Australian Broadcasting Corp. journalist Bill Birtles walks into a hotel for quarantine in Sydney, Australia, Sept. 8.
Australian Broadcasting Corp. journalist Bill Birtles walks into a hotel for quarantine in Sydney, Australia, Sept. 8, 2020.

SYDNEY - Two Australian media outlets have flown their reporters out of China over what they say was a diplomatic standoff - the latest tense episode as relations between Beijing and Australia continue to deteriorate.

Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, China correspondents for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, were forced to shelter in Australia’s embassy in Beijing and its consulate in Shanghai. 

‘Persons of interest’  
 
The journalists were told they were “persons of interest” in an investigation into a Chinese-born Australian news anchor who has been detained in Beijing.   Cheng Lei, a high-profile business presenter on Chinese state television, was taken last month into custody, where she remains.  

According to news reports, Birtles and Smith had been banned from leaving China until they answered questions about Cheng’s case.  Both men were questioned before being allowed to fly home, where they spoke briefly to reporters at Sydney airport.    

“It is very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances and it is a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” Birtles said. “But this was a whirlwind and it is not a particularly good experience.”  

In this image made from a video, The Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith speaks to the media on his arrival at Sydney airport, Australia, Sept. 8, 2020.

“It is so good to be home, so happy,” Smith told reporters at the airport. “I cannot say anymore at the moment, but it is such a relief to be home.  So, really happy.” 

Asked if he felt threatened while he was in China, Smith replied:  

“A little bit.  Yes.  It was a complicated experience.” 

‘Regrettable and disturbing’  
 
In a statement, the Australian Financial Review said the “targeting” of two journalists was “both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China.” 

Diplomatic relations have soured in recent times over allegations of cyber espionage by China and its interference in Australian politics.  Beijing has rejected the allegations as “nothing but lies.”  It has imposed tariffs on Australian barley and beef and is conducting an anti-dumping inquiry into Australian wine.  Analysts believe that trade is being used to exert pressure on Canberra. 

Australia has much to lose if relations continue to worsen.  China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and its demand for iron ore and coal has underpinned Australia’s recent prosperity. 

The repatriation of the two journalists will add to the mistrust between the countries.  Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne said it was a “disappointing series of events.”