News World China considered Australian journalist Cheng Lei a security threat
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China considered Australian journalist Cheng Lei a security threat

Australian Cheng Lei is a high-profile journalist in China as the face of the state-run English news service. Photo: CGTN
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An Australian journalist detained in China was carrying out activities that posed a threat to national security, Beijing claims.

In its first statement since high-profile anchor Cheng Lei was locked up last month, China now says that proper process is being followed as it investigates alleged illegal activities by the Australian journalist.

“The Australian national Cheng Lei is suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday morning (Australian time).

“Compulsory measures have been imposed on Cheng and she has recently been investigated by relevant authorities.

He added: “Now this case is being handled according to law and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed.”

His comments were Beijing’s first explanation of the woman’s detention, and follow weeks of panic from Cheng’s friends and family who have been unable to speak to her since she was detained.

He gave no further explanation of what Cheng is alleged to have actually done, and there was no information on where she is being held.

The comments about Cheng come after two Australian correspondents returned home on Tuesday after being rushed out of China.

ABC journalist Bill Birtles and Mike Smith from the Australian Financial Review had received late-night visits from police in China and were been banned from leaving the country until they answered questions about Cheng.

Chinese police told the journalists they were people of interest in the case of the Australian television anchor.

Cheng Lei has been in detention since August. Photo: CGTN

Both men were ordered to report for questioning and later sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds for days as their travel rights were revoked.

Consular officials secured safe passage after the pair agreed to be interviewed.

Both journalists say they are relieved to be home but disappointed about the circumstances surrounding their departure.

The Department of Foreign Affairs urged the ABC to withdraw Birtles from China last week after it learned of Cheng Lei’s detention.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the government had become concerned about the uncertainty posed for other Australian journalists.

Senator Payne said there was no specific intelligence to suggest the journalists would get a knock on the door from Chinese police but it was important to take appropriate precautions.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said protected the legitimate rights and interests of news gathering staff and they had the obligation to comply with the laws and regulations in China.

“As long as foreign journalists conduct news reporting in accordance with laws, they should have nothing to worry about,” Mr Zhao said.

AFR correspondent Michael Smith and ABC correspondent Bill Birtles. Photo: Bill Birtles

The Australian government is advising Australians not to travel to China, warning they could face arbitrary detention.

Australia now has no credentialed journalists in China for the first time since the 1970s.

Senator Payne described the saga as disappointing.

“Australia, of course, is a strong advocate of freedom of the press,” she said.

“We will work appropriately with media organisations to determine next steps.”

-with AAP