For the first time in almost 50 years, Australia’s media outlets are leaving without any journalists working in China.
For example, when the Brittles visited his residence, he was told that he had been banned from leaving the country and that he would be summoned the next day to inquire into the “national security case,” adding that the Brittles were offering farewell drinks. The broadcaster did not say what Brittles questioned.
Both journalists took refuge in Australian diplomatic missions in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, while Canberra negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave the country. The clash lasted five days before travel bans were lifted, and they were able to fly back to Sydney.
CNN Business has approached the Chinese Foreign Ministry about the case, but no response has been received so far.
In a statement, Australian Foreign Minister Marice Payne said, “The government has provided consular support to two Australian journalists in China to return to Australia.”
ABC told Brittles on Tuesday that “it’s very frustrating to have to leave that situation.”
“It is a relief to be back in a country with real legal rule,” he added. “It was a hurricane and not a particularly good experience.”
Speaking to CNN Business from Isolation in Australia, Smith said he and Birtles’ apartment visits felt “very political”.
“These are some of the most tense days,” he said of the time he spent inside the Australian consulate in Shanghai. He added that he and Birdles were allowed to leave China on the condition that they be allowed to interview themselves by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding Cheng Lee.
Relations between Australia and China have been strained in recent months after Canberra called for an inquiry into the origin of the corona virus infection. Since then countries have been involved in dot-for-dot trade restrictions.
The departure of Brittles and Smith is significant for Australia’s media: the ABC reports that journalists are no longer employed by the Australian media on China’s mainland. It has not happened since 1972, when Canberra normalized relations with Beijing.
Although there are still a few Australian journalists working in China, all are employed by non-Australian media companies.
Another news agency, The Australian, reported on Tuesday that Canberra had advised China’s reporter Will Glasgow to be deported. Glasgow is currently in Australia, but was scheduled to fly to Guangzhou last Sunday, he said on Twitter.
Trevor Watson, who was an ABC correspondent in Beijing from 1988 to 1990, told CNN Business that there has been a significant change in how the Chinese government views Australian journalists.
When Watson worked in the country, he covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, saying “there was recognition that the ABC and Australian journalists acted independently of their government.”
That has changed dramatically now, he said.
“They’re really lucky to be out,” he said of Bertils and Smith. “Being a regular visitor to China since 1979, I think it will be a very long time until I return.”
Smith told CNN Business that it was “very sad” to be forced to leave China.
“Being a foreign correspondent in China has become harder and harder,” he added. “It’s very difficult for people to talk to you. It’s becoming very dictatorial. I think it’s dangerous. It really illustrates it.”
Prior to the incident, he said he had largely ruled out any danger to Australians in China.
“If they are going to ban journalists from leaving, you have no idea what they are prepared to do to a prominent businessman or anyone else who is in trouble,” he said.
Journalists in China
Earlier this year, the Beijing effectively expelled about a dozen journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, after the Trump administration closed the number of Chinese nationals allowed to work in the US offices of the state-run media in China.
Since then, Washington has named a growing number of Chinese state-run news agencies’ U.S. offices “overseas”, requiring them to file documents with U.S. officials about their finances and staff. Beijing has backtracked by demanding several U.S. sales outlets in China.
China’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club said, “In the first half of 2020 alone, China expelled 17 foreign journalists by canceling press credentials.”
“At least 12 more foreign correspondents in China have received convicted short-term visas, sometimes for less than 1 month, compared to standard annual visas,” the organization added. “This comes in addition to harassment and surveillance of foreign journalists, including physical assault and cyber attacks.”
– Angus Watson, Steven Jiang and Chandler Thornton contributed to this report.