Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the Covid-19 epicenter Wuhan, Hubei Province, on Mar 10. Cheng Lei, the China-born Autralian national CGTN anchor currently detained with no public explanation by authorities, had poked fun on Facebook at Xi's photo opportunity. Photo: AFP / EyePress

China on Tuesday declined to explain why an Australian journalist working as an anchor for state TV has been detained without charge for at least two weeks, the latest case to fray relations between Beijing and Canberra.

Cheng Lei, an anchor for CGTN, China’s English-language state broadcaster, has been held since at least August 14 but Australian diplomats say Beijing has given no reason for her detention.

A foreign ministry spokeswoman in Beijing batted away questions over the fate of the China-born journalist, who enjoyed a high profile as a business news presenter on CGTN.

“I can’t give you any specifics,” Hua Chunying told reporters.

“But you know China is a country governed by law…. We will handle things according to the law.”

Ties between Beijing and Canberra have already withered over trade, security concerns about Chinese tech and Australia’s push for a probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cheng has not been seen in public since being held, although Australian envoys in Beijing were able to speak to her on August 27.

There are fears she could face a prolonged period of detention after reports in Australian media said she was being held under “residential surveillance.”

“Our concerns for Ms Cheng are genuine and real,” Simon Birmingham, Australian minister for trade, tourism and investment told Australian Broadcasting Company News on Tuesday.

Free media advocates also called for full information on her case.

Chinese authorities should “disclose their reasons for holding” her or “release her immediately,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said, calling China the “world’s leading jailer of journalists.”

Big beef

The detention of Cheng, who conducted interviews with international CEOs for CGTN’s Global Business and BizTalk shows, has also sent shockwaves through China’s foreign journalist community.

While the cause of her detention remains a mystery, she has written a number of Facebook posts critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Beijing’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak.

One post poked fun at Xi’s visit in March to Wuhan, the Covid-19 ground zero: “The big story today, Dear Leader’s visit, triggered titters in the newsroom – waving to a big TV screen showing the coronavirus hospital in Wuhan apparently equals a visit.”

In China, where “‘Serve the people” is the slogan, the “reality is the opposite,” she wrote.

Cheng also praised on Facebook a censored interview with Ai Fen, a doctor who sounded an early alarm about the new virus in Wuhan.

China has ramped up its rhetoric against Australia since Canberra called for a probe into the outbreak.

A senior Beijing envoy last week equated the push for a global inquiry to the betrayal of Julius Ceasar by Brutus, registering the “indignation, anger and frustration” felt by China at Australia.

China has also bristled at Australia’s invocation of national security as a reason for investigations into foreign interference at its universities.

Beijing has been accused of retaliating with a litany of trade measures including probes into alleged dumping of Australian wines, suspending beef imports and warnings to its citizens against travelling to Australia.

Chinese customs officials said Tuesday they had suspended barley imports from Australia’s largest grain firm CBH Group – and revoked its export license – after apparently detecting a large number of pests in its produce.

Such acts fit a pattern of “coercive diplomacy,” according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Cheng is the second high-profile Australian citizen to be detained in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage.

Earlier this year, Australia warned its citizens they faced the risk of arbitrary detention if they travelled to China.

“Optimistically, she could be expelled after a couple of weeks from China,” Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China and a friend of Cheng’s, told AFP.

“But at this stage, we just don’t know.”

AFP attempted to contact Cheng through WeChat and did not get any response.

Her bio page has been pulled from the website of CGTN.

She is known to have two young children, both believed to currently be in Melbourne.

“She’s really warm, very bright, … very generous,” another friend of Cheng’s told AFP, requesting anonymity.