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Chinese-born Australian CCTV journalist detained in China

CANBERRA – A Chinese-born Australian journalist working for Chinese state television has been detained by authorities in China, Australia's government says.

Australian officials had a consular visit via video link with Cheng Lei at a detention facility last Thursday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement Monday. They will continue to provide assistance and support to her and her family, Payne said.

Australia had been informed by Chinese authorities on Aug. 14 of her detention, but made its first public statement on Monday.

Australian authorities have said they do not know why she was detained and declined to give further information, citing privacy concerns. Cheng wored for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television,

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said she had no information about Cheng's situation, but accused Canberra of bowing to “pressure from allies,” in an apparent reference to China’s main rival, the U.S.

Cheng's detention comes amid a major downturn in China's relations with Australia, a major source of the natural resources needed for its manufacturing-based economy, but also a close ally of the U.S., with which China is engaged in a competition for military dominance in the South China Sea among other sources of tensions.

Ties between Australia and China have soured in recent years over issues from market access for Chinese tech giant Huawei, to allegations of Chinese meddling in Australia’s domestic politics and Canberra"s support for an independent investigation into the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic that is believed to have started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

“Also I would like to stress that as China acts in accordance with law, unlike certain countries, we will not bow to pressure from allies and engage in something illegal in the name of law,” Hua told reporters at a daily briefing.

Cheng had not been charged, but was being held under what is called “residential surveillance at a designated location," Australian media reported Tuesday.

It is a form of detention in which investigators can imprison and question a suspect for up to six months without a formal arrest.

Cheng’s two young children are with family members in the Australian city of Melbourne.

“As a family, we are aware of the current situation with regard to Cheng Lei’s status as advised by the (Australian) Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade," the family said in a statement, adding that it looked forward to a “satisfactory and timely conclusion to the matter.”

“In China, due process will be observed," the family said.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on Tuesday the government did not know why Cheng had been detained.

“We are obviously engaging where we can with Ms. Cheng Lei,” Birmingham told Nine Network television.

“We will continue ... to work as best we can in providing her and her family with assistance through what is no doubt a stressful and difficult time for them,” he added.

Australia in July warned its citizens of a risk of arbitrary detention in China, as relations between the free trade partners have soured in recent years. China dismissed the warning as disinformation.

Australia has criticized China for charging Chinese-Australian spy novelist Yang Hengjun with espionage in March. He has been detained since January last year.

Australian Karm Gilespie was sentenced to death in China in June, seven years after he was arrested and charged with attempting to board an international flight with more than 7.5 kilograms (16.5 pounds) of methamphetamine. Some observers suspect that such a severe sentence so long after the crime was related to the bilateral rift.

Cheng is an anchor for CGTN's BizAsia program. She was born in China and worked in finance in Australia before returning to China and starting a career in journalism with CCTV in Beijing in 2003.

She has reported on major Chinese events including Beijing’s 2008 Olympics and Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo.