China has lashed out at Australia following the arrest of Australian-Chinese journalist Cheng Lei, warning Canberra to “stop interfering” in the handling of its own matters.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin confirmed to reporters on Monday Ms Cheng, a single mother of two, was arrested on Friday over suspicions she was “providing state secrets to foreign forces”.
She was detained in August, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade since persistently “raising concerns” with Beijing, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Monday.
“We continue to seek assurances of her being treated appropriately, humanely and in accordance with international standards, and that will continue to be the case."
Yet Beijing, which has taken umbrage to Australia’s forthright approach on a series of matters in the past 12 months, hit out over suggestion of mistreatment, insisting Ms Cheng will be treated according to law.
“China is a country governed by law. China's judicial authorities have been dealing with cases independently and the rights of the person involved are fully protected,” Mr Wang said.
“We hope the Australian side will respect China's judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China's handling of cases in accordance with law in any form.”
On Tuesday, Ms Payne denied interfering in the case in response to Mr Wang’s comments, hitting back by suggesting Canberra is well within its rights to speak out.
"It is entirely appropriate for Australia to observe that she deserves the basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and human treatment to be met in accordance with international norms," she told ABC radio on Tuesday.
"That doesn't constitute interference with the Chinese legal system."
Aussie journalist was critical of the Communist Party of China
Ms Cheng was working for state-run English language news service CGTN before her arrest.
While there is no further details surrounding her detainment, Ms Cheng was publicly critical of the Communist Party of China during the early stages of the pandemic – a move which has seen others detained over their comments.
Ms Payne was tightlipped over her department’s understanding of Ms Cheng’s charges, saying she understood they were “broad” and investigations would likely go on for months.
When pressed on whether the government refuted the allegations against Ms Cheng, Ms Payne said Australia was "seeking further advice in relation to the charges".
Young children long for mother’s return
Cheng's two young children are being cared for by their grandmother in Melbourne.
Her niece Louisa Wen, speaking on behalf of the family, said the children were devastated by their mother's absence.
"I feel like the children don't fully understand the situation, so it's probably quite tough on the kids wondering what's going on," she told the ABC’s 7.30 Report on Monday night.
"Every time we do something fun, we're thinking of her and how she can't enjoy these things with us."
Cheng was born in China but moved with her parents to Australia as a child.
She studied commerce at the University of Queensland before working for Cadbury Schweppes and ExxonMobil in Australia.
After moving to China, she worked as a high-profile business anchor on a state-owned television network.
Videos of Cheng were removed from Chinese websites after she was detained.
The Chinese foreign ministry initially said Cheng was suspected of endangering national security.
Former foreign minister Alexander Downer said it appeared to be retaliation by China, rather than a case of credible charges.
"As a journalist, what access to state secrets would she have?" he told the ABC.
"Journalists get leaks from time to time, but ... she has been accused of spying and I think that is just improbable and not credible myself."
Ms Cheng’s initial detainment came after the homes of four Chinese journalists were raided in Sydney amid concerns of foreign interference.
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