SYDNEY (Reuters) – Two of Australia’s leading foreign correspondents in China have rushed home for their own safety after they were questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State security, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on Tuesday.
China correspondents for the ABC and the Australian Financial Review (AFR) sought shelter in Australia’s embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave the country, the ABC and the AFR reported.
The two journalists – ABC’s Bill Birtles and AFR’s Michael Smith – had been banned from leaving China until they answered questions about detained Australian citizen and television anchor Cheng Lei, AFR said in a report.
Both journalists were told they were “persons of interest” in an investigation into Cheng, a high-profile business anchor on Chinese state television, who has been detained by authorities, the AFR report said.
The journalists flew out of China on Monday night and arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning following what public broadcaster the ABC called an “extraordinary diplomatic standoff”.
Birtles told reporters at Sydney airport it was very disappointing to have to leave China under “those circumstances.”
“But this was a whirlwind and it was not a particularly good experience,” he said.
The ABC said it brought Birtles back to Australia following advice from the Australian government.
The Australian Financial Review said in a statement the two journalists were “going about their normal reporting duties”. It added that the incident was “regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China”.
Relations between Australia and China have soured this year in the wake of Canberra’s calls for an independent international investigation into the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
Beijing was angered by the move and has since blocked Australian beef imports, placed dumping tariffs on Australian barley, and launched an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine.
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