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Australia flies 2 journalists out of China

Two Australian foreign correspondents were flown out of China for their safety, helped by Australian consular officials after being questioned by China’s state security ministry, the Australian Government said on Tuesday.

The correspondents for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Australian Financial Review (AFR) sought shelter in the embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave the country, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.

Negotiations over the two journalists, ABC’s Bill Birtles and AFR’s Michael Smith, reached the highest level of the Australian Government.

The Chinese police entered the residents of the two men, who lived in Shanghai and Beijing, after midnight last Wednesday and told them they were barred from leaving China.

“We were concerned it was a coordinated move. That indicates to us it was political. We were the only two journalists left in China working for Australian media,” Smith said in a telephonic interview.

“It felt very, very political. It very much felt like a diplomatic tussle in the broader Australia-China relationship,” Birtles said on Tuesday.

The Australian Government had earlier warned the two men to leave China, as tension escalated over the detention of another Australian citizen — Chinese state television anchor Cheng Lei.

Cheng was detained on suspicion of criminal activities endangering national security, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The police, however, arrived before the men could catch flights booked for Thursday.

“At 12.30 am, I was woken by a huge pounding on my front door,” Smith recalled.

He said seven police officers entered his house, surrounded him and shot his video as they read out a statement designating him a person of interest in a national security investigation.

“They put a spotlight on my face. It was intimidating. I was getting quite scared,” he said.