Australian journalists flown out of China 'amid diplomatic standoff'

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Media caption,

Bill Birtles: "It was a whirlwind week"

The last two reporters working in China for Australian media have flown home after a five-day diplomatic standoff.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review's 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".

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.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said consular officials had assisted the pair in returning home.

"I also want to note that Australia is of course a strong supporter of media freedom, freedom of the press, and that it is disappointing that after many years, Australia will not have a media organisation present in China for some period of time," she added in a statement on Tuesday.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported that Chinese authorities had questioned the journalists about Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist for Chinese state media who has been detained since last month.

In their first comments on the detention, the Chinese foreign ministry said she was being held on "national security grounds".

What happened to the pair?

Mr Birtles told the BBC that Australian diplomats advised him last Monday that he should leave China immediately.

"They'd received some sort of warning or advice, they never specified what," said the journalist.

He was then booked on a flight due to leave Beijing last Thursday. But the situation escalated on Wednesday at midnight when six Chinese police officers and a translator visited his apartment as he held farewell drinks with friends.

He said the police did not detain him, but informed him that he was involved in a "national security investigation," and that he could not leave the country.

They said they would call him the following afternoon to talk about the investigation.

He contacted Australian consular officials the next morning, who collected him and took him to the Australian embassy, where he spent the next four days.

Image source, ABC
Image caption,
Mike Smith and Bill Birtles departed from Shanghai on Monday

"There obviously is not a great deal of trust with China at the moment about how safe I would have been if initially, by myself, I went and did that meeting," said Mr Birtles.

He was later interviewed by Chinese police in the presence of Australia's ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.

Mr Birtles said he was questioned about Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who worked for state broadcaster CGTN. She was detained in China last month on suspicion of "criminal activity endangering China's national security".

"I know her, but not particularly well, it didn't seem like I would be the most logical person to interrogate if you wanted evidence about her case," he said.

Mr Birtles said he was also asked about sources he used to report Hong Kong's national security law, and on Australia's relations with China.

"There wasn't any real rigorous effort to extract any evidence or anything that could really be used in any case," he added.

Mr Smith, who is based in Shanghai, also received a visit by police - prompting him to go to the Australian consulate there. He, too, was questioned over Ms Cheng, the AFR reported.

The pair were both allowed to leave the country after their interviews by police.

What's been the reaction?

"It's very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances," Mr Birtles said in Sydney.

"It's a relief to be back in the country with genuine rule of law. But this was a whirlwind and it's not a particularly good experience."

The AFR's editors, Michael Stutchbury and Paul Bailey, said they were glad both journalists were safe.

"This 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," they said in a joint statement.

By anyone's standards, what happened with these two journalists is a worrying development.

Bill Birtles and Mike Smith were the last correspondents for Australian media working in China. Their evacuation means for the first time since the mid-1970s, there are no accredited Australian journalists in the country.

China is not only Australia's key trading partner and the biggest customer for its coal and iron ore, but it's also one of its most important stories to cover. As tensions rise between Beijing and Canberra, the need for journalists on the ground in China becomes ever more crucial.

The ABC's news director, Gaven Morris, said: "The story of China, its relationship with Australia and its role in our region and in the world is one of great importance for all Australians and we want to continue having our people on the ground to cover it."

But as both countries continue to exchange political and diplomatic jabs - and with China's broader crackdown on Western journalists - it's hard to see when Australian reporters will be allowed back.

This development is not only a critical marker in the relationship between the two countries, it will no doubt affect Australian media coverage of this important story.

Why are Australia-China ties strained?

The countries rely heavily on each other for trade, but their relationship has soured in recent years, amid allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society.

Ties have deteriorated further this year after Canberra backed an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.

In actions widely viewed as retaliatory, Beijing has since imposed restrictions on Australian exports such as beef, barley and wine. It has also warned Chinese tourists and students about racism in Australia.

In July, Australia warned its citizens they may face "arbitrary detention" in China - a travel warning that remains in place.

Canberra has also expressed concerns about human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and urged China to release detained Australians such as Yang Hengjun, a democracy activist who has been held for 19 months without trial.

The case of Ms Lei - made public last week - has been shrouded in secrecy.

The Melbourne-raised presenter for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN is being held in a secret location for unknown reasons, according to Australian officials.