Last two Aussie journalists in China flee, fearing arrest amid souring ties

Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Bill Birtles is back in Sydney after fleeing China.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Bill Birtles is back in Sydney after fleeing China.

Australia's two remaining journalists in China took shelter in diplomatic missions before hurriedly flying out of the country as tensions between the two nations further deteriorated.

In a development that Foreign Minister Marise Payne labelled "very disappointing", the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Australian Financial Review removed their respective China correspondents, Bill Birtles and Mike Smith, over concerns for their safety, leaving Australia without a China correspondent for the first time since the 1970s.

The Australian government became concerned about the pair early last week and urged their media outlets to leave China. Then, at about 12.30am last Thursday, Chinese security officers visited the journalists' homes and told them they were banned from leaving the country and were to be questioned over a national security case.

Mr Birtles, who is based in Beijing, took refuge in the Australian embassy, while Mr Smith, based in Shanghai, sought protection in the Australian consulate there. Both flew back to Australia on Monday.

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

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

The departure of the reporters follows the detention last month of Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei, a presenter for China Global Television Network, on "national security grounds".

During questioning by the Chinese authorities before they left, Mr Birtles said he knew Ms Cheng but not well. Mr Smith said he had never spoken to her.

A foreign ministry spokesman, Mr Zhao Lijian, said China welcomes foreign journalists and that those who obey the law have "no need… to worry".

Asked if only Australian journalists were targeted, he said: "China's position has been stated very clearly, and there is no such situation as you mentioned."

Mr Birtles said he was sad that he had become "a pawn in a much bigger diplomatic stoush".

"My departure is just part of a bigger trend accelerated by Beijing's increasing pursuit of a narrative exclusively on the Communist Party's terms," he wrote on the ABC News website.

The incident marks a further decline in ties between Australia and its largest trading partner in recent years. Beijing has expressed anger at Canberra's foreign interference and its recent call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, both of which seemed to be aimed at China. In moves seen as retaliatory, China has imposed tariffs and export bans on Australian goods such as barley and some beef products, although Beijing insisted the steps were not politically motivated.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China condemned Beijing's "unprecedented harassment and intimidation" of the two Australian journalists. It said 17 foreign journalists had been expelled from the country in the first half of this year.

The US yesterday also slammed China for "threatening" and "harassing" foreign journalists after it refused to renew the press credentials of at least five journalists from four American media groups, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Bloomberg.

In what is seen as counter claims, China's Global Times reported yesterday that the Australian intelligence agency recently raided the homes of Chinese journalists in Australia, seized their computers and smartphones, and questioned them. Citing unnamed sources, it claimed the journalists were warned not to report the incident.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2020, with the headline Last two Aussie journalists in China flee, fearing arrest amid souring ties. Subscribe