Australian Journalists Flee China after Diplomatic Stand Off

ABC footage shows journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith talking to the media in Sydney, Australia, September 8, 2020. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation/Reuters)

Two Australian journalists fled China after being questioned by intelligence agents and forced to seek the protection of their country’s government, their news organizations said Tuesday.

Chinese officials told Bill Birtles, Beijing correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Mike Smith, Shanghai correspondent for the Australian Financial Review (AFR) that they were “persons of interest in an investigation” into an Australian anchor for state broadcaster CGTN, Cheng Lei, AFR said.

Cheng has been detained by police in China as she is “suspected of engaging in criminal activities endangering China’s national security,” said Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.

“At present, the case is under investigation and being handled in accordance with the law. All of her legitimate rights are protected,” Zhao said.

The correspondents sought shelter in the Australian Embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai while diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow their exit from the country, according to a statement from the Australian Foreign Ministry. Negotiations lasted five days before travel bans were lifted, allowing the journalists to fly back t0 Sydney.

Birtles said on the ABC Tuesday that it was “very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances.”

“It’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” he added. “This was a whirlwind and not particularly good experience.”

“It was a very tense few days,” Smith told CNN Business of his time spent within the Australian consulate in Shanghai.

He said that he and Birtles were only allowed to leave China if they agreed to be interviewed by China’s Ministry of State Security about Cheng Lei.

“So we agreed to do that largely because we didn’t really have any option. You don’t want to be a Julian Assange and stuck in an embassy for years,” Smith added, referencing the WikiLeaks founder who lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for nearly seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Tensions have risen between Australia and China in recent months after the former called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, leading both countries to enforce trade restrictions on each other.

Australia already advises its citizens that they may be “at risk of arbitrary detention” in China. 

While there are still some Australian journalists working in China, all are employed by non-Australian media companies. Birtles and Smith’s exit mark the first time no journalists employed by Australian media are working in mainland China since 1972, when the two countries normalized relations. 

Other foreign journalists have also faced struggles in China, as authorities there recently imposed new visa restrictions on foreign journalists working for American news organizations.

In the first half of 2020 alone, China expelled a record 17 journalists by canceling press credentials, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. 

Beijing effectively expelled about a dozen journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal in retaliation for a move by the Trump administration that limited the number of Chinese nationals allowed to work in the U.S. offices of China’s state-run media. The administration has labeled a growing number of the offices as “foreign missions,” forcing them to file paperwork with U.S. authorities on their finances and personnel. Beijing followed suit in demanding the same of several U.S. outlets in China.

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