Two Australian journalists have been rushed out of China by their news organisations over fears they are no longer safe.
The final two Australian correspondents working in China, the ABC’s Bill Birtles and The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith have been rushed out of the country after local police demanded interviews with both journalists.
The pair had been questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State security after carrying out normal reporting duties, in what the AFR’s editor-in-chief has labelled “regrettable and disturbing”.
The ABC reports Birtles had spent four days sheltering in Australia’s embassy in Beijing, while Smith took refuge in Australia’s Shanghai consulate, as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave.
It’s understood Australian diplomats in Beijing cautioned Birtles to leave China last week, with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade giving the same advice to the ABC.
According to Nine News’ Political Editor Chris Uhlmann, they were told they were “people of interest” in the Cheng Lei case.
In response, the ABC organised flights back to Australia for Birtles last Thursday morning, however increasingly “threatening” behaviour from Chinese officials peaked before he could leave.
According to the ABC, police officers arrived at the reporter’s apartment before he left, telling him he was “banned from leaving the country” and would be contacted the next day in order to be interviewed over a “national security case”.
The Australian embassy arranged for him to be collected from his apartment, staying within the compound for a week where he was repeatedly contacted for an interview. It is understood he is not suspected of any crimes.
He was interviewed on Sunday, accompanied by Australia’s ambassador to China Graham Fletcher, after an agreement to allow him to leave the country if he complied.
He was accompanied by consular staff on a flight from Beijing to Shanghai before he boarded a flight to Sydney.
Speaking to media at the airport on Tuesday morning, Birtles said it was “very disappointing to leave the country under those circumstances”.
“But it’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” he said.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement the federal government had provided consular support to the pair, working with Chinese authorities to ensure “their wellbeing and return to Australia”.
Ms Payne said the travel advice had not changed since July.
It advises Australians not to travel to China.
Birtles has been the ABC’s China correspondent, based in Beijing, since 2015 and has extensively covered the rise of Xi Jinping, the US-China trade war, the Hong Kong protests and rising tensions between Australia and China.
Smith, a former journalist at The Mercury in Hobart, was also questioned on Monday evening, and the AFR made similar arrangements to evacuate their correspondent from the country.
It comes after high-profile Australian journalist Cheng Lei was detained by Chinese authorities.
It is not known why Cheng, who works for state broadcaster CGTN in Beijing, is being detained or what she is accused of.
Last Monday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the Australian citizen, who has two children in Melbourne, had been detained “for weeks”.
“Formal notification was received on 14 August 2020 from Chinese authorities of her detention,” she said.
There has been rising tension between China and Australia in recent weeks, including allegations of wine dumping and tariffs placed on barley.
In July, the Australian Government changed its travel advice for China, warning Australian citizens faced “arbitrary detention” on the mainland.
Last week, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying defended the country’s treatment of foreign journalists.
“We at the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] Information Department do our best to make your life and work in China as convenient as possible. We do this for all foreign journalists in China,” Ms Hua said at a regular press conference in Beijing last Wednesday.
According to the ABC, the evacuation means for the first time since the mid-1970s there are no accredited Australian media journalists in China.
In a statement, ABC News director Gaven Morris said the bureau “is a vital part of the ABC’s international newsgathering effort.”
“We aim to get back there as soon as possible,” he said.
The AFR’s editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury and editor Paul Bailey said they were glad Smith had returned to Australia safely.
“We are glad Mike Smith, our correspondent who has been based in Shanghai for two and a half years, and Bill Birtles from the ABC, have made a safe return to Australia this morning,” the pair said.
“The incident targeting two journalists, who were going about their normal reporting duties, is both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China.
“Thank you to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Consular officials who assisted in their safe return.”
TREATMENT OF AUSTRALIANS ‘FUNDAMENTAL’ TO BILATERAL RELATIONSHIP
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, said journalists everywhere should be able to do their work safely, without the risk of intimidation or arbitrary detention.
She also took a swipe at the Chinese Embassy’s deputy head of mission, Wang Xining, who last month spoke at the National Press Club.
“He spoke about respect and a better mutual understanding,” Senator Wong said.
“What I would say to the Chinese authorities is we believe that the media play a vital role in fostering this understanding.
“The safety of and the treatment of Australian citizens in China we regard as fundamental to the bilateral relationship and the actions of officials in relation to these journalists reflect those facts.”
She said it was unfortunate that Australian organisations were now without a representative in China for the first time since the 1970s.
“We think that is deeply regrettable,” she said.
“We hope that Australian media organisations will be able to have their people on the ground again in China soon.”