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Detention of Chinese-Australian TV presenter Cheng Lei by China called out as ‘hostage diplomacy’

Cheng Lei in Lisbon, Portugal at Web Summit 2019

Cheng Lei in Lisbon, Portugal at Web Summit 2019 – Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach, courtesy Web Summit Flickr account (CC BY 2.0)

The detention of journalist and television presenter Cheng Lei in China has sparked fears of another instance of so-called ‘hostage diplomacy’. She is an Australian citizen.

She has apparently been held in residential detention for more than two weeks according to the Australian government. Australian diplomats were able to make video link contact with her on 27 August. As Cheng has not been formally arrested but is under “residential surveillance at a designated location”, the Australian authorities currently take a soft diplomacy approach by providing assistance and support to Cheng and her family.

Cheng is the anchor for a business program on State television’s China Global Television Network (CGTN), and is regarded as someone who did not cross political boundaries in her reporting. No reasons have been given for her arrest. She had written on her Facebook page in March about COVID-19 cover-ups in Wuhan. This may not be the reason for her arrest given the timeframe.

Human Right Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth commented on Twitter:

Australian journalist Peter Greste, who spent 440 days in jail in Egypt in relation to his work with Al Jazeera, believes that she may be a political pawn:

Media colleagues from around the world have taken to social media and other online platforms to highlight Cheng's plight. Journalist and academic Tony Walker has called for urgent action at The Conversation:

When it seemed relations between Australia and China could not get much worse, the detention of an Australian citizen working for Chinese state television risks a further deterioration.

…Canberra should be doing all it can to ensure she is released from “residential surveillance” as soon as possible.

This follows the lack of success in using of quiet diplomacy to gain the release of Yang Hengjun in China or Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Iran.

This latest development happens at a time of deteriorating relations between the Australian and Chinese governments, which has seen growing restrictions on imports by China. This follows Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of coronavirus.

Apparently, Cheng’s profile has been removed fro the CGTN website. Veteran BBC journalist tweeted a widespread concern about the actions of the Chinese state:

Indian journalist Abhijit Majumber aired similar concerns:

Artist Marionne Van Katwijk has a suggestion of her own as to the Chinese government's strategy:

Global Voices also talked to Chinese-Australian activist Badiucao and asked his opinion about the Cheng Lei’s detention:

The arrest of Cheng Lei comes as a surprise, but the message is very clear: if we, the CCP, do not hesitate to arrest journalists who work for our own propaganda news agency, you better be careful when you cover China. There is also another chilling message: regardless of your current citizenship, if you were born in China, you are still property of China.

This is why I am afraid Cheng Lei might not be the last case like that, we already witnessed it with Yang Hengjun. Clearly this is a sign of desperation on the side of Xi Jinping who wants to reign in the media, having in mind the role it played in the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

What is interesting is that in this climate of high tension in Sino-Australian relations, the Australian government is reaching a “can’t do this anymore” turning point that is unprecedented. The Australian government is offering special visas to Hong Kong students, it is also commissioning a research on academic freedom in Australia in regard to Chinese pressure. There are also discussions about following the US in the ban of Tik Tok and WeChat social media platforms.

But as of now, the message for us activists born in China and living abroad remains the same: we are potential hostages and each of us is facing the same danger as met by Cheng Lei, even if she was actually working to promote China’s official line.

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