Australian Consulate Safely Evacuates Journalists Despite Chinese Warning

Australian consulate in Shanghai safely returned two Australian media correspondents, Bill Birtles from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review (AFR), to their home country on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. The two foreign correspondents had been taking shelter in Australia’s embassy in Beijing after they were being questioned by the Chinese government in a linked with a national security probe.

As claimed by local media sources, both the journalists were considered to be “persons of interest” in an investigation related to the detention of a Chinese born Australian citizen, television anchor Ms. Cheng Lei in August. Lei was an anchor of an English-language channel of a state-run channel, China Global Television Network (CGTN); as Australian officials claimed that she was arrested by the Chinese government on a charge of spying and being detained in an unknown place.  

Over a few recent months, the relationship between Beijing and Canberra has become sour due to several political and economic issues that resulted in the imposition of trade tariffs against each other exports and targeted some major companies as well as products. Experts suspected that the recent move of the Chinese government might have a connection with the prevailing disputes between the two countries.

Return to Australia

Birtles and Smith reached Sydney Airport on Tuesday morning with the aid of Australian embassy officials in China despite the ban imposed on them by the Chinese government. Australian diplomats started negotiation talks with Chinese officials for the safety of the two journalists after Birtles was questioned and warned by Chinese police officers on September 2. The police told him not to leave the country until he could answer questions about a “national security case”.

Speaking to reporters at the airport, Smith exclaimed that it was “such a relief to be home” while Birtles told, “This was a whirlwind and it was not a particularly good experience”. Birtles wrote on Twitter, it was “deeply disappointing to leave China under such abrupt circumstances. It’s been a big part of my life & the past week was surreal.”

In July, Australia had warned its citizens that traveling China could be at risk of arbitrary detention due to the growing tensions between the two countries. Moreover, the ABC reported that Australian diplomats had warned Birtles last week that he should leave China. With this development, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said this advice “remains appropriate and unchanged”.

China-Australia Relationship

Terming the recent move of China as “deeply regrettable,” Penny Wong, foreign affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Labor party, said the departure of the two journalists meant that there was no Australian media correspondent in China for the first time since the 1970s.

The diplomatic relationship between the two countries is getting worse over recent years. In 2018, the Australian government banned Chinese tech giant, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. from bidding tender for its 5G network on the security concerns. Moreover, Australia led a call for an international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic in April. As a result of the further escalation of tensions, China threatened to retaliate with trade tariffs on Australian exports of beef, wine, and barley products.

Meanwhile, Australian officials have denied a claim made by a journalist on Tuesday that Ms. Cheng was being “used as a pawn by China to get back at Australia”. Rejecting the statement, Payne explained, “I would not describe it in that way,” adding that, “It is speculative at best to engage on that sort of premise. Our job is to ensure we are providing her with support.” According to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China, China expelled a record of 17 foreign journalists by canceling their press credentials in the first half of 2020.