International Update : China Charges Journalist With Sending State Secrets Overseas

Insight Online News

By David Winning

SYDNEY—China has charged an Australian journalist with sharing state secrets overseas after she was detained about six months ago, stoking concerns about intimidation of foreign media and deepening a diplomatic dispute that has chilled bilateral trade.

Cheng Lei, an anchor for the Chinese government’s English-language television news channel, was officially charged on Friday, having earlier been detained by local authorities on Aug. 13. Ms. Cheng’s detention and the evacuation of two other Australian reporters from China weeks later illustrated the dangers that journalists can face while working in the country.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it has repeatedly raised concerns about her situation with senior Chinese officials. China hasn’t detailed the charges Ms. Cheng faces, including what state secrets it alleges have been disclosed or to which country.

Ms. Cheng was educated at Australia’s University of Queensland and has worked for CGTN since 2012, according to her LinkedIn profile at the time of her detention. Australian embassy officials have visited Ms. Cheng six times since she was detained, most recently on Jan. 27.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Canberra have worsened since Australia began seeking support from European leaders in mid-April for an investigation into any early missteps that contributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese officials saw Australia’s stance as politically motivated.

Tensions increased in July when Australia moved to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and give the city’s residents a pathway to staying permanently in response to China imposing a national-security law on the semiautonomous city.

The same month, Australia upgraded its travel warning for mainland China, saying Chinese authorities have detained foreigners for allegedly “endangering national security” and that Australians face the risk of arbitrary detention.

More recently, China and Australia have traded barbs over everything from tariffs on barley and wine to a tweet by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman of a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

The timing of detentions and convictions of foreign nationals in China has often coincided with disputes with other countries, prompting diplomats to believe they are linked.

Within weeks of Ms. Cheng’s detention, Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Beijing-based correspondent, and Michael Smith, based in Shanghai with the Australian Financial Review, were pulled out of China following a diplomatic standoff that saw the pair seek refuge at Australian diplomatic missions while officials negotiated their exit.

Two Canadian citizens continue to be held by Chinese authorities some two years after they were detained within hours of each other in two Chinese cities, just nine days after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S.—an incident that has embroiled Canada in a broader diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing.


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