Sydney, Australia, Aug 8 (efe-epa).- The last two correspondents that Australia had in China were flown home from the country last night for fear that they would be detained amid diplomatic tensions between the two countries and after the recent arrest of an Australian journalist in the Asian country, official sources confirmed on Tuesday.
Bill Birtles, a Beijing-based journalist for public broadcaster ABC, and Michael Smith, who worked in Shanghai for the Australian Financial Review, were questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State Security.
Birtles had spent four days sheltering at the Australian embassy in Beijing, while Smith sought the protection of the Australian consulate in Shanghai after Chinese authorities visited their homes for “national security” reasons, details of which were not provided.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed that her diplomats in Beijing and Shanghai negotiated with the Chinese authorities to ensure the journalists’ return to the country.
“Those Australians have now arrived in Australia,” Payne said in a statement.
According to the Australian Financial Review, the journalists are being investigated in China in connection with the arrest last month of Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei.
Last Wednesday at midnight seven Chinese police officers turned up at Birtles’ apartment in Beijing while he was holding a farewell party with his friends and colleagues. He was due to leave China on Thursday morning on advice from the Australian authorities.
Chinese agents warned Birtle that he would not be able to leave the country and informed him that they would contact him the next day for questioning over a “national security case,” without giving further details.
Birtle, who was taken in a diplomatic vehicle to the Australian embassy in Beijing, was questioned by Chinese authorities on Sunday in the presence of Australian Ambassador Graham Fletcher.
Smith was questioned on Monday night, after being taken in by his country’s consulate in Shanghai.
Following diplomatic negotiations, the journalists were flown to Sydney, where both are in mandatory COVID-19 quarantine.
Minister Payne stressed that the Canberra government continues to provide consular assistance to Australian citizens detained in China, including Cheng.
On Aug. 14, the Chinese authorities informed Canberra that they had detained Cheng, a popular television anchor who has worked for the English-language channel CGTN for eight years. She is believed to be under residential surveillance in an unknown location, permitting authorities to interrogate her for six months.
The journalist’s case once again tests Australia’s ties with China, a country that has a long history of arrests of dissidents, some of them while they were residing abroad, and who are later charged with various crimes.
Relations between China and Australia have been strained since Canberra this year launched an investigation into the origin of COVID-19, which is believed to have led to commercial retaliation from the Asian giant, while Australia also recently passed laws against espionage and interference in domestic affairs of the Oceanian country that have also angered Beijing. EFE-EPA