Australian journalists evacuated from China after five-day diplomatic standoff

Hong Kong / Sydney (CNN Business)Two Australian journalists working in China have left the country after they were questioned by police and forced to seek the protection of their country’s government, their news organizations said Tuesday.

The diplomatic standoff began when the two men — Bill Birtles, Beijing correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Mike Smith, Shanghai correspondent for the Australian Financial Review (AFR) — were told they were “persons of interest in an investigation” into Cheng Lei, an Australian anchor for state broadcaster CGTN, according to the AFR. The Australian government said last week that Cheng had been detained by police in China, though she has yet to be charged with anything and Chinese authorities have not revealed what she is being investigated for.
The Australian government had already warned the ABC to remove its staff from China before the men were questioned by police, according to the broadcaster.
The ABC added that Birtles, for example, was hosting farewell drinks when the police visited his apartment and told him he was banned from leaving the country, and that he would be called in the following day for questioning over a “national security case.” The broadcaster did not say what Birtles was questioned about.
    Both journalists then sought refuge in Australian diplomatic missions in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, while Canberra negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave the country. The standoff lasted five days before the travel bans were rescinded and they were able to fly back to Sydney.
    CNN Business has reached out to the Chinese foreign ministry about the case, but has yet to receive any response.
    Australian foreign affairs minister Marise Payne said in a statement that the government “provided consular support to two Australian journalists in China to assist their return to Australia.”
    Birtles said on the ABC Tuesday that it was “very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances.”
    “It’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” he added. “This was a whirlwind and not particularly good experience.”
    The AFR quoted Smith as saying it was “great to be back home safely after a difficult five days.”
    “The late night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now,” he added.
    The departure of the two men is believed to mark the first time in several decades that there are no accredited Australian media journalists in China.
    The Australian newspaper said Tuesday that it had been advised by Canberra against sending its China correspondent, Will Glasgow, back to the country. Glasgow is currently in Australia but had been due to fly to Guangzhou last Sunday, before the advice was received, he said on Twitter.
    Tensions between China and Australia have been rising for months. After Australia called for a investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing targeted it over trade, suspending some imports of beef and slapping heavy tariffs on barley.
      The government already advises Australians that they may be “at risk of arbitrary detention” in China. Payne said her her statement that the travel advice, which was last updated July 7, remains unchanged.
      This is a developing story.

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