'I'd still love to be in Beijing': Australian journalist evacuated from China speaks out

An Australian journalist evacuated from China over fears for his safety believes the events are part of a tit-for-tat response by Chinese authorities to an Australian investigation, and he feels like a political pawn in a big game.

ABC journalist Bill Birtles was bundled out of China earlier this week after officers from China's Ministry of State Security appeared at his apartment in Beijing, declaring he was banned from leaving the country and demanding he submit to questioning.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs held grave fears for Birtles' safety - and for that of the Australian Financial Review's Mike Smith - but the pair were eventually able to return to Australia unharmed. From his quarantine room in Sydney Birtles talked with RNZ Sunday Morning about his hasty exit from the city he called home for five years.

"It's a pretty disappointing feeling to go out that way," he says.

On a larger scale, he says worsening relations between China and Australia have been developing for about four years, setting the scene for the recent investigation and crackdown by Australian authorities. But he warns knee-jerk reactions against only one side's actions does not help.

Two Chinese academics have had their visas revoked in Australia with Australian officials are accused of secretly raiding the homes of four Chinese journalists, and a Chinese political staffer in Australia was also under investigation by Australian authorities.

The bad blood has arisen from "Australia getting to know the nature of the party state, and frankly how authoritarian it is, and also how determined the party state is to try and control the Chinese diaspora in Australia and elsewhere", Birtles believes.

"So [tension] really was bound to happen, it coincided with China becoming more and more authoritarian, I can't see [relations] improving any time soon," he says.

But he was still surprised to find himself personally caught up in the events.

"There's precedent in modern China no foreign journalist has ever been detained for say, a state security case - they have for things like overstaying their visa and things like that.  This whole thing kicked off because someone I do know Cheng Lei, an Australian news anchor for Chinese state TV, she was taken by the state security police in early August - this is sort of like the catalyst for everything - I was actually just about to report on this story, there had been quite a delay in the information coming out.

"That's when I got the phone call to say the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs wants you out immediately."  

Fears were that he could be detained and disappear from public view, to be used as a bargaining chip. Birtles says he was initially sceptical there was any risk, until Chinese police arrived at his home at midnight, where he was issued with a travel ban and ordered to submit to future questioning.

"This also has not happened previously to foreign journalists, so even though it's not as bad as being detained it's still unprecedented stuff," he says.

He guessed the move was prompted by political manoeuvring rather than anything personal, and that was reinforced after police left his apartment, when Smith called him from Shanghai, asking to talk on the encrypted apps widely used for secure conversation in China.

"He said 'something's changed', and I said 'I can guess what's happened mate'," says Birtles.

Bill Birtles.
Bill Birtles. Photo credit: ABC

"It was worse for him, they came into his apartment, put him on the couch, shone a torch in his face and had a big news camera - and surrounded him while they did the whole thing.

"They knocked on my door and they saw about 12 or 13 people inside, some of them with wine glasses in hand - and of course everyone's... saying in Chinese 'don't take him, don't arrest him' - it was honestly an absolute scene by that point."

Police had forced Birtles to come outside to talk to them, and said he was involved in a case they were looking into.

"They didn't specify which case, I could guess - it would have been the case of Cheng Lei, because she'd only been detained about three weeks earlier," he says. "They said you're free to move around, but you're not allowed to leave China. There is an exit ban placed on you.

"The State Security Ministry plans these things, they're coordinated, and especially coordinated midnight door knocks on two Australian journalists in two different cities - a lot of planning went into this."

Birtles believes the Chinese officials lined the visits up anticipating the two reporters would call their embassy next.

"I've covered a lot of these state security cases in China over the years, as a journalist," says Birtles. "Chinese State Security Ministry has real form when it comes to the treatment of cases, for example - there is another Australian who's been detained for almost 20 months in Beijing in a State Security case, and it was in the 19th month of his detention that he was finally for the first time able to meet his lawyer.

"You have two Canadians who are currently being held as diplomatic hostages in Beijing, that's in exchange for a senior Huawei executive who's been detained in Canada. Those two Canadians, both of them have been in jail now for well over a year, neither of them have been able to meet their lawyer.

"So it's not just a case of being detained, it's a case of being detained in a system that has very little regard for the normal rights that prisoners or suspects are granted in other countries."

Later, after negotiations between Chinese and Australian officials, Birtles agreed to be interviewed, accompanied by the Australian Ambassador. He was asked who his sources in Hong Kong were, but said after a vague reply he was not asked for any more detail about who they were.

"Most of the questioning was about the Cheng Lei case - but the key point was although I know Cheng Lei I don't know her particularly well, and Mike Smith barely knows her at all," Birtles says.

"So I don't think they really went into this process with the expectation that they were going to get any valuable evidence or information about her case from us."

Cheng Lei had prominently criticised the Chinese response to the early spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan, on Facebook, but Birtles isn't convinced that's what prompted officials to act against her.

"It's hard to know if that's really the reason she's been detained," he says. "I think it's probably part of the bigger diplomatic stoush with Australia.

"That sort of criticism  - you'd probably be surprised, there's quite a bit of it in China from people inside the system, particularly state media. There's always a well understood line of what's off limits, and that sort of criticism - a lot of Chinese people domestically, including prominent commentators, were saying very similar things at the time - I would be surprised if that was the real reason that this whole thing has happened to her."

The crackdown by Australian authorities was more likely to be the reason, he says; "I believe it would be related, it makes the most sense".

"And the Australian authorities ASIO are probably thinking 'our investigation is more of a legitimate investigation', but that's arguable too.

"Until you see concrete evidence about the reasons why, for example, that they deem these academics a risk to [Australian] national security and had to cancel their visas - until there's actually evidence put out in the public domain, I think everyone should have a healthy cynicism to this whole process.

"I personally would want to see some pretty decent public evidence come out at some point to justify the cancellation of his visa, because otherwise I think you go down a slippery slope. Both of these two men have a very good understanding of Australia, which is rare in China.

"If they're going to cancel visas or kick out state media journalists, then I just hope that at some point they publicise the evidence, so we're not left questioning whether or not these sorts of measures are political on the Australian side."

RNZ