For two long weeks, few people, outside of perhaps some family members, knew where Cheng Lei (成蕾) was.
She stopped posting on social media and answering calls from friends. Her two young children in Melbourne could not speak to her.
The well-known TV anchor simply stopped showing up at the state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN) in Beijing and her colleagues were not told why.
Illustration: Mountain People
At some point during those two weeks, any evidence she had worked for them was completely scrubbed from the Internet.
Meanwhile, Lei sat in a solitary suicide-proofed room where the lights are rarely if ever turned off, detained by Chinese authorities.
Unable to call anyone or access a lawyer, accounts from other people held in similar detention conditions suggest that her days are broken up only by interrogations from Chinese authorities over the still-unknown allegations she faces. [Editor’s note: The Chinese government yesterday said that Cheng was detained on suspicion “of criminal activity endangering China’s national security.”]
However, according to human rights groups, dissidents and Chinese academics, it is possible the charges hardly matter, and the most relevant factor is her Australian citizenship.
Amid deteriorating relations with China, led by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), experts fear that Lei might be collateral in Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, and another example of a foreign citizen picked up by authorities on spurious charges and held as bargaining chips in what has been dubbed “hostage diplomacy.”
“No one is immune these days from arrest in China — tycoons, celebrities, journalists, the former head of Interpol — many people, both foreigners and locals, have disappeared into the Chinese justice system without clear explanations why,” Elaine Pearson, the head of Human Rights Watch Australia, told reporters last week.
Beijing, for its part, denies that it engages in hostile diplomacy or that any of its arrests, charges and sentences against foreigners are anything other than the fair prosecution of its rule of law.
However, Lei’s detainment follows a string of cases in which Australians have been caught up in China’s opaque legal system, including most recently the Australian writer Yang Hengjun (楊恆均), and the timing of the arrest raises questions.
Diplomatic spats between Canberra and Beijing are nothing new, but experts agree that relations between the two countries have taken a particularly sour turn since the Australian government began pushing for a global investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic back in April.
Australia’s lead on the probe prompted a furious backlash from China.
Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye (成競業) suggested that it could prompt a boycott from Chinese international students and soon after Beijing announced a crippling tariff on barley imports from Australia.
Add to that Australia’s decision to join other nations in banning Huawei Technologies Co from its 5G network, its criticisms of the crackdown on Hong Kong and Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, and — most egregiously — its continued strong support of the US, and there is no shortage of conflict between the two nations.
“It’s not just about the Australian unilateral call for a COVID inquiry, although that didn’t help, but there are a range of different destabilizing forces in the bilateral relationship at the moment,” La Trobe Asia executive director Bec Strating told reporters.
“You’ve seen China’s use of economic coercive tactics to try to bring Australia into line, and on the other side the increasingly hardline rhetoric in the Australian debate. It all suggests that the relationship is quite fragile at the moment,” Strating said.
After the Australian government on Monday last week revealed that Chinese authorities had detained Cheng, the Australian Broadcasting Corp reported that the news anchor was being held in what is known as “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL).
One of the more opaque aspects of China’s justice system, RSDL is a type of a black site detention classified by UN human rights experts as a type of enforced disappearance where detainees are at risk of torture.
It is routinely criticized as lacking transparency and judicial fairness, with vaguely defined offenses and conviction rates of about 99 percent.
As well as arrest and detention, foreigners — including Australian human rights academic Feng Chongyi (馮崇義) — have also been subject to exit bans, secret legal mechanisms that prevent an individual leaving the country.
Weeks after her arrest, it remains unknown why Cheng, a Chinese-born Australian citizen and business news anchor for CGTN, has been targeted by authorities.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declined to provide details on the case.
CGTN is China’s English-language state media channel, a network widely considered to be one of the most vocal arms of China’s propaganda system. It has repeatedly come under fire overseas for its broadcasts, including forced confessions by dissidents.
Cheng regularly published long posts on Facebook about life in China during the pandemic, including some criticisms of the Chinese government’s actions.
However, people familiar with Cheng’s work have said that although she walked the thin line with criticism of the government, English-language journalists were generally given more leeway in China.
Pete Humphrey, a China academic and former foreign correspondent who was arbitrarily detained in China from 2013 to 2014, said there was no precedent for Cheng’s case.
“You cannot consider Ms Cheng as a ‘foreign journalist,’ her status is unique ... she is a Chinese journalist with Australian citizenship,” Humphrey said.
“This is going to make things very complicated. Beijing will handle her roughly, as though she is one of their own, they will therefore treat her harshly. But it will also play up the Australian connection at a time when diplomatic relations are tense and it wants to bully Australia,” he added.
Peter Dahlin, director of a human rights non-governmental organization, Safeguard Defender, said that Cheng’s detention was more likely to be part of the “tit-for-tat with Australia” than her having fallen victim to a power struggle within CGTN — a scenario he said has led to ramifications before.
“Journalists in CGTN are quite lowly ranked, they don’t really have any power,” he said. “It seems more likely they’re looking for someone who could be a suitable target.”
China has repeatedly rejected allegations that it engages in “hostage diplomacy” in disputes with countries including Australia and Canada, as well as with the families of Uighurs held in Xinjiang internment camps.
However, Strating said there were “numerous examples” of cases where China’s detention of foreign citizens “without much regard for due legal process ... has been interpreted as being in the pursuit of a broader geostrategic or political objective.”
The Australian government was able to visit Cheng via video link, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said on Tuesday last week.
Payne — whose department historically favors private diplomatic entreaties in such cases — provided few details or criticisms, saying only that Cheng was “as well as can be expected.”
“It’s difficult for her family, and we are always concerned about Australians in consular situations such as this overseas,” Payne said.
However, experts questioned whether Australia’s softly-softly approach is the best course of action when it comes to relations with China.
Dahlin, for example, said the approach of the Australian government was “amateur” when it came to China.
“It has been proven quite conclusively to not really work across the board, this idea that you play along with their rules and get some concession in return,” he said.
“Most of the victims ... have made it clear that when pressure is being exerted their treatment improves, not the other way around,” he added.
Similarly, Pearson said that Australia’s approach is not the most effective strategy.
She said that extended to cases of Australians detained elsewhere overseas, including the academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Iran.
“It’s unclear why the government still persists with the idea that quiet diplomacy is going to save the day,” she said.
“Australia treats all these case like consular cases and I think that’s a mistake when it’s a political offense and someone’s being arbitrarily detained. Where cases are political it really demands a political response, and we see other governments often sending in envoys or people who have clout ... and oftentimes that can bring results,” she added.
However, with the China-Australia relationship at such a low point, there is going to be a greater effort required.
“This is also why Australia shouldn’t just wait till Australians find themselves running afoul of problematic laws. They should be expressing human rights concerns about these laws that have been used for years to wrongfully detain [anyone],” Pearson said.
In November last year, a man struck a woman with a steel bar and killed her outside a hospital in China’s Fujian Province. Later, he justified his actions to the police by saying that he attacked her because she was small and alone, and he was venting his anger after a dispute with a colleague. To the casual observer, it could be seen as another case of an angry man gone mad for a moment, but on closer inspection, it reflects the sad side of a society long brutalized by violent political struggles triggered by crude Leninism and Maoism. Starting
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