Australian Journalists Barely Escape China as Relations Plummet

This leaves Australia without correspondents in China—a first in over 40 years.
September 8, 2020, 1:57pm
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ABC journalist Bill Birtles waving as he arrives in Sydney. Photo by TARYN SOUTHCOMBE / ABC NEWS / AFP

As diplomatic relations sour with the West, China has taken to intimidating and expelling foreign journalists.

The saga began in March, when 14 American journalists with the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal were forced out of the country. Now, Australia’s final two accredited journalists have also fled their posts in Beijing and Shanghai, arriving back in Sydney early on Tuesday morning.

Mike Smith, a correspondent with the Australian Financial Review (AFR), and Bill Birtles, a correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) fled China late last night after a week of increasing hostility from China’s Ministry of State Security.

“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances,” Birtles told the ABC 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 whole thing began a week ago when, according to the AFR, both Smith and Birtles were told they were under investigation as part of the Chinese detainment of Australian news anchor Cheng Lei, who is being held without charge under "residential surveillance at a designated location".

In response, Australian diplomats recommended Smith and Birtles leave the country as soon as possible. The ABC managed to book Birtles a flight out on Thursday, which he never made.

Instead, several police officers showed up at Birtles’ Beijing apartment on Wednesday night, just as he was hosting going away drinks for friends and colleagues. He was told that he was banned from leaving the country and was asked to attend an interview the following morning as part of “a national security case”.

Worried, Birtles contacted the Australian Embassy, who sent two officials to provide him with asylum at their Beijing office. For the next four days Birtles lay low at the embassy and refused requests for an interview. Finally, he agreed to meet with Chinese authorities so long as he was accompanied by Australia’s ambassador, Graham Fletcher.

The interview went ahead, Birtle was told his travel ban had been lifted, and he was then booked onto a flight out of Beijing on Monday night.

Meanwhile, over in Shanghai, Smith had also received a visit from the police on Wednesday, shortly after midnight, and similarly ended up sheltering for five nights in the city’s Australian consulate before agreeing to a carefully controlled interview in exchange for freedom.

He also arrived back in Sydney early Tuesday morning.

“It’s great to be back home safely after a difficult five days," Smith told the AFR. "The late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now."

This is the first time Australia has had no accredited journalists working in China since the 1970s, and marks a new diplomatic low for both countries, which were already strained by disputes over Hong Kong, espionage, and responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July the Australian Government announced that citizens could face "arbitrary detention" traveling in China and upgraded their recommendation to “do not travel.”