Australia has rejected suggestions its diplomats obstructed Chinese legal investigations by sheltering two journalists in diplomatic compounds after state security officers demanded interviews with them.
- The two reporters were evacuated to Australia after being interviewed by Chinese authorities
- Australia’s Trade Minister says Australia’s officials acted appropriately
- A Chinese academic stripped of his Australian visa has accused Australia of intimidation tactics
The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith were bundled out of China earlier this week, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade holding grave fears for their safety.
Officers from China’s Ministry of State Security appeared at Birtles’ apartment in Beijing and Smith’s home in Shanghai, declaring they were banned from leaving the country and demanding they submit to questioning.
Despite Australian and Chinese officials coming to an agreement that saw the two give interviews in exchange for the travel bans being revoked, China’s Foreign Ministry is now questioning the conduct of Australian diplomats.
Spokesman Zhao Lijian described the decision to allow Birtles and Smith to seek refuge in Australia’s embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai as “blatant obstruction and interference in China’s normal law enforcement.”
He said it went far beyond usual consular assistance offered to people who have potentially run foul of the law.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham rejected the accusations.
“Our officials acted appropriately.
“They ensured the safety of the two Australians involved, they resolved the matter diplomatically through discussions with Chinese authorities, which did provide those Chinese authorities with the opportunity to conduct those interviews but also guaranteed the safety and the ability to depart China for those two individuals.”
Birtles and Smith both say officers questioned them about Australian broadcaster Cheng Lei, who worked for state media outlet CGTN and has been detained for allegedly “endangering” China’s national security.
Senator Birmingham conceded there would be speculation as to whether China’s actions against Birtles and Smith were a tit-for-tat response to moves by Australian officials to expel Chinese academics from Australia.
But he refused to draw the connection.
“These are obviously matters we wish to see handled sensitively, appropriately, and ultimately in a way that enables the two countries to ensure that we can cooperate and work together in the areas of mutual benefit, and in a mutually respectful way.”
One of the academics whose visa was cancelled on the advice of Australia’s domestic spy agency ASIO has described the situation as “mind-bogglingly melodramatic” and “incredulously irrational” in a piece on state media outlet The Global Times.
Chen Hong described Australian authorities as intimidating anyone who spoke positively about China, with “the marked aim to hush them into submissive silence.”
As with the other accusations levelled at the Federal Government, Senator Birmingham denied such suggestions.
“Our Government takes matters of potential foreign interference seriously, and we will continue to act in ways to deter any acts of foreign interference, but we do so transparently and … in conjunction with Australian law,” he said.
“The individual decisions really are matters for the relevant agencies, in terms of the way in which they conduct their operations.”