Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB Afternoons

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Cheng Lei’s detention in China; Beijing investigating Australian wine.
01 September 2020

Deb Knight: Now, Australia's relationship with China seems to have deteriorated even further. An Australian journalist has been arrested in China and could be detained for up to six months without access to lawyers. Foreign Minister Marise Payne is on the line for us now. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Deb, and my apologies for the delay due to activity in the chamber.

Deb Knight: No, I appreciate you coming on to give us the very latest here. Now, the Government was notified on August the 14th of Cheng Lei’s detention. Have you been told why?

Marise Payne: The process that the Chinese justice system has in these cases, Deb, is one which is a matter for them, of course. We have sought that information and I don't want to engage in a public commentary on it. We have had the opportunity to meet with her at the detention facility via video link. The video link is a COVID-safe approach to consular visits and we've acknowledged that visit has been very helpful to us.

Deb Knight: And how is she doing?

Marise Payne: Well again, I wouldn't go into a commentary, but importantly, these operate as a welfare check and we will continue to do those.

Deb Knight: And is she in good spirits or - I don’t want to have a commentary, I just want to find out how she's going.

Marise Payne: Well, as well as can be expected in these circumstances, I think would be the best way to put that. It's difficult. It's difficult for her family, and we are always concerned about Australians in consular situations such as this overseas, and this one is no different.

Deb Knight: Has she been charged with anything?

Marise Payne: The process within the Chinese system does not require the laying of charges at this point, but we'll continue to seek information about that.

Deb Knight: And how long can she be detained without having charges laid under the Chinese system?

Marise Payne: Well, there's a number of levels at which this operates, but in this case, it is a number of months and we have seen this before – we've dealt with these situations before. It is important from our perspective that we do what we can to support her and to support her family, to encourage access to a lawyer for her and to continue to provide that consular support. That's certainly our focus. The Ambassador and his team in Beijing are very much aware of that.

Deb Knight: And is she being used as a pawn by China here to get back at Australia?

Marise Payne: Deb, I would not describe it in that way. I think it is speculative, at best, to engage on that sort of premise. Our job is to ensure we're providing her with support and with consular assistance. We will maintain close contact with Chinese authorities through this process, and importantly, as I also said, provide all possible support to her family, a number of whom are here in Australia.

Deb Knight: And the problem is that she's not the only high profile Australian being detained in China. There's also the writer and academic Yang Hengjun who's been detained for more than 500 days now on espionage charges. Is it problematic that we are having problems having direct contact with China, with your counterparts? They don’t seem to be picking up the phone. Your colleagues in China, people at the same level, they don't seem to answer the call?

Marise Payne: I spoke to State Councilor Wang Yi earlier in the coronavirus period, and particularly around some of these issues, and we've made a request since then. We are very ready to speak to our Chinese counterparts about mutual issues, whether they are issues of concern or issues of interest...

Deb Knight: [Interrupts] But they don't seem ready to talk to us.

Marise Payne: Well, we see that as a matter for them. We are very ready to have those conversations, and I think as the Trade Minister and others have pointed out, they have made that very clear as well.

Deb Knight: So the last time that you spoke with your Beijing counterpart was around five or six months ago?

Marise Payne: Some months ago. And in the context of coronavirus – that is the case for many of us – we are engaging in more virtual than physical meetings, obviously, at this time, given there's very little travel.

Deb Knight: And I guess that does make it problematic in the sense that you couldn't have the side meetings, the less official meetings that you would have had in the past during the various international gatherings which aren't going ahead because of COVID.

Marise Payne: That's true, actually. I was looking at proposals in relation to the UN General Assembly Leader’s Week just yesterday, which is due later in September. And the difference between the planning that is in place for that now, and that which I've experienced over the last few years is chalk and cheese, to be honest.

Deb Knight: Now the latest trade tension – the wine industry is being targeted yet again. That was revealed on our show yesterday, another investigation into the industry by Beijing. Are you concerned that this is the approach that China is taking with our produce, with our wine, beef and barley growers?

Marise Payne: Deb, we obviously deal with each of these cases on their merits, and I know, whether it is the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham or the Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, that is certainly what they are doing. We have found, as I think has been made clear by the Government in the last week or so, the wine case in particular – very perplexing – we don't accept a number of the matters raised by China in relation to that. And we will be strongly prosecuting the case for Australia's excellent wine product which has been such a successful export product around the world on this matter and take every step we can to support our industry.

Deb Knight: Alright. Marise Payne, we thank you for your time. We'll let you go back, can hear the bells going now and thank you for the update.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Deb.

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