Australia has lost a vital on-the-ground perspective on what is happening in China following the “deeply disturbing” evacuation of the final two journalists working for Australian media outlets in the country, an expert says.

The ABC’s Bill Birtles and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review (AFR) were rushed out of China this week, having sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds for several days following visits from Chinese state security officers to their homes.

The AFR reported they were blocked from leaving the country until they answered questions about Australian television anchor Cheng Lei, who worked for a government-run broadcaster in China and has been detained without public explanation. 

University of Sydney Professor James Curran, who is writing a book on “Australia’s current China question”, described the development as “deeply, deeply disturbing” and said it marked another blow to the relationship between the two countries.

Professor Curran said Australia and China seemed trapped in “a downward spiral of mutual recrimination and mistrust” amid tensions over trade, Australia’s concerns over foreign interference and its call for an independent inquiry into COVID-19. 

Professor Curran said the journalists’ departure occurred in the context of a broader Chinese crackdown on foreign media, with reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post expelled from the country earlier in the year.

It means Australia will be bereft of a vital on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in the East Asian country, Professor Curran said.

“(Australian journalists) have been there since relations began under Gough Whitlam in 1972,” he told SBS News.

“And, you know, Australia has its own distinctive view of what’s going on in China and what is important for Australia.

“So, it’s really diminishing the lens through which we can try and understand what is happening in China and why that’s important to Australia.”

ABC news director Gaven Morris on Tuesday said the China bureau was vital to the ABC and they aimed to get back there as soon as possible.

“The story of China, its relationship with Australia and its role in our region and in the world is one of great importance for all Australians and we want to continue having our people on the ground to cover it,” Mr Morris said in a statement.

‘Harassment of respected journalists’

The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom (AJF) and Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) were highly critical of China’s treatment of the reporters, with AJF spokesman Peter Greste urging the Chinese government to allow them to return and work “without hinderance or harassment”.

“Without any evidence of wrongdoing, the Chinese authorities’ treatment of the ABC’s Bill Birtles and Mike Smith from the AFR looks like harassment of respected journalists to make a political and diplomatic point,” Professor Greste said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Without Australian journalists operating freely in China, the Australian public has no independent eyes or ears reporting events inside our most important trading partner. That is bad for both Australia and China.”

The MEAA’s media federal president Marcus Strom said the development marked “a dramatic low point for the foreign media’s relations with China in almost 50 years”.

He said the treatment of Ms Cheng was particularly worrying as she had been “detained in secret and little detail of why she was arrested has emerged”.

Australian writer and MEAA member Yang Hengjun has also been held without trial since January 2019 over allegations of espionage.

“It is clear that China, and by extension Hong Kong through the recent National Security Law, is unsafe for foreign journalists,” Mr Strom said in a statement.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has previously called for the immediate release of Dr Yang and has said there was “no basis” for any allegation he was a spy.

The foreign minister on Tuesday confirmed Mr Birtles and Mr Smith 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,” she told reporters.

Ms Payne said it is “disappointing” the country will not have representatives of Australian organisations on the ground in China. 

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

With additional reporting by AAP.


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