Australia says Cheng Lei has been held since mid-August and China has not explained why.
Two of Australia’s leading foreign correspondents in China have flown home for their own safety after they were questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State Security, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on Tuesday.
The China correspondents for the ABC and the Australian Financial Review (AFR) sought shelter in Australia’s embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave the country, the ABC and the AFR reported.
The two journalists – ABC’s Bill Birtles, who was based in Beijing, and AFR’s Michael Smith, who was in Shanghai – had been banned from leaving China until they answered questions about detained Australian citizen and television anchor Cheng Lei, AFR said in a report.
Reports said that just after midnight on Thursday, seven officers simultaneously visited the homes of both journalists, where they were told of the ban on them leaving China.
Both journalists were told they were “persons of interest” in an investigation into Cheng, a high-profile business anchor on Chinese state television, who has been detained without charges by authorities, the AFR report said.
The journalists flew out of China on Monday night and arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning following what public broadcaster the ABC called an “extraordinary diplomatic standoff”.
Birtles told reporters at Sydney airport it was very disappointing to have to leave China under “those circumstances”.
“But this was a whirlwind and it was not a particularly good experience,” he said.
The ABC said it brought Birtles back to Australia following advice from the Australian government.
The AFR said in a statement that the two journalists were “going about their normal reporting duties”.
This is chilling (massive understatement): top-notch Australian journalists Bill Birtles and Mike Smith have been rushed out of China amid a diplomatic row.
They’d spent the previous four/five days sheltering in the Australian embassy/consulate. https://t.co/q7GpbI5XPK
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) September 8, 2020
It added that the incident was “regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China”.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Birtles and Smith were the last journalists working for Australian media organisations in China. The last time that this happened was in the 1970s, the report noted.
In a statement, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed that Canberra provided diplomatic support to bring Birtles and Smith back to Australia.
It also said that the Australian government “continues to provide consular support to Australian citizens detained in China, including Ms Cheng Lei.”
Relations between Australia and China have soured this year in the wake of Canberra’s calls for an independent international investigation into the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
Australia has also expressed its opposition to the national security law that China imposed on Hong Kong.
Beijing was angered by those moves and has since blocked Australian beef imports, placed dumping tariffs on Australian barley, and launched an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine.