'No longer safe': Aussie journalists pulled out of China in 'extraordinary' step

The final two Australian journalists working in China have been rushed out of the country over safety concerns.

Bill Birtles from the ABC and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review (AFR) were evacuated from China after local police demanded interviews with them.

The men sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds for several days as consular officials worked to get them out.

They touched down in Sydney on Tuesday morning.

"The ABC has brought back China correspondent Bill Birtles to Australia following advice from the Australian government," a spokeswoman said.

ABC correspondent Bill Birtles sheltered in an embassy before being flown home. Source: ABC
ABC correspondent Bill Birtles sheltered in an embassy before being flown home. Source: ABC

After touching down in Australia, the ABC journalist lamented the situation surrounding his sudden exit from his overseas posting.

“I'll just say it's very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances and it's a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” he said in a brief cross with the broadcaster.

“But this was a whirlwind and it's not a particularly good experience.”

Both Australian news outlets said the journalists faced an "unacceptable risk" of possible arbitrary detention, Nine News Political Editor Chris Uhlmann reported. Nine is the publisher of the AFR.

"(It's) an extraordinary thing to think that relations are so bad now between China and Australia that journalists would no longer consider themselves to be safe," he said.

In a statement, Nine bosses called the development “regrettable and disturbing”.

John Lyons, the Executive Editor of ABC News, acknowledged the grim reality of the move, saying “relations are deteriorating rapidly” between the two countries.

It comes after Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was working for Chinese state media, was secretly detained by the Chinese government.

Chinese authoritarianism on the rise under Xi Jinping

Both journalists and their employers were earlier cautioned by Australian diplomats in China that they should leave the country, the ABC reported.

Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the risks facing the two journalists were troubling.

“I think in advising the journalists to leave as our foreign affairs department did, that would not have been based on some general presumption, it would've been based on a fairly sharp understanding of the risk to those two individuals,” he said in a TV interview with the ABC Tuesday morning.

Chinese President Xi Jinping displayed at an intersection in Beijing in May. Source: Getty
Chinese President Xi Jinping displayed at an intersection in Beijing in May. Source: Getty

Mr Jennings said the latest development is the result of an increasingly aggressive and authoritarian Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.

“It's regrettable, but important to understand that all of these things are happening at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party. It's not their [Australian journalists] reporting was unreasonable, it's not that Australia is doing anything other than making decisions in the interests of our own national security.

“But what we have here is a China run under Xi Jinping, engaging when they call wolf warrior diplomacy, this very aggressive promotion of Chinese interests internationally,” he said.

“At the moment it seems the party is not perturbed, or not the least bit worried about actually being publicly seen to break the rule of law, to break conventions, to misuse their police and legal system all for the interests of promoting the party.”

with AAP

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