• The Star Staff

Fearing detention, two Australian correspondents flee China

By Damien Cave and Chris Buckley

Two Australian journalists have rushed out of China after a five-day diplomatic standoff that began when Chinese state security officers paid them unannounced visits, prompting fears that they would be detained.

The journalists — Michael Smith, the China correspondent for The Australian Financial Review, and Bill Birtles, a correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. — arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning after their organizations hastily arranged flights. They were the last two correspondents working in China for Australian news outlets.

Their exit, which occurred after negotiations between Australian and Chinese diplomats that led China to revoke a ban on their departure, added another conflict to the deteriorating relations between the two nations. It also highlighted Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed tactics to limit independent journalism in the country.

“Their rushed departure from China marks a new low in a relationship which had already seemed to have reached rock bottom,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, and a former China correspondent for The Financial Times and The Australian.

“Other countries grappling with China should take note,” he added. “If their bilateral relationship deteriorates, then their own nationals will be in the firing line, as well.”

For Smith and Birtles, the sense of vulnerability — and the departure process — accelerated with visits from Chinese state security last week. Seven officers, nearly all in uniform, called on each of them at the same time: after midnight Thursday at the homes of Smith in Shanghai and Birtles in Beijing.

The Australian Financial Review reported that Chinese investigators sought to question Birtles and Smith about Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian business news anchor for China’s CGTN television service who was detained in August.

Both men reported extensively on the case, including the detail that Cheng was being held under “residential surveillance,” a sweeping detention power that can keep people in custody for up to six months, denied visits by relatives or lawyers.

On Tuesday, hours after the two journalists had returned to Australia, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed for the first time that Cheng was under investigation for national security crimes, a broad category that can include espionage, illegally obtaining state secrets or subverting Communist Party power.

Smith said there was no good reason to draw him or Birtles into the case other than an attempt at intimidation.

“They really asked me basic questions, like: ‘Do you know her? Have you met her?’ And I’ve only met her once, at a bar in Beijing with a lot of other journalists, and I didn’t actually talk to her,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I didn’t have much to offer them, so it bemuses me as to why I was a target of their investigation when obviously I had no connection with her.”

In an interview posted on YouTube by the ABC, Australia’s main public broadcaster, Birtles said that it appeared that he had become a pawn in a diplomatic tussle.

“It sort of felt to me like the whole episode was about harassment,” he said, adding that “it felt very, very political.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China condemned the authorities’ actions, calling them “appalling intimidatory tactics that threaten and seek to curtail the work of foreign journalists based in China.”

Birtles and Smith had already been warned of rising pressures — Australian diplomats told them early last week that they should consider leaving China. They had both planned to depart Thursday.

Birtles was hosting a farewell dinner when the Chinese officers arrived. Smith was woken up by their arrival.

“They were filming me, there was a spotlight on me, and they read me a statement which was asking me if I understood China’s national security laws,” Smith said.

The officers told them they were barred from leaving the country and asked them to sign a statement saying they understood the message being delivered. They were told they would be contacted the next day to schedule a time to be formally questioned.

Birtles immediately called the Australian Embassy and arranged to be taken there, where he stayed for the next few days. Smith was also placed under diplomatic protection while Chinese officials repeatedly demanded interviews, which both journalists refused, citing fears for their personal safety.

The Australian government eventually secured a commitment from Beijing that they would be free to leave China after a one-hour interview. Birtles was questioned by Chinese authorities Sunday, alongside Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.