Australian television anchor Cheng Lei has been detained without a charge in China, the Australian government has confirmed. However, her arrest doesn’t seem to be about anything she’s done, rather the strained relationship between China and Australia.
Lei has been in custody for more than two weeks.
“Australian officials had an initial consular visit with Cheng at a detention facility via video link on (Thursday) and will continue to provide assistance and support to her and her family,” said Marise Payne, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Cheng Lei is a high-profile journalist who hosted a business show at the Chinese state-run broadcaster CGTN. She had worked there for eight years, but her journalist profile is no longer available on CGTN’s website. She had previously worked at CCTV (now known as CGTN) and CNBC Asia.
Months ago, in February, she shared posts about the government’s response to the coronavirus in Wuhan. One such post was titled “the most circulated posts of the day” and included various investigative pieces explaining how authorities in Wuhan tried to cover up the virus.
She also shared the story of a doctor at the Wuhan Central Hospital who was punished for sounding the alarm about the coronavirus.
Around that time, several journalists were arrested in China for writing about the coronavirus breakout in Wuhan. The whereabouts of some of these journalists are still unknown.
However, according to some experts, it is unlikely that Cheng Lei was arrested for her work as a journalist or the exposés on coronavirus coverups.
“Why her, why now? She hasn’t really done anything extraordinary. She’s not overly outspoken about the political situation in China,” said Dr. Delia Lin, a Chinese studies lecturer at Melbourne University.
“She’s also known for reporting things that are favorable to Beijing because she works for this TV station, which requires her to be favorable in many of her reports, and she’s done that genuinely without compromising her professional integrity.
“She certainly knows her boundaries very well, extremely well, and she’s never really crossed those boundaries as far as I can see,” Dr. Lin continued to explain.
According to Dr. Lin, the arrest could be an indirect message to the Australian government. In recent months, there has been a falling out between governments of the two countries.
The arrest fits into the trend of China using “arbitrary arrests, arbitrary executions, as a means to coerce states into changing their behavior,” according to Fergus Hanson of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Is it a very effective strategy? No, I don’t think so, but it is a really brutal one,” explained Hanson.
Cheng Lei is under “residential surveillance,” which is a form of detainment that gives authorities the power to hold and interrogate a suspect for as long as six months without formally arresting them.