The Chinese Government has accused Australian officials of obstructing their law enforcement agencies when they sheltered two Australian journalists in diplomatic compounds last week.
- The ABC’s Bill Birtles and AFR’s Mike Smith took refuge in the homes of Australian diplomats in China
- Both journalists had been slapped with a travel ban and ordered to submit to questioning
- Australian government officials suspect the harassment of the men is part of a retaliation over a foreign interference investigation
Several Australian Government ministers have praised the way Australian diplomats handled the negotiations and secured permission for both correspondents to leave China.
But on Thursday night, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Australia’s decision to shelter both men on diplomatic premises while the talks progressed was “an interference in China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty”.
“This practice is inconsistent with the status and identity of the Australian embassy in China.”
Birtles and Smith both took refuge with Australian diplomats after they were slapped with travel bans and Chinese Ministry of State Security officers demanded the pair submit to questioning.
Australian and Chinese officials negotiated for days before reaching an agreement to lift the bans in exchange for the two journalists agreeing to be interviewed.
Both men say they were asked about Australian TV presenter Cheng Lei, who worked for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN and has been detained on suspicion of endangering national security.
Birtles and Smith had met Cheng Lei, but neither knew her well. Both men said they believed they were being deliberately harassed by the Chinese Government.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had previously warned the ABC and Nine, owner of the Australian Financial Review, that there were risks to Birtles and Smith’s safety if they remained in China.
One Australian Government source dismissed the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s latest attack and said the embassy simply relied on universally accepted principles of diplomatic protection.
A spokesman for Foreign Minister Marise Payne declined to comment.
The saga has fed into the increasingly poisonous relationship between Australia and China. This week Beijing also lashed out at Australia over an investigation into a foreign interference which has embroiled a number of Chinese journalists and academics in Australia.
Australian Government officials suspect that the Chinese Government’s attempt to harass and intimidate Birtles and Smith was – in part — retaliation for that investigation.