The last two Australian media journalists in China had to flee for their safety, marking the lowest point in Australia’s downward spiral of relations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The emergency exit of journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith ends 50 years of Australian journalistic presence in China, due to heavy diplomatic clashes between Australia and the CCP.
“The Australian government was right to fear for their safety,” said a senior official at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Richard McGregor, according to the South China Morning Post on Sept. 9.
Birtles and Smith were involved in a CCP national security investigation that hindered their departure, and the Australian Embassy negotiated their repatriation, in the escalation of tensions between the two countries since Australia demanded a CCP Virus investigation in China.
These two journalists had to take refuge in the Australian Embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai, knowing that they were wanted by CCP agents and forbidden to leave the country.
The CCP’s investigation is reportedly involved with the arrest of Cheng Lei, a prominent Chinese-Australian presenter with the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN who was arrested a week earlier.
“Such actions by the Chinese government [the CCP] amount to appalling intimidatory tactics that threaten and seek to curtail the work of foreign journalists based in China, who now face the threat of arbitrary detention for simply doing their work, and difficult circumstances that make it untenable to remain in the country,” said the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC).
The situation with Birtles and Smith began with an investigation by the AFP-ASIO Foreign Interference Task Force into a possible plot by the CCP to infiltrate the New South Wales Parliament using John Zhang as an agent, a former employee of Labour MP Shaoquett Moselmane, according to the ABC media.
Moselmane himself has defended Beijing’s policies and even called on China to “create a new world order.” Moselmane also visited China nine times in a decade, reported The Australian.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her government had provided “consular support to two Australian journalists in China to assist their return to Australia,” according to The West.
“The Australian Government continues to provide consular support to Australian citizens detained in China, including Ms. Cheng Lei. We are unable to provide further comment owing to privacy obligations,” added Payne.