Cheng Lei detained in China
Cheng Lei detained in ChinaIBT Creative

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Monday that officials in her country were informed by Beijing, earlier this month, that prominent Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been detained in China, in a case that is likely to add strain to the already fraught relations between Canberra and Beijing.

In a statement, Payne said, Australian officials were informed that Lei, a Chinese-born Australian television anchor, currently working with the Chinese state-run channel CGTN, was detained on August 14 and was made a consular visit to provide assistance via video link last week.

Cheng, the host of the show Global Business, has graduated from the University of Queensland, worked for five years with Cadbury Schweppes and ExxonMobil in Melbourne and became an Australian citizen before returning to Beijing in 2003.

The mother of two children and a high-profile anchor was the Chinese correspondent for US-based TV network CNBC for nine years. Since 2013, she has been a business reporter for Chinese state media network CGTN-News, the English language channel of China Central Television.

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In 2018, she praised Australia's education system as part of a promotional program run by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Cheng has not been charged with any crime but is under "residential surveillance at a designated location" in Beijing, the local Australian media reported. The detention allows Chinese investigators to detain and question a suspect for up to six months, without access to legal aid. Her online Chinese state media profile was inaccessible on Monday night.

In a statement, her family said they are in "close consultation" with the Australian government and are doing everything possible to support Cheng during the difficult times.

China-Australia relations

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China's flagReuters

Her detention comes during a rocky period for Sino-Australian relations, following months of tensions over a raft of issues including trade, allegations of espionage, Hong Kong and the South China Sea crisis.

After Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing targeted the continent over trade, suspending some imports of beef and slapping heavy tariffs on barley. It also said on Monday that it will investigate whether Australian wine exports had been unfairly subsidized.

Last week, Australia effectively blocked the sale of a dairy business to a Chinese company, claiming the acquisition "would be contrary to the national interest."

Cheng is the second prominent Chinese-Australian to be detained in China in recent times, following the detention of Yang Hengjun on suspicion of espionage since January 2019.