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An Australian journalist detained in China for weeks is being held on national security grounds, China has said.

Cheng Lei, a presenter for China Global Television Network (CGTN), is suspected of “criminal activity endangering China’s national security”.

She has been detained since 14 August.

The announcement comes after the last two journalists working for Australian media in China flew home to Sydney after a five-day diplomatic stand-off.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s (AFR) Mike Smith landed in Sydney on Tuesday.

Chinese authorities questioned both men before their departure. The ABC reported Birtles was “not asked about his reporting or conduct in China” but instead about Ms Cheng.

Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years.

There had been allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society in the past, but ties worsened after Canberra backed an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said on Monday a record 17 foreign journalists had been expelled from the country in the first half of 2020.

What happened to Cheng Lei?

An Australian citizen based in Beijing, Ms Cheng is a high-profile, respected business journalist for English-language channel CGTN.

In August she suddenly disappeared from television and cut off contact with friends and relatives. China eventually announced she was being held under “residential surveillance” in an unknown location.

No charges were announced at the time. But now foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the government detained her on “national security grounds”, saying authorities had taken “compulsory measures” against her. An investigation is now under way, he added.

The spokesman gave no details about the accusations, and it is unclear what “criminal activity” she is alleged to have committed.

But at the time of her detention some believed her Australian nationality may have been a factor, amid increasingly poor relations between Beijing and Canberra. Read more

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