Australian journalists flown out of China ‘amid diplomatic standoff’

Two Australian news outlets have removed their reporters from China over what they say is a diplomatic standoff.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith landed in Sydney on Tuesday.

Chinese authorities questioned both men before their departure. The ABC reported Birtles was “not asked about his reporting or conduct in China”.

Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said consular officials had provided support to the journalists.

“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.

The AFR reported that Chinese authorities had questioned the journalists about Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist for Chinese state media who has been detained since last month.

The ABC reported that Australian diplomats advised Birtles and ABC management last week that he should leave China. He was then booked on a flight due to leave Beijing last Thursday.

But the situation escalated last Wednesday at midnight when seven Chinese police officers visited the reporter’s apartment as he held farewell drinks with friends, the ABC reported.
The officers told Birtles he could not leave the country and would later be questioned over a “national security case”, the report said.

He immediately contacted Australian consular officials, who collected him and took him to the Australian embassy, where he spent the next four days.

During that time, he was interviewed by Chinese police in the presence of Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.

Smith, who is based in Shanghai, also received a visit by police – prompting him to go to the Australian consulate there. Both men were questioned over Ms Lei, the AFR reported.
They were allowed to leave the country in exchange for agreeing to be interviewed by police. (Courtesy BBC)