Australia’s last two correspondents in China were evacuated for fear that they would be arbitrarily detained, amid diplomatic tensions between the two countries and after the recent arrest of an Australian journalist in the Asian country, official sources confirmed.
Journalist Bill Birtles, a Beijing correspondent for the public broadcaster ABC, and Michael Smith, who worked in Shanghai for the Australian Financial Review newspaper, were questioned separately by members of the security forces of the Chinese Interior Ministry.
Return to your country
Birtles had spent four days sheltering in the Australian Embassy in Beijingwhile Smith sought the protection of the Australian consulate in Shanghai, after Chinese authorities visited their homes for “national security” reasons, details of which were not provided.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed that her diplomats in Beijing and Shanghai negotiated with the chinese authorities to authorize the return of both journalists to their country. “These Australians are currently in Australia,” Payne said in a statement.
According to the Australian Financial Review, the journalists are being investigated in China in connection with the arrest last month of the Sino-Australian journalist Cheng Lei in the Asian country.
The saga began last Wednesday when seven agents of the Chinese police They went to Birtles’ flat in Beijing, while he was celebrating a farewell party with his friends and colleagues, as he planned to leave the country the next day, according to the recommendations of the Australian authorities.
The Chinese agents warned Birtle that he would not be able to leave the country and informed him that they would contact him the next day to be questioned about a case of “National security”, without giving more details.
Subjected to questioning
Birtle, who was taken in a diplomatic vehicle to the Australian Embassy in Beijing, was questioned by Chinese authorities last Sunday in the presence of the australian ambassador Graham Fletcher.
For his part, the correspondent of Australian Financial Review, Michael Smith was questioned on Monday night, after being taken in by his country’s consulate in Shanghai.
Following diplomatic negotiations, the journalists were evacuated to Sydney, where both are in mandatory quarantine by the COVID-19. Minister Payne stressed that the Canberra Executive continues to provide consular assistance to detained citizens in China, including Cheng Lei.
Climate of tensions
The Chinese authorities detain Cheng Lei, who has worked for the Chinese English channel CGNT for eight years, in a guarded housing whose location is unknown, which has allowed them to isolate her and subject her to interrogations for six months.
The journalist’s case once again tests the ties between Australia with China, a country that has a long history of arrests of dissidents, some of them while residing abroad, who are later charged with different crimes.