Sydney – Two high-profile Australian journalists fled China overnight, fearing they faced arrest as political "pawns" and the latest victims of Beijing's targeted repression of foreign media.
Their exit came following days of secret diplomatic wrangling between Beijing and Canberra, whose relationship is already at the lowest point in decades.
Bill Birtles and Michael Smith had separately taken refuge at Australian diplomatic missions in China for several tense days until deals were eventually struck to allow their safe return home.
Landing at Sydney airport on Tuesday, Birtles — Beijing correspondent for public broadcaster ABC — expressed sadness after a "whirlwind" week of political "chess", but said: "It's a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law."
Their ordeal began almost a week ago, when police carried out synchronized midnight raids on Birtles' home in Beijing and Smith's in Shanghai — where he was correspondent for the Australian Financial Review.
Both men were told they were part of an unnamed "national security" investigation, were barred from leaving the country and would face questioning.
"I felt like I suddenly, unintentionally, had become a pawn in some sort of diplomatic tussle," said Birtles.
Fearful of interrogation and arbitrary arrest, they fled to their closest Australian diplomatic missions until agreeing to answer Ministry of State Security questions in return for safe passage home.
"We didn't really have any option. You don't want to be a Julian Assange and stuck in an embassy for years," the ABC reporter said, referring to the WikiLeaks' founder who holed up the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years.
The journalists flew out of Shanghai late Monday accompanied by Australian diplomats, and arrived in Sydney early Tuesday.
They are the latest in a string of foreign journalists to be barred, detained or pushed out of China — as the Communist Party targets reporters from Western media outlets.
Beijing's security services earlier this month detained another Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, who worked for China's state-run CGTN TV. Several reporters for U.S. media have had their visas revoked and been forced to leave the country.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus accused China of "threatening, harassing, and expelling U.S. and other foreign journalists" after Beijing refused to renew press credentials for several U.S. media employees.
The Australian Financial Review's editors insisted the two Australian correspondents "were going about their normal reporting duties" and described the incident as "regrettable and disturbing."
James Curran, an Australian former intelligence analyst and prime ministerial adviser, told AFP the media crackdown and the fact no major Australian media were now represented in China would only hinder public understanding.
"The lens through which we are going to get a picture of this country is going to become increasingly shrouded, if not blocked altogether," he said.
Author and former China correspondent Richard McGregor said the incident "marks a new low."
"Other countries grappling with China will take note. If their bilateral relationship deteriorates, then their own nationals will be in the firing line as well."
In recent years, Australia has increasingly pushed back against what it sees as China's more aggressive projection of power and influence across Asia since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013.
Curran said the problems stem from Xi's pursuit "a very aggressive form of Chinese exceptionalism," with nationalism increasingly being used as "the glue holding the country together."
"They just seem to be taking the view that as a rising power they should be able to flex their strategic, ideological and rhetorical muscle, and that other countries are just going to have to put up with it."
Beijing was particularly infuriated by Australia's role in international calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
A Chinese envoy in Canberra recently portrayed Australia's behavior as a betrayal that caused "indignation, anger and frustration" in China.
Since then, China has taken steps to curb key Australian imports and encouraged Chinese students and tourists to avoid the country.
Australia earlier this year warned its citizens they faced the risk of arbitrary detention in China.
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