Australian journalists flee China amid diplomatic stand-off

Australia’s last two journalists working in China had to run back home after a five-day diplomatic stand-off between the countries.

Bill Birtles, working for the ABC News in Australia, and Mike Smith, working for Australia’s Financial Review, had to come back home from China after advisories issued by the Australian diplomats.

Why did they have to leave?

According to the reports by BBC, Birtles was alerted of the same last Monday and was supposed to come back to Australia on Thursday. Instead, he was visited by the Chinese police on Wednesday night and was not allowed to leave the country because of a national security investigation.

Birtles then had to spend the next four days in the Australian embassy. The Chinese police then interviewed him in the presence of Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.

The talk about Cheng Lei was in the interview, an Australian journalist who was detained last month on suspicion of criminal activity endangering China’s national security. Furthermore, the journalist was also questioned about the sources he used to report Hong Kong’s national security and Australia’s relationship with China.

On the other hand, Shanghai, China-based Smith, underwent a similar trial and was questioned about Lei as well. The pair were allowed to go home after their interviews. More about Smith’s experience in China can be found in his article on The Financial Review.

With Smith and Birtles back in Australia on Tuesday, this is the first time since the ’70s that no accredited Australian journalists are working in China, according to Shaimaa Khalil, an Australian Correspondent.

Australia-China relationship

The relationship between Australia and China has not been great over the last few years. It deteriorated when Canberra backed an international query into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Foreign Correspondents’ club reported on Monday that a record-breaking 17 journalists were shut from the country in the first half of 2020.

Both countries have relied on each other heavily for trade, but in the past few years, the ties have strained because of the brawl.

The Australian government had previously issued a warning to prospective tourists planning to visit China that they may face “arbitrary detention”; the notice is still in place.

In retaliation, China has imposed restrictions on Australian exports for commodities such as beef, barley, and wine. It has also warned Chinese students and prospective tourists about racism in Australia.

The said development is not only an important one for the relations of Australia and China, but it also means that Australia would not be able to do any further ground-reporting of this and the Cheng Lei issue.

Image courtesy of esfera/Shutterstock

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