The Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said on Monday that she had been informed by the Chinese government that Cheng was arrested on Friday.
Born in China, but holding an Australian passport, having grown up in Melbourne, Cheng is a high-profile TV anchor for CGTN, the international broadcast arm of state-owned China Central Television. She fronted the “Global Business” daily show.
Her case is surprising and confusing, given that CGTN is often viewed in the west as a pro-China propaganda outlet. (It was stripped of its broadcast license last week in the U.K.). And Cheng was a visible part of that communication and outreach package. On Twitter Cheng described herself as “a passionate orator of the China story.”
Australia and China have been increasingly at odds over several years, with flashpoints including perceived Chinese influence in Australian politics and business, 5G network equipment, territorial claims in the South China Sea, and, last year, Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
China has responded to what it sees as Australia’s provocations with retaliatory actions against imports of Australian grain, beef, iron ore, coal and wine.
In 2019, China arrested Australians writer and businessman Yang Hengjun. Last year it expelled New York Times journalist Chris Buckley. Two other Australian journalists fled the country in September, after being questioned about Cheng.
China has recently detained other journalists including Bloomberg staff member Haze Fan on suspicion of “criminal activities that jeopardize national security,” and journalist and filmmaker Du Fan for “picking quarrels and making trouble.”
There has been no detail of what secrets Cheng is supposed to have supplied, nor to which foreign power.
Cheng did, however, make critical comments on Facebook – which is not officially available within China – about a Chinese official and about inconsistencies in the country’s coronavirus efforts.
A conviction on charges of supplying secrets could give Cheng a prison term of five to ten years in prison.