China has once again lashed Australia, accusing it of “unfounded hypocrisy”, in the latest tit-for-tat feud involving journalists from both countries.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused the Australian embassy of sheltering journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith before their abrupt exit from China after they were approached by Chinese state security in what Mr Zhao described as a “lawful investigation”.
“[The Australian embassy] arranged their stay in the Australian diplomatic premises after Chinese authorities asked for their cooperation in investigation. These went above and beyond the scope of consular protection,” he said.
“The Australian Embassy in China wantonly obstructed and disrupted the normal law enforcement activities of the Chinese side, by sheltering and helping the relevant journalists evading China's investigations.
“The Australian side must come clean with what roles DFAT and the Australian embassy in China played in this process.”
Australia denies any wrongdoing
However senior cabinet minister Simon Birmingham said the Australian government had done nothing wrong on Friday.
Senator Birmingham said embassy staff provided the two journalists appropriate protection and ensured they could safely leave China, while engaging with Chinese authorities so both men could be interviewed.
"This was respectful of China's processes but also protected the safety of these two Australian journalists," he told the ABC.
The latest accusations from China come as it emerged four Chinese journalists working in Australia were targeted by Australian security and intelligence authorities during investigations surrounding suspended NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane.
While Mr Zhao denied the questioning of Birtles and Smith was retaliation for the actions taken against the Chinese journalists, he lambasted their treatment.
“The Chinese journalists were threatened, intimidated and not allowed to contact the local China's consulate-general,” he said.
“It caused serious damage to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families. The Australian side has not yet provided reasonable explanation for searching these journalists or returned all seized items.
“Is this what the Australian side call normal questioning?”
Australians accused of hypocrisy and double standards
Mr Zhao stressed Birtles and Smith were not “forced” out of China, and that it was in fact the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that they exit the country.
“The Australian side describes its "questioning" of Chinese journalists as normal procedure, but accuses the Chinese side of engaging in "hostage diplomacy".
“It fully revealed some Australians' unfounded sense of superiority, hypocrisy and double standards.”
It is understood up to six journalists and scholars suspected of being Chinese agents have since left Australia or been banned from coming back.
It's nice to be home but deeply disappointing to leave China under such abrupt circumstances. It's been a big part of my life & the past week was surreal. A very big thank you to the ABC, friends, colleagues & those involved at DFAT. Plus @MikeSmithAFR for sharing the ride out. pic.twitter.com/zkJEV4Oa27
— Bill Birtles (@billbirtles) September 8, 2020
Australia’s response ‘self-defeating’, former ambassador warns
On Thursday, former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby said the federal government’s continued desire to stand up to China has been detrimental to the nation’s interests.
“I don't think we have reacted in a way that advances our interests at all,” he told ABC News.
“We have to be smart, agile and clever. Other countries have the same sort of issues, but we now turn out to be the only Western country that has no media representation left on the ground in China.
“We have engaged in a tit-for-tat retaliation with China, which in many ways is self-defeating.”
He said Australia needs to work harder to ensure moves to defend Australia against international interference doesn’t appear aimed at China.
“When we do these things, we seem to end up making it as if it is only about China.
“Even if China is the main target for us, we need to be smart and how we preserve it publicly. We need not present this as a China only problem, but that is what we have been doing lately.”
He said the relationship between the two countries hadn’t been “as bad as this” in more than 30 years.
“We are now in a tit-for-tat downward spiral in the relationship with no strategy, just tactics, and being tough on China for the sake of being tough on China [which] takes us nowhere.”
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