Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 8 September 2020



'I feared being disappeared': Inside my escape from China

Welcome to life in Xi Jinping’s China. Where the authorities can enter your home in the middle of the night to intimidate and harass you when you are not even suspected of a crime.

China correspondent Michael Smith was swept up in a dramatic international incident.

Sydney | It was well after midnight when officers from China's intelligence, security and secret police agency came knocking at my door.

The heavy pounding woke me from a deep sleep and I raced downstairs thinking it must be a friend or neighbour in trouble.

Instead, six uniformed officers from the Ministry of State Security and a translator were squeezed on my front porch. The man at the front showed me his badge, asked my name and demanded to come inside.

They ushered me into my lounge room where I sat on the couch dressed in my boxer shorts surrounded by these unwelcome visitors. One officer filmed me on a large camera that would have looked more at home in a television studio. A spotlight shone in my eyes.

Michael Smith (and dog Huey) outside his compound in Shanghai.

While I could not make out every word in the three-page statement that was being read to me in Chinese and translated robotically back to me in English, the general gist was that I was a person of interest in a case and I would not be allowed to leave China until I answered questions relating to the investigation.

Their midnight visit followed a rollercoaster four days. I had decided to abruptly leave China, on advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade triggered by the detention of Australian journalist Cheng Lei in Beijing. My bags were packed and I was due to board a flight to Sydney the following evening.

It turned out the Australian government's advice was spot on. As the officer read from a document outlining China's national security laws I wondered if, like Cheng, I was about to be "disappeared" to one of China's notorious black jails.

When the 10-minute performance was over, the officers asked me for my phone number and told me to sign the statement they had just read out. I had to confirm my signature with a thumbprint.

They suddenly turned and left the room. Relieved I was not going to be hauled off to a detention centre, I followed them outside and asked for clarification. What exactly had just happened? What did they want? Can I have a copy of the document? My requests were gruffly denied and they walked off into the night. My elderly neighbours were outside watching. They looked frightened.

Like a scene from a spy movie

Welcome to life in Xi Jinping’s China. Where the authorities can enter your home in the middle of the night to intimidate and harass you when you are not even suspected of a crime. A land of forced television confessions and six months or more in prison before you have access to a lawyer.

There were two astonishing features about the incident. While foreign journalists are often expelled from China, this was is the first time they have been banned from leaving.

AFR journalist Mike Smith with ABC journalist Bill Birtles as they prepared to leave China on Monday night.

'Do not travel to China': Payne warns of arbitrary detention

Secondly, the incident was coordinated with an identical visit to the apartment of the ABC’s China correspondent Bill Birtles in Beijing. Seven people also turned up at his door.

We were the only two journalists working for Australian media outlets in China at the time. The move was clearly political.

We both informed the Australian Embassy in Beijing.

Not surprisingly, I hardly slept that night.

I went into the Shanghai consulate’s office – a high-rise office tower five minutes' drive from my home – the first thing the next morning. Bill was escorted to the Australian embassy.

After a series of meetings, it was agreed that we needed consular protection.

I was driven home in a consular van sporting black number plates that are supposed to provide some degree of diplomatic immunity if, for example, security officials wanted to haul me out of the car.

It was like a scene from a spy movie as the van drove into the narrow laneway where I live and work. I was told to stay in the car for my safety while a diplomat raced inside to collect my bags, which were luckily packed the night before.

While we were waiting with the engine running, a suspicious-looking man wearing a mask was walking up and down the lane pretending to be on his phone. He was clearly keeping an eye on us.

My staff watched with shock and confusion. I waved at them from the back of the van as we drove off knowing this was probably the last time I would ever see them. What a farewell.

I spent the next five days in a secure location, where Shanghai consulate staff did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. There was clearly work going on behind the scenes but it was unclear if any progress was being made.

I consulted a lawyer. I worried about when I should tell my parents. I could only tell a handful of people about my situation due to the need for absolute secrecy in case the news leaked and made our situation more complicated.

After years of complaining about DFAT's secrecy, I was now embracing the need to keep this news from other journalists in order to protect our safety.

"Is it too early to make Julian Assange jokes?" one friend quipped, referring to the WikiLeaks founder who spent almost seven years in the Embassy of Ecuador in London. It was.

A second piece of theatre

There was a breakthrough several days later when DFAT and the Ministry of State Security agreed on an arrangement that meant Bill Birtles and myself could leave the country on the condition we submitted to an interview. It was a risky move, as it required us to trust the Chinese authorities, but there was some comfort that the commitment came at a high level. There was also no other alternative.

My interview took place on the 31st floor of the Kerry Hotel, a nondescript high-rise hotel in Shanghai's Pudong area on Monday afternoon. I was escorted there by an Australian consular official but he was not allowed to join the meeting.

Two of my "friends" from Wednesday night met me in the foyer and took me to a room where there were two other officers. As I entered the dimly-lit corridor I wondered briefly if I was ever coming out again.

But the one-hour interview was unremarkable. They politely asked me stock-standard questions about my time in China, the kind of stories I covered, who I spoke to and my relationships with other journalists. They asked me if I knew Ms Cheng. My intel must have been disappointing given we have never spoken.

At the end of this second piece of theatre, I was free to go.

The final dash for freedom was a consular escort to the airport, where I met Bill and a contingent of Australian diplomats. The exit ban was not lifted until my interview was complete, just hours before our flight.

Safe in Sydney hotel quarantine.

The moment of truth was clearing Customs. The thunk of the immigration officer's stamp was the sweetest sound I had heard for a while. We were escorted by consular staff all the way to the gate.

Despite my relief when the aircraft lifted off, it was a disappointing end to almost three years in China. I never got to farewell my friends, finish stories I had been working on or check off the ever-growing bucket list of locations to visit.

Another exercise in intimidation?

The events of the past week raise more questions than they answer.

We still do not know why the Chinese authorities have detained Ms Cheng or why they took unprecedented action against two Australian journalists.

Usually, correspondents in China are targeted because they have written a particular story that troubles the Communist Party. This was not the case.

AFR journalist Mike Smith with ABC journalist Bill Birtles as they prepared to leave China on Monday night.

Long road ahead for Australian journalist held in China

One theory is it was just another exercise designed to try to intimidate the Australian government at a time when it is standing up to Beijing. In the end, someone important enough was convinced the diplomatic fallout from not allowing us to leave the country was not worth it.

It is also the first time since the 1970s that Australia has not had correspondents in China, a country that is notoriously difficult to understand if you are not there on the ground. China is also expelling many American journalists, something that does it a disservice as the narrative from outside the country is now largely negative.

As my plane descended over a sunny Sydney harbour on Tuesday morning, I couldn't help thinking the city had never looked so good. The irony now is that I am in another form of detention – 14 days hotel quarantine – but the alternative back in China could have been a lot worse.

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