Two Australian foreign correspondents in China were urgently repatriated after a tense diplomatic standoff.
ABC’s Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith both left China on Monday evening after being questioned by China’s State Security Ministry.
“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under these circumstances,” Birtles said after returning to Sydney. “It is a relief to be back in the country with a real rule of law. But it was a whirlwind and not a particularly good experience.
According to information in the financial magazine, the two reporters were told they were people of interest in an investigation into Chinese-born Australian news anchor Cheng Lei, who was detained in China last month.
In a joint statement, the editor of the financial review, Michael Stutchbury, and the editor, Paul Bailey, called the issue “regrettable and disturbing”.
“We are pleased that Mike Smith, our Shanghai-based correspondent for two and a half years, and ABC’s Bill Birtles, have made a welcome return to Australia this morning,” they said.
“This incident involving two journalists, who were carrying out their usual reporting duties, is both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interest of a cooperative relationship between Australia and China.”
According to ABC reports, Australian diplomats in Beijing first warned Birtles that he was expected to leave China early last week. This warning was repeated two days later, prompting the ABC to organize a robbery on Thursday.
But, according to the ABC, before he could leave, police arrived at Birtles’ apartment Wednesday night at midnight while he was having farewell drinks. He was reportedly banned from leaving the country and questioned about “a national security issue.”
Birtles then arranged to be taken into care by Australian Embassy officials and spent the next four days in hiding in the Beijing Embassy, where he was contacted by Chinese officials demanding an interview. .
After initially refusing to speak to police, he was finally questioned by Chinese authorities on Sunday, accompanied by Australian Ambassador to China Graham Fletcher. The interview took place after officials agreed he could leave the country if he spoke to them.
In a statement released Tuesday, the ABC confirmed that Birtles had returned to Australia “on advice from the Australian government”.
“This office is a vital part of ABC’s international news gathering effort and we aim to get back there as soon as possible,” said ABC News Director Gaven Morris.
“China’s history, its relationship with Australia and its role in our region and the world is of great importance to all Australians and we want to continue to have our people on the ground to cover it.”
An hour of live back-to-back crossovers invariably means the boys in blue will show up. It’s a problem for them, it’s a little complicated for us, they check our press cards, take our numbers and IDs, check their walkie-talkies and then say “‘” to us, and off we go. # Beijing pic.twitter.com/W34brZ4jAG
– Bill Birtles (@billbirtles) 19 juin 2020
Michael Smith was visited by Chinese police around the same time and took refuge at the Australian Embassy in Shanghai.
The reporter said it was a relief to be home. “It’s great to be safe back home after five difficult days,” he said.
“The police night visit to my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists in China are currently under.
This extraordinary impasse comes at a time of heightened tension between Australia and China. Prior to Cheng’s detention, the two countries were debating a number of issues, including pressure from Australia for a global investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the government had “provided consular support to two Australian journalists in China to help them return to Australia”.
“These Australians have now arrived in Australia,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Our Embassy in Beijing and Consulate General in Shanghai have worked with Chinese government authorities to ensure their well-being and their return to Australia.
“Our current travel advice for China, updated July 7, remains appropriate and unchanged. We encourage all Australians who are abroad or looking to travel to keep a close watch on Smartraveller.
“The Australian government continues to provide consular support to Australian citizens detained in China, including Ms. Cheng Lei. We are unable to provide further comments due to confidentiality obligations. ”