In Cheng Lei’s last WeChat post before she disappeared, the Chinese state TV host posed in a bright green dress on a Shake Shack-branded rickshaw outside the newly opened Beijing branch of the American restaurant chain.
That was on August 12. Cheng, an Australian citizen, hasn’t been seen since. On Monday, Canberra said that it had received a “formal notification” of her detention, two days after her last-known social media post.
It is unclear what exactly prompted Cheng’s detention. She was a veteran business anchor for state broadcaster CGTN, which has since scrubbed all reference of her from its website and social media.
CGTN is the international arm of CCTV, one of the most important propaganda outlets in China, carrying all major government and Communist Party events and announcements. Unlike the more strident or nationalist tone taken in some print media backed by the Chinese state, CCTV, and especially the English-language CGTN, has traditionally been more restrained.
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.
Speaking to Sydney radio station 2GB Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne could not say why Cheng has been detained since August 14, but described the idea that Cheng could be used by China as a pawn in the deteriorating relationship between the two countries as “speculative at best.”
The relationship between Australia and China has frayed in recent months after Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, and the countries have engaged in tit-for-tat trade restrictions.
That has led some in the Australian media to speculate that Cheng’s detention could be political in nature, comparing it to the seizure in December 2018 of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, after their government detained Chinese business executive Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the US.
Kovrig and Spavor were finally charged with spying in June 2020, over a year after they were first detained. They have been denied access to their families, lawyers and consular officials for months at a time.
CGTN did not respond to a request to comment.
Asked for comment at a press briefing on Tuesday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “I have no specific information for you. China is a country under the rule of law, and we will act in accordance with the law.”
While details on the case are still scant, there are apparent indications that Cheng is being held for reasons not related to standard criminal charges. According to the ABC, the Australian broadcaster that first reported her disappearance, Cheng is being held under what is known as “residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL),” a system by which people can be detained without charge for up to six months.
This matches comments made by Payne on Tuesday, who said that Cheng was being detained without charge and could be held “for months.” A source with knowledge of the situation said Cheng was being held at a detention facility.
RSDL, which was added to China’s criminal procedural law in 2012, essentially legalized the practice of so-called “black jails,” detention centers where dissidents and activists were often held for months on end without charge in a bid to solicit specific information, or to gain political leverage. Former detainees who went through RSDL have spoken of being denied access to their families and lawyers, threatened with torture and strong-armed into signing false confessions.
Since RSDL was first legalized, it has been used widely against dissidents, government officials, and foreign nationals. It’s just one of several means of detention the Chinese authorities have to go after those who challenge them politically.
Communist Party members have for years faced the threat of extralegal detention and potential torture in a dedicated system known as Shuanggui set up for going after allegedly corrupt cadres. Officials often disappear into the system for months at a time, emerging white haired and haggard to confess to a series of offenses ahead of a criminal trial.
Since 2018, that system has been formalized and extended far beyond the membership of the Party itself as the National Supervisory Commission, under the principle of “expanding the punishment of the few to manage the many.” Purportedly an anti-corruption body, the NSC exists outside the judicial system and has been criticized for curtailing the already limited rights available to those accused of crimes in China.
Commanded to arm their minds with Xi Jinping Thought and consider the Party their family, Cheng wouldn’t be the first Chinese state media employee to fall afoul of the authorities and end up in some arm of the sprawling detention apparatus.
In 2014, Rui Chenggang, one of the best known faces on CCTV, was detained on corruption charges. Rui’s ultimate fate still remains unclear, with some reports suggesting he was sentenced to six years in prison. Outside the state media system, many journalists have been prosecuted for their work, and China remains the largest jailer of reporters in the world.
Those already limited press freedoms have shrunk even more in recent months, with the expulsion of multiple foreign reporters and additional restrictions on Chinese journalists in how they cover the coronavirus pandemic.
While Cheng’s own reporting for CGTN focused on fairly bland business news, she did occasionally write public posts on Facebook about more sensitive topics, including some which were mildly critical of China’s response to the coronavirus and censorship of online criticism. Before joining the network, she was a journalist for CNBC.
Her disappearance, and the many questions around it, demonstrates that even those within the propaganda apparatus can step over the invisible red lines that govern life in Xi Jinping’s China, and have their lives upended.
Mei Fong, a former Wall Street Journal reporter in Beijing, wrote on Twitter that with regard to Cheng’s detention, “the question probably every foreign journalist reporting in China is asking: if Beijing can detain a journalist reporting for ‘safe’ CGTN, how safe am I?”