“Chinese authorities have advised that Ms Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” Payne said, adding that “the Australian Government has raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention.”
Cheng was a business anchor on CGTN, the international arm of China’s state-owned broadcaster CCTV, which has since scrubbed all reference to her from its website and social media.
In her spare time, Cheng was active in the Australian community in Beijing, taking part in events at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and acting as an “alumni ambassador” for the country’s embassy.
Her final post on WeChat, the Chinese social networking app, showed her at the opening of a Shake Shack outlet in Beijing on August 12, the first restaurant opened in China by the US chain. Posing in a bright green dress, Cheng captioned the photos with the hashtag “make shakes not war.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mofa) did not immediately reply to CNN’s request for comment. Asked about Cheng’s detention last year, Mofa spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “China is a country under the rule of law, and we will act in accordance with the law.”
Cheng’s original detention came amid rapidly worsening ties between Canberra and Beijing. After Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, China targeted it over trade, slapping products with tariffs and blocking acquisitions by Australian companies.
Bill Birtles, Beijing correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Mike Smith, Shanghai correspondent for the Australian Financial Review (AFR), were told they were “persons of interest in an investigation” into Cheng. Both sought the protection of consular officials, and were eventually able to fly out of China after a 5-day diplomatic standoff.
“I don’t think she would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally,” Louisa Wen, Cheng’s niece and spokeswoman for the family, told the ABC. “We don’t know if she’s just been caught up in something that she herself didn’t realize.”