relatives. China finally announces that he is being placed under “residential surveillance” in an unknown location.
No allegations were made at the time. But now Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian says the government has detained him “on the grounds of national security”, saying authorities have taken “compulsory action” against him. He added that the investigation is now underway.
The spokesman did not elaborate on the allegations, and it is unclear what criminal charges he may have committed.
At the time of his arrest, however, some believed that a growing weak relationship between Beijing and Canberra could be a factor in Australian nationalism.
What will happen to other Australian journalists?
Mike Smith and Bill Bartles left China on Monday after meeting with Chinese authorities.
Bartles told the BBC that Australian diplomats had advised him last Monday that he should leave China immediately.
“They received any kind of warning or advice, they never specified it,” the journalist said.
He was then booked on a flight due to leave Beijing last Thursday. The situation was further aggravated at midnight on Wednesday when six Chinese police officers and a translator went to his apartment while he was having a farewell drink with friends.
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He said police did not detain him, but told him he was involved in a “national security investigation” and that he could not leave the country.
The next morning he contacted Australian consular officials, who collected him and took him to the Australian embassy, where he spent the next four days.
He was later interviewed by Chinese police in the presence of Graham Fletcher, Australia’s ambassador to China. Mr Bartles said he had been questioned about Cheng Lei.
“I know him, but it doesn’t seem particularly good. If you want evidence about his case, I’d be the most reasonable person to question him,” he said.
Mr Bartles said he was also asked about the sources he used to report on Hong Kong’s national security law and Australia’s relations with China.
“There has been no real effort to extract any evidence or truth that has been added that can be used in any case.”
Mike Smith, based in Shanghai, was also approached by police – asking him to go to the Australian Consulate there. According to AFR, he was also questioned about Mrs. Cheng.
The couple was allowed to leave the country after a police interview.
Why sever Australia-China relations?
Countries rely heavily on each other for trade, but their relationship has grown in recent years amid allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society.
Relations have deteriorated further this year after the Canberras backed an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus.
Beijing has banned Australian exports, such as beef, barley and wines, following what is widely seen as retaliation. It has warned Chinese tourists and students about racism in Australia.
In July, Australia warned its citizens that they could face “arbitrary detention” in China – a travel warning that still remains.
Canberra has expressed concern about human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and urged China to release detained Australians such as Yang Hengjun, a democracy activist who has been held without trial for 19 months.
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