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Two Australian Reports Leave China Amid a Diplomatic Standoff

On Tuesday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith reached Sydney, after they were questioned by the Chinese authorities.

According to the ABC, Birtles was “not asked about his reporting or conduct in China”. In recent years, the relations between China and Australia have worsened. According to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, the reporters were assisted by the consular officials. The two individuals were the only reporters from Australia who were present in China.

“Our embassy in Beijing and consulate-general in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return to Australia,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

According to the AFR, both the journalists were questioned about Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist for Chinese state media, who has been detained since last month.

Reportedly, Mr Birtles and the ABC management were advised by the Australian diplomats that the former must return to Australia. Subsequently, he booked a flight from Beijing, for Thursday. However, on Wednesday night, seven Chinese police personnel visited the reporter’s house where he was celebrating his impending departure with some friends.

He was informed that he cannot leave the country and will be questioned regarding a “national security case”, the report said.

He contacted the Australian consular officials immediately, and he was shifted to the Australian embassy, where he stayed for four days. The Chinese police officers interviewed him in the presence of Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.

The Chinese police officers also visited Mr Smith, who is based in Shanghai, following which he too contacted the Australian consulate. They were both questioned about Ms Lei.

They were permitted to leave China after they agreed to be interviewed.

“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances,” Mr Birtles said in Sydney.

“It’s a relief to be back in the country with a genuine rule of law. But this was a whirlwind and it’s not a particularly good experience.”

“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 co-operative relationship between Australia and China,” the AFR’s editors, Michael Stutchbury and Paul Bailey said in a joint statement.

Although both countries rely on each other for trade, their relationship has deteriorated in the past few years, as there were allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society.

This year, when Australia backed an investigation into the source of the coronavirus, the relationship deteriorated further. Almost immediately, Beijing imposed restrictions on exports from Australia, including beef, barley and wine.