Two Australian journalists have been recalled from China amid the threat of arrest and a travel ban, their respective news organizations reported on Tuesday.
Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review flew from Shanghai to Sydney after sheltering for a few days in Australian diplomatic compounds, the reports said.
Their hasty departure came after Chinese police detained Australian national and state-media anchor Cheng Lei pending an investigation in which Smith and Birtles were named "persons of interest," The Australian Financial Review reported.
It said seven uniformed police visited each journalist’s home in Beijing and Shanghai at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday.
"I believe the episode was more one of harassment of the remaining Australian journalists rather than a genuine effort to try and get anything useful for that case," Birtles told reporters from his quarantine hotel.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian confirmed that police had requested interviews with the two men.
"Compulsory measures have been imposed on Cheng and she has recently been investigated by relevant authorities," Zhao told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
The "relevant authorities" had demanded to be allowed to question Birtles and Smith "which is normal law enforcement," Zhao said.
Meanwhile, ABC reported that Birtles was warned last week by staff at the Australian embassy that he should leave China. As he was preparing to leave, police visited his apartment and told him he wouldn't be allowed to leave, as he was wanted for questioning in connection with a "national security case."
Birtles took refuge in the Australian embassy, while Smith went to the Australian Consulate in Shanghai, as behind-the-scenes negotiations began over their fate.
Eventually, the two men gave the police brief interviews, before being allowed to leave China, ABC said.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) said it strongly condemned the "harassment and intimidation" of Smith and Birtles.
"The effort to keep foreign journalists in China against their will marks a significant escalation of an ongoing, sustained Chinese government assault on media freedoms," the FCCC said in a statement via its Twitter account.
It said foreign journalists now fear that they could be the next targets of China’s "hostage diplomacy."
"Such actions by the Chinese government amount to appalling intimidatory tactics that threaten and seek to curtail the work of foreign journalists based in China," the statement said.
It said Birtles' and Smith's departures meant that there were no accredited correspondents left in China representing Australia's news media.
China has expelled 17 foreign correspondents in the first half of 2020 alone, the FCCC said.
"This … is a disappointing loss for global audiences seeking to understand more about China," the FCCC said.
Risk of arbitrary detention
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Cheng’s detention was part of the reason her government had advised the journalists to leave, but declined to give further details.
She said Australia’s travel warning of the risk of arbitrary detention in China "remains appropriate and unchanged."
The journalists' departures come amid increasingly strained ties between Beijing and Canberra, which is taking steps to limit the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda outreach in the country, and which has barred Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from bidding for 5G mobile contracts.
Birtles told reporters at Sydney's airport that his departure was a “whirlwind and … not a particularly good experience.”
“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances and it’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” he told reporters on arrival.
Smith's paper quoted him as saying that the late-night visit by police to his home was "intimidating and unnecessary."
“It’s so good to be home, so happy, I can’t say any more at the moment, it’s such a relief to be home, so really happy,” Smith told reporters at the airport.
Reports have also emerged that Canberra is investigating the extent of Chinese influence at Australian universities after the University of Queensland suspended undergraduate student Drew Pavlou for protesting its ties with China and Chinese rights abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
Billions of dollars flow into the country's higher education institutions via the 150,000 Chinese students who flock there to study every year.
The Australian newspaper reported that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had requested a parliamentary inquiry into "technological and knowledge transfer from Australia that may be detrimental to our national interests."
The government has also flagged legislation to give itself veto powers over agreements struck with foreign administrations by Australian governments and their entities, including universities, the Inside Higher Ed website reported.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is increasingly deploying coercive diplomacy against foreign governments and companies. Coercive diplomacy isn’t well understood, and countries and companies have struggled to develop an effective toolkit to push back against and resist it.
A recent report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) recorded 152 cases of "coercive diplomacy" by Beijing in the past decade, with a "sharp escalation" in the use of such tactics since 2018.
It said the Chinese Communist Party typically employs trade sanctions, investment restrictions, tourism bans, and popular boycotts, as well as arbitrary detention, restrictions on official travel, and state-issued threats to "punish undesired behavior" and to achieve its foreign policy aims.
The report called for greater international awareness and a multilateral pushback against such practices.
Reported by Liu Fei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.