The Australian Government has dismissed assertions by the Chinese Government that it is meddling in the country’s internal affairs after it called for arrested journalist Cheng Lei to be treated humanely while in custody.
Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said in a formal statement yesterday (Monday): “We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms.”
Australia should ‘respect China’s judicial sovereignty’
But the Chinese authorities seem to have taken offence at this, with its foreign affairs spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, saying Australia should “respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China’s handling of cases in accordance with law in any form”.
Cheng is a Chinese-born Australian citizen who moved to Australia at the age of nine. She later returned to the country of her birth to work as an English-language business TV anchor for CGTN, the Chinese state-owned network.
She was detained in August last year by Chinese authorities, allegedly for passing on state secrets to foreign forces. On Friday she was formally arrested in connection with the allegations.
Payne says the country is standing up for its citizen
Speaking to the ABC this morning (Tuesday), Payne said her comments did not constitute interference with the Chinese legal system.
“Australia will always stand up for the interests of our citizens in the circumstances in which they find themselves.”
The foreign minister added that Australia was not privy to the evidence for the charges against Cheng.
‘An absurd accusation from the Chinese ministry’
James Paterson, Chair of the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee, has been similarly dismissive of China’s accusations of meddling.
“That really is an absurd accusation from the Chinese ministry,” he said in a separate ABC interview. “We’ve done nothing of the sort of interfering in their legal system – we have no capacity to interfere in their legal system.”
Cheng has two young children – aged nine and 11 – who were living with her in Beijing, but were sent back to Australia when the Covid-19 pandemic broke in China and schools were closed. They are currently in Melbourne being cared for by their grandmother.
Allegations that arrest is Chinese retaliation
There have been widespread allegations that the action against Cheng is retaliation against Australia for the questioning of four Chinese journalists in June 2020 as part of a foreign interference-related investigation.
But Paterson said there was no comparison between the incidents.
“None of those journalists were detained without charge, none of them were held to be investigated for months on end; they were all allowed to return home safely and uninterrupted by the Australian government,” he stated in the interview.