Two Australian journalists from ABC and AFR pulled out of China after embassy warnings

Two Australian foreign correspondents in China have been urgently flown home after a tense diplomatic standoff.

The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith both left China on Monday night after reportedly being questioned by China’s ministry of state security.

“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances,” Birtles said after returning to 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.”

According to reports in the Financial Review, both journalists were told they were persons of interest in an investigation into the Chinese-born Australian news anchor Cheng Lei, who was detained in China last month.

In a joint statement, the Financial Review’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, and editor, Paul Bailey, called the matter “regrettable and disturbing”.

“We are glad Mike Smith, our correspondent who has been based in Shanghai for two and a half years, and Bill Birtles from the ABC, have made a safe return to Australian this morning,” they said.

“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 cooperative relationship between Australia and China.”

According to ABC reports, Australian diplomats in Beijing first cautioned Birtles that he should leave China early last week. That warning was repeated two days later, prompting the ABC to organise a flight out on Thursday.

But, according to the ABC, before he could leave, police officers arrived at Birtles’ apartment at midnight on Wednesday, as he was hosting farewell drinks. He was reportedly told he had been banned from leaving the country and would be interviewed over “a national security case”.

Birtles then arranged to be picked up by officials from the Australian embassy and spent the next four days hiding in the embassy in Beijing, where he was contacted by Chinese officials demanding an interview.

After initially refusing to speak to police, he was eventually interviewed by Chinese authorities on Sunday, accompanied by Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher. The interview went ahead after officials agreed he could leave the country if he spoke to them.

In a statement on Tuesday, the ABC confirmed that Birtles had returned to Australia “following advice from the Australian government”.

ABC news director Gaven Morris said the ABC was in touch with their local staff in Beijing, but they didn’t have any information suggesting the staff were under threat.

“China, understanding China and the relationship between our two countries is probably the biggest story of our time, and having our people on the ground working with our local team to tell that story, is absolutely critical to the ABC.”

Michael Smith was visited by Chinese police about the same time, and he took shelter in the Australian consulate in Shanghai.

The journalist said it was a relief to be home. “It’s great to be back home safely after a difficult five days,” he said.

“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.”

The extraordinary standoff comes amid a period of high tension between Australia and China. Before Cheng’s detention, the two countries had been embroiled in a tit-for-tat spat over a number of issues, including Australia’s push for a global investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus.

Experts fear that a number of recent arrests of foreigners by Chinese authorities are examples of “hostage diplomacy”. Authorities have still not disclosed the reason for Cheng’s arrest.

Peter Greste, spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, said the treatment of Birtles and Smith appeared to be harassment to make a political point.

“Journalists should never be used as political pawns and hostages,” said Greste, who was detained in Egypt as a journalist for Al Jazeera between 2013 and 2015.

“Without Australian journalists operating freely in China, the Australian public has no independent eyes or ears reporting events inside our most important trading partner. That is bad for both Australia and China.”

Marcus Strom, president of Australia’s media union, the MEAA, said the midnight visits to the two correspondents were “appalling”.

“China’s continued intimidation and harassment of foreign journalists, including Australians, represents a dramatic low point for the foreign media’s relations with China,” he said.

Will Glasgow, The Australian’s China correspondent, is currently in Australia. On Tuesday, he tweeted a news report about Birtles and Smith, writing: “So here’s why I didn’t board my China Southern flight to Guangzhou last Sunday. First Cheng Lei, now this.”

The Australian said it had been advised by DFAT not to send Glasgow back to Beijing.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the government had “provided consular support to two Australian journalists in China to assist their return to Australia”.

“Those Australians have now arrived in Australia,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“Our current travel advice for China, which was updated on July 7, remains appropriate and unchanged. We encourage all Australians who are overseas, or are seeking to travel, to closely monitor 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 comment owing to privacy obligations.”

On Monday, China’s foreign ministry defended its treatment of journalists when asked about separate tit-for-tat treatment with US correspondents.

Journalists from several US outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, were expelled from the country earlier this year, while this week it was revealed visa renewals were being delayed or refused.

Beijing has attributed the actions to Washington’s moves against Chinese journalists in the US, including shortening or restricting press visas.