China says an Australian television anchor being detained in Beijing is suspected of “criminal activities” endangering national security.

Key points:

  • Cheng Lei was a television presenter on the Chinese Government’s English language channel
  • She was detained by authorities in August, as tensions between China and Australia grew
  • China said Ms Lei was suspected of criminal activity on the same day two Australian journalists left the country

The confirmation of the allegations against Cheng Lei came on the same day two Australian journalists were rushed out of China after being questioned by the country’s Ministry of State Security.Ms Cheng, who worked for the Chinese Government’s English news channel CGTN, was detained in Beijing last month.

“The Australian national Cheng Lei, suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security, has been taken under compulsory measures and investigated by the relevant authority,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

“Now this case is being handled according to law and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed.”

Cheng Lei was detained last month and is being held under “residential surveillance”.(Source: CGTN)

Associate Professor Feng Chongyi from the University of Technology Sydney, who was himself detained in China for a week in 2017, said it was a serious accusation.

“This ‘endangering state security’ is very broad, very vague,” he said.

“That means they haven’t decided which direction they want to go and what kind of accusation or charge they want to lay later.”

Ms Cheng is being held under what is called “residential surveillance at a designated location”.

It is a form of detention in which investigators can imprison and question a suspect for up to six months while cutting them off from lawyers and the outside world — all before they have even been formally arrested.

Dr Chongyi, has been detained by Chinese authorities under similar circumstances to Ms Lei.(ABC News)

China becoming like North Korea, journalist says

Dr Feng criticised China’s treatment of ABC correspondents Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith, who arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning.

“It’s simply ridiculous for Chinese authorities, for political manipulation, to show they have power over Australian citizens, journalists, or anyone else in China to intimidate the Australian Government and the public,” he said.

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Bill Birtles speaks to reporters on landing in Sydney

Having been warned by Australian officials that he should leave China, Birtles was holding farewell drinks when a group of police officers arrived at his house in the middle of the night.

Smith said he received a similar visit at his Shanghai home.

“One has a huge camera, there’s a spotlight shining in my face and they sort of start reading from a document which is sort of outlining China’s national security laws, but they also tell me that I’m a person of interest in a case and they’re going to want to talk to me,” he told 7:30.

“And they also informed me, which is the most disturbing, that I’m subject to what’s called an exit ban and I can’t leave China.

“So this is all as you can imagine, pretty scary, quite intimidating.”

The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith (left) and the ABC’s Bill Birtles at Shanghai Airport on Monday..(Supplied)

Birtles sheltered for several days in the Australian embassy in Beijing but when Smith went to the Shanghai consulate he was told he would need to be moved to a more secure location.

“Shanghai is not like Beijing, it doesn’t have a big embassy compound,” he said.

“I was taken to another location that still protected under the Vienna Convention, so technically, the Chinese authorities can’t come in.

“I had to quickly stop at my house on the way, get my bags. That was quite an operation on its own.

“And we had a couple of plainclothes people following us the whole time. So it was all it was all quite intimidating.”

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Mike Smith says he felt ‘a little bit’ threatened before leaving China

Both journalists later gave interviews to Chinese authorities before they were allowed to the leave the country.

Their withdrawal means no major Australian media outlets now have a presence in China, something Smith described as “hugely disappointing.”

“A lot of journalists are leaving China, a lot of Americans have been expelled from China,” he said.

“I believe this does China a disservice, because you’ve got reporters reporting on China from the outside, they’re fairly likely to be critical. They probably don’t understand what’s going on there.

“So, you know, it’s almost becoming like North Korea. I mean, there’s sort of not a lot of journalists left in China who really understand the place.”

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