Two foreign correspondents from Australian media organisations, namely the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Australian Financial Review (AFR), were rushed out of China over increasing security concerns. The two journalists, ABC’s Bill Burtles and AFR’s Michael Smith were correspondents operating out of China and were questioned by the country’s Ministry of State Security, according to a statement released by their respective media organisations. They were called in for questioning as plausible “persons of interest” in an ongoing investigation about detained Australian citizen and Chinese state television anchor Cheng Lei. The journalists sought shelter in the Australian embassy in Beijing. The consulate in Shanghai also held diplomatic negotiations with Chinese officials to allow them to leave the country.
Arriving in Sydney airport on Tuesday morning, Birtles told reporters that “ this was a whirlwind and it was not a particularly good experience.” He took to social media to state that it was “deeply disappointing to leave China under such abrupt circumstances. It’s been a big part of my life and the past week was surreal.”
The Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed in an official statement that the Australian embassy in Beijing as well as the consulate-general in Shanghai “engaged with Chinese Government authorities to ensure their (journalists) wellbeing and return to Australia”. AFR in a statement said, “this incident targeting two journalists, who were going about their normal reporting duties, is both regrettable and disturbing.”
This incident rises in the backdrop of growing tensions in the diplomatic relations between the two countries over trade reprisals and international inquiry probed by Australia into the source of the coronavirus pandemic.