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Fearing Detention, Two Australian Correspondents Flee China

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

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

Their exit, which came after negotiations between Australian and Chinese diplomats that led China to revoke a ban on their departure, adds another conflict to the deteriorating relations between the two nations. It also highlights Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed tactics to limit independent journalism within 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 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 Mr. Smith and Mr. Birtles, the sense of vulnerability — and the process of departure — accelerated with visits from the police last week. Seven uniformed officers called on each of them at the same time, after midnight on Thursday morning, at the home of Mr. Smith in Shanghai and of Mr. Birtles in Beijing.

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

Both Mr. Birtles and Mr. Smith reported extensively on the case, including the detail that Ms. 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 family members or lawyers.

The Chinese authorities have not disclosed any accusations against Ms. Cheng, but an investigation of a foreigner working for Chinese state media could draw questions about access to sensitive information and officials.

Mr. Birtles, a longtime correspondent for Australia’s main public broadcaster, had already been warned of rising pressures — Australian diplomats told him early last week that he should leave China, and he had planned to depart on Thursday morning. He was hosting a farewell dinner when the police arrived.

But according to the ABC, the officers with Chinese state security told him that he was banned from leaving, and that he would be contacted the next day to schedule a time to be questioned.

Mr. Birtles immediately called the Australian Embassy and arranged to be taken there, where he stayed for the next few days. Mr. 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. Mr. Birtles was questioned by the Chinese authorities on Sunday, alongside Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher.

“Our embassy in Beijing and consulate-general in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their well-being and return to Australia,” Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said in a statement.

Source: NYT > World News

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