The diplomatic impasse began when the two men – Bill Birtles, Beijing correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Mike Smith, Shanghai correspondent for the Australian Financial Review (AFR) – were told that they were “persons interested in an investigation”. in Cheng Lei, an Australian anchor for state broadcaster CGTN, according to AFR. The Australian government said last week that Cheng had been detained by police in China, although she has not yet been charged with anything and Chinese authorities have not disclosed why she was under arrest. investigation.
The Australian government had previously warned the ABC to withdraw its staff from China before the men were questioned by police, according to the broadcaster.
The ABC added that Birtles, for example, was hosting farewell drinks when police came to his apartment and told him he was forbidden to leave the country and would be called the next day to an interrogation on a “national security matter”. The broadcaster did not say what Birtles was interviewed about.
The two journalists then sought refuge at Australian diplomatic missions in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, while Canberra negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave the country. The stalemate lasted for five days before the travel bans were lifted and they were able to return to Sydney.
Birtles said on ABC Tuesday that it was “very disappointing to have to leave under these circumstances.”
“It is a relief to be back in a country with a real rule of law,” he added. “It was a whirlwind and not a particularly good experience. ”
The AFR quoted Smith as saying it was “great to be back home safe after five difficult days.”
“The late night police visit to my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure that all foreign journalists in China are currently under,” he added.
The departure of the two is believed to mark the first time in decades that there are no accredited Australian media reporters in China.
The Australian newspaper said on Tuesday that Canberra had advised it against sending its Chinese correspondent, Will Glasgow, back to the country. Glasgow is currently in Australia but was due to travel to Guangzhou last Sunday, before the notice was received, he said on Twitter.
Tensions between China and Australia have been rising for months. After Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing targeted it on trade, suspending some beef imports and imposing high tariffs on barley.
The government is already warning Australians that they risk “being arbitrarily detained” in China. Payne said she said the travel advice, which was last updated on July 7, remains unchanged.
This is a developing story.
CNN’s Chandler Thornton contributed to this report.