AROUND MIDNIGHT on September 2nd, seven state-security officers knocked on the door of Bill Birtles, an Australian journalist in Beijing. He was told he was involved during a case and ordered to not leave China. rather than detaining him, however, the police said they might call him within the afternoon to rearrange an interview.
At an equivalent time in Shanghai six police visited the flat of another Australian journalist, Michael Smith, to deliver an identical message. rather than expecting follow-up calls, the 2 journalists took refuge in Australian diplomatic missions. After lengthy negotiations, Australian and Chinese officials reached a deal. The police were allowed to interview the pair on condition the exit ban was lifted. On September 7th the correspondents flew to Sydney.
The targeting of Mr Birtles and Mr Smith seemed to reflect worsening relations between China and Australia, which are at odds over everything from China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak to Australia’s exports of beef and barley. The police said they wanted to ask the 2 about their links with Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for Chinese state television who was detained in August under China’s national-security law. But during the interviews, the police raised only perfunctory questions on Ms Cheng. “It was about harassing us,” says Mr Birtles. “I think the entire thing was premeditated by the Chinese government. They wanted to urge us out without expelling us. It’s an honest outcome for China, now there’s no Australian media on the bottom in China.”
The journalists’ departure was also a symbol of how increasingly precarious foreign reporters’ lives are getting in China. The Communist Party has never had a simple relationship with them, but has largely tolerated their presence. Tensions with the West are changing this. within the half of 2020 it forced 17 foreign reporters to go away . Previously it had only pushed the occasional one out.
The surge is partially a response to America’s scaling back of the Chinese media presence within the us . But it coincides with a more disdainful attitude towards the Western media generally among Chinese officials. Foreign journalists who are ethnic Chinese often get treated worst. While reporting this month on protests in Inner Mongolia , a northern region, a correspondent for the l. a. Times was detained for quite four hours. a politician grabbed her throat with both hands and shoved her into a cell. She wasn’t allowed to contact the American embassy.
In the case of the Australians, the Chinese government may have felt it had cause to retaliate. On September 8th China’s state press agency Xinhua said Australian intelligence officers had searched the homes of Chinese journalists in Australia in June, questioning them and seizing their computers and mobile phones. The journalists were told to stay silent about the incident, Xinhua reported. Australian security agencies have refused to comment.
Western journalists, naturally, writhe at China’s growing tendency to treat them as proxies of their governments. But because the Australians’ plight has shown, they’ll increasingly haven’t any choice but to hunt their governments’ help.