Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 7 September 2020


Australia’s Last Two Reporters in China Flee Amid Tensions

Updated on 
  • Pair fly out of Shanghai after Australian diplomats’ warning
  • Beijing has also delayed some U.S. journalists credentials

Two Australian journalists based in China have fled the country as diplomatic relations between the trading partners worsen.

“The Australian government has provided consular support to two Australian journalists in China to assist their return,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement Tuesday. “Our embassy in Beijing and consulate-general in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return.”

The journalists were the last accredited reporters for Australian media based in mainland China. Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Beijing correspondent, and Mike Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s Shanghai correspondent, were rushed out of the country after police demanded interviews with them, the ABC reported.

There are still other Australian citizens working as journalists in China for American, British and other media companies.

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Their departure from China comes a week after Australia revealed Chinese-born Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen who worked for eight years as an anchor at a government-run English-language news channel, had been detained by authorities.

“The Australian government continues to provide consular support to Australian citizens detained in China, including Ms. Cheng Lei,” Payne said in Tuesday’s statement.

Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner has worsened since Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government called in April for independent investigators to be allowed into Wuhan’s wet markets to probe for the source of the pandemic. China has subsequently placed tariffs, started import probes and sanctioned some Australian food imports.

In response to the Trump administration limiting visa terms for Chinese reporters in the U.S., Beijing authorities have delayed renewing the press credentials of some journalists working for American media outlets, including Bloomberg News, CNN and the Wall Street Journal.

Those journalists in Beijing were told their residence permits will at this stage be extended until Nov. 6, which appears to coincide with the date when the 90-day visas given to Chinese press in the U.S. will need to be renewed.

The ABC reported that Birtles had been cautioned by Australian diplomats about a week ago that he should leave China. He was given a travel ban that was lifted after being interviewed by Chinese authorities.

A separate interview with Smith was conducted by authorities on Monday; the pair flew out of Shanghai for Sydney Monday night.

Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster, the ABC, opened its Beijing bureau in 1973 after the countries normalized relations. Other Australians have had their requests for journalist visas refused in recent months.

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