China’s foreign ministry says police were adhering to “normal enforcement of the law” when they questioned two Australian journalists who were rushed out of the country over safety concerns. 

The final two Australian correspondents working in China were evacuated overnight after police demanded interviews from them, in a situation described as “regrettable and disturbing”.

Bill Birtles from the ABC and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review (AFR) were blocked from leaving the country until they answered questions about detained Australian television anchor Cheng Lei, the AFR reported on Tuesday.

Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters authorities had strictly adhered to the law during their investigation.

“If foreign journalists observe laws and report according to law, there’s no need to worry,” he said. 

The incident comes amid growing tensions between Australia and China, and as China refuses to renew the press cards of several journalists wording for US media companies.

The saga saw Chinese state security officers visit the homes of both Australian journalists last week, before they sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds for several days.

Australian diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow both men to leave the country after they agreed to be interviewed.

They touched down in Sydney on Tuesday morning.

Mr Smith on Tuesday told the AFR that it was “great to be back home safely after a difficult five days”.

“The late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now,” he said.

ABC journalist Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith.

ABC journalist Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith.

ABC/Twitter

Mr Birtles told the ABC it had been a whirlwind “and not a particularly good experience”.

“It’s extraordinary, I think it’s unprecedented,” he said.

“It felt very, very political, I felt like a diplomatic tussle in a broader Australian – China relationship more than anything specific related to that case.”

AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury and editor Paul Bailey said the targeting of two journalists who were going about their normal duties was “both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China”.

According to the ABC, Australian diplomats warned Mr Birtles that he should leave China last week, prompting the ABC to organise flights for last Thursday.

But seven police officers arrived at his apartment the night before he was due to leave and told him he was banned from leaving the country.

Mr Birtles contacted the Australian embassy and stayed in the Beijing diplomatic compound for the next week before he was interviewed by Chinese authorities and allowed to leave the country. 

“Having gone through the interview or interrogation … 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,” he told the ABC.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Tuesday confirmed the pair received consular support to assist their return home.

“Our embassy has worked hard in the past few days to make sure we could support safely the two journalists in question and we will continue to do that and work with key Chinese authorities on these issues,” Ms Payne told reporters.

Minister Payne said the department had been in touch with the ABC and AFR following the detention of Ms Cheng last week.

“That had raised concerns for Australia … we briefed them and they make their own decisions, in relation to those matters,” she said.

“It is disappointing we will not have representatives of Australian media organisations on the ground in China.

“I hope that can be revised in a timely way.”

Ms Payne added the current travel advice for China – which warns Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention – had not changed.

‘This is the new China’

Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said the incident follows a trend of “appalling” treatment of foreign journalists by China over the past year. 

“Any journalist in China is at risk of this type of treatment … we shouldn’t have been surprised,” he told reporters. 

“If I was an Australian journalist working in China right now I would be very concerned that there is going to be a knock on my door.”

He also said the situation was symptomatic of further strained relations between China and Australia since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“This is the new China we are dealing with – it is the China of warrior diplomacy that’s being aggressive to every country around the world,” he said. 

Cheng Lei, Anchor, CGTN, at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal in 2019

Cheng Lei, Anchor, CGTN, at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal in 2019

Getty

On Tuesday, China ended its silence on Ms Cheng’s detention, saying the anchor had been detained on “national security grounds”. 

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said authorities took “compulsory measures” against her on suspicion “of criminal activity endangering China’s national security”.

The Australian government was first informed of Ms Cheng’s detention on 14 August and had a virtual consular visit with the 45-year-old on 17 August. 

With additional reporting from AAP, AFP and Reuters.

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