Australian Journalists Flee China Amid Foreign Media Crackdown

Following threatening behavior from Chinese security offices, two Australian journalists have left China. Bill Birtles of Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Michael Smith of The Australian Financial Review both received simultaneous visits from security officers at their homes in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, last week, and later went under Australian consular protection until they departed Tuesday. Matthew Doran and Stephen Dziedzic report for ABC News:

Bill Birtles, the ABC’s correspondent based in Beijing, and Mike Smith, the AFR’s correspondent based in Shanghai, boarded a flight to Sydney last night after the pair were questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State Security.

Birtles had spent four days sheltering in Australia’s embassy in Beijing, while Smith took refuge in Australia’s Shanghai consulate as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to safely leave the country.

The saga began early last week, when Australian diplomats in Beijing cautioned Birtles that he should leave China, with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade giving the same advice to ABC’s managing director David Anderson in Sydney.

Subsequent advice prompted the ABC to organise flights back to Australia for Birtles. He was due to depart last Thursday morning. [Source]

Both men were questioned about Australian Cheng Lei, a reporter for the official Chinese overseas broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN), who was recently detained. From Damien Cave and Chris Buckley of The New York Times:

Their exit, which occurred after negotiations between Australian and Chinese diplomats that led China to revoke a ban on their departure, added another conflict to the deteriorating relations between the two nations. It also highlighted Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed tactics to limit independent journalism in the country.

“Their rushed departure from China marks a new low in a relationship which had already seemed to have reached rock bottom,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, and a former China correspondent.

[…] The Australian Financial Review reported that Chinese investigators sought to question Mr. Birtles and Mr. Smith about Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian business news anchor for China’s CGTN television service who was detained in August.

Both men reported extensively on the case, including the detail that Ms. Cheng was being held under “residential surveillance,” a sweeping detention power that can keep people in custody for up to six months, denied visits by relatives or lawyers.

On Tuesday, hours after the two journalists had returned to Australia, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed for the first time that Ms. Cheng was under investigation for national security crimes, a broad category that can include espionage, illegally obtaining state secrets or subverting Communist Party power. [Source]

Birtles and Smith wrote personal accounts of their departures upon their arrival in Sydney, in which both denied any close connection to Cheng. From Birtles piece for ABC:

Eventually they arranged for a night-time interview at a mid-range hotel in Sanlitun — a buzzing nightlife district not far from my apartment.

I wasn’t going there alone — there were arrangements in place — but the police wouldn’t permit anyone else I was with to go beyond the lobby.

[…] Then the interview turned to the case which I’m supposedly involved in — the national security investigation of Ms Cheng.

She is someone I know, but not particularly well. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person you would interrogate about her.

I suggested to the interrogators that this discussion was related to the Australia-China relationship, and I was asked my opinion on the current state of ties. [Source]

Cheng’s detention marked an escalation in the deteriorating relations between Australia and China. On Tuesday afternoon, the Foreign Ministry announced that she had been detained on suspicion of endangering national security, though gave no further details. Birtles and Smith were the last two Australian journalists officially accredited in China. The Australian’s China correspondent Will Glasgow cancelled a planned return to China following the departure of his compatriots and the detention of Cheng Lei.

Overall, the environment for foreign journalists in China has been steadily deteriorating in recent years, and the Chinese government has expelled or failed to renew the visas of several this year. According to the Club of China, 17 foreign journalists were expelled just in the first half of this year:

The crackdown on foreign journalists comes as several countries, notably the U.S., increasingly restrict the actions of Chinese state media operating overseas. The official Global Times reported that Chinese journalists working in Australia had their homes raided in June, though there is little other information available about this incident.


The U.S. earlier put a visa cap on on employees of Chinese state media, after it had ordered two state media, Xinhua News Agency and CGTN, to register as foreign agents. Soon after the visa cap was announced, the Chinese government expelled 13 American journalists. Last week, the Chinese government announced it would stop renewing credentials for foreign journalists working for American publications if the U.S. proceeds with expelling Chinese state media workers now in the country. Edward Wong reports for The New York Times:

The actions and threats raise the stakes in the continuing cycles of retribution between Washington and Beijing over news media organizations. Those rounds of retaliation are a prominent element of a much broader downward spiral in U.S.-China relations, one that involves mutually hostile policies and actions over trade, technology, education, diplomatic missions, Taiwan and military presence in Asia.

American news organizations immediately affected by China’s latest actions are CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and Getty Images. Journalists from all four organizations tried to renew press cards with the Foreign Ministry in the past week, but were told the cards, which are usually good for one year, could not be renewed. In total, at least five journalists in the four organizations have been affected so far.

One journalist said Foreign Ministry officials told him that his fate depended on whether the United States decided in the fall to renew the visas of Chinese journalists working in America who are under new visa regulations imposed by the Department of Homeland Security in May. Other journalists have received similar messages. [Source]

Foreign reporters still operating in China can face official interference in the course of their reporting. While covering ongoing protests in Inner Mongolia last week, a Los Angeles Times’ reporter was briefly detained:

A Times reporter who visited the Mongol school in Hohhot was surrounded by plainclothes men who put her into a police car. They took her to the back building of a police station, where she was interrogated and separated from her belongings despite identifying herself as an accredited journalist. She was not allowed to call the U.S. Embassy; one officer grabbed her throat with both hands and pushed her into a cell.

The reporter was detained for more than four hours. She was then forced to leave the region, with three government officials and a policeman accompanying her to a train and standing at the window until the train left for Beijing. [Source]

In a statement, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the treatment of Chinese journalists in such an environment:

But for Chinese journalists and activists, there is no foreign embassy to come to their rescue. Journalists and bloggers in China take enormous risks to investigate and report on stories that the China government deems to be sensitive. In February, citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin were forcibly disappeared in Wuhan for reporting independently on the Covid-19 pandemic. They haven’t been heard from since. [Source]


Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, mentioned in the HRW statement, were among several Chinese citizen journalists detained for reporting on the initial coronavirus outbreak.

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