Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review fled China on Sept. 8 after sheltering for a few days in Australian diplomatic compounds. Their hasty departure came after Chinese police detained Australian national and state-media anchor Cheng Lei pending an investigation in which Smith and Birtles were named “persons of interest.” Birtles spoke to RFA’s Mandarin Service on Wednesday about his recent experiences in China:
RFA: How are things, now that you’re back in Sydney?
Bill Birtles: Things are OK. I’m in 14-day quarantine, in a hotel, so I’m pretty comfortable. But what happened this week was so sudden and very difficult. Part of me still doesn’t believe it really happened.
RFA: Journalists in China are saying that your experience has made them realize that they shouldn’t fear expulsion, so much as not being allowed to leave. How did your experience affect your thinking about China?
Bill Birtles: By the time I left, I was pretty disappointed by it … I would love to have stayed in Beijing and continued my work. But I didn’t really think I was in any kind of danger at the start of this, when the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called my employer and warned them about a threat to my safety. They told me I should leave China and go home immediately, but I didn’t believe it at the time. I didn’t think there had been any change to my personal safety. They didn’t give any specifics, nor any reason for saying I should leave. I thought I was safe, and I didn’t want to leave.
But then I got a midnight visit from six officers of the state security police and an interpreter, seven people in all. They knocked on my door and had a talk with me. That’s when I figured that the Australian foreign ministry might have been right.
RFA: How did you spend the four days waiting at the embassy, not sure if you would be allowed to return home or not?
Bill Birtles: I was fine inside the embassy. Diplomats are very sensitive to this kind of situation and they treated me very well. But once I went there, the whole thing turned into a high-level issue of diplomacy, and there was a dialogue between the two countries. I had no control over the situation, so all I could do was wait. I started to get a bit worried about whether I’d be allowed to leave [China], whether I could carry on working, whether I could go back to Australia.
RFA: You said earlier that the visit from the state security police was less on an investigation and more of a way to harass Australian journalists. What did you mean by that?
Bill Birtles: Well, the [ostensible] reason they wanted to talk to me, to interrogate me was because of Cheng Lei [an Australian national and state media anchor detained last month]. At first, they asked me some pretty simple questions, like how long had I been in China, and whether I had covered China news. I said that’s the only news I cover; it’s my job as a China correspondent. Then they asked me what important stories I had covered, whether I had covered the National People’s Congress (NPC) or the coronavirus prevention and control effort. Then they asked if I had reported on the national security law for Hong Kong. I said of course I had.
Then they asked me where I got my information from for my reporting on Hong Kong. They wanted to know who I’d been interviewing, my sources, but I just said we interviewed a lot of people in Hong Kong, including government officials.
Then they asked me questions about Cheng Lei; how long I had known her, who introduced you, and what did we talk about the last time I saw her. I have met Cheng Lei but I don’t know her very well. The other reporter, Michael Smith hardly knew her at all. So how were they going to get any useful evidence out of this? Why did they pick on the two of us?
The state security police only targeted the two Australian journalists. They must have known when they asked these questions that we wouldn’t have any useful information, yet they still asked.
I told them that the last time I spoke to Cheng Lei we talked about tennis. They ask if we talked about anything other than tennis, and I said no. Then they just seemed to give up. That’s why I’m pretty sure that they weren’t really looking for useful information.
RFA: The whole interrogation sounds terrifying.
Bill Birtles: It started out pretty formal, with three policemen, one translator, and a camera recording everything. They started out asking me more formal questions, but after about 15 minutes it was more like chatting. I also said some stuff. I asked them why they picked me, and told them I thought this was a bit staged, and that it had nothing to do with the investigation. I came to believe that they … were just looking to give me trouble.
RFA: You have been in China for more than five years … how have changes in relations between Beijing and Canberra affected your ability to do your job?
Bill Birtles: Before this happened, it was the same for all the foreign media, whether they were from Australia, the U.S. or somewhere else. The hardest thing about our jobs was that it is very hard to get interviews in China. There are always a lot of political, sensitive issues in China, although it wasn’t too hard to get interviews with analysts, professors, people like that. But recently, especially in the last two years or so, nobody wanted to give interviews to foreign journalists, and they just flatly said no.
Then it seemed to affect Australian journalists even more. After the Global Times criticized Australia, nobody would dare to talk to us when I tried calling to get an interview and said I represented an Australian media organization.
RFA: You have said that the work of foreign journalists in China has become extremely difficult during the past year. How and why?
Bill Birtles: In February and March this year when journalists working for … U.S. media organizations were expelled, including Australian Chris Buckley, that had a big impact on foreign journalists. But we all understood that this was a diplomatic issue between the U.S. and China. My situation is because of a problem between China and Australia. Other countries … could be affected in the future.
RFA: Do you think foreign journalists in China need an exit plan?
Bill Birtles: I don’t think that’s necessary. Our situation was unprecedented. No foreign journalists have been involved in a state security investigation until now — this is the first time that has happened. If I were a Canadian or Swedish journalist, next time their country had a diplomatic conflict with China, I might remember what happened to us. There may be concerns, but I wasn’t arrested. I still think the probability of that happening is pretty low. But we can say that there is now a possibility that the state security police will investigate [overseas journalists] in the future.
RFA: Would you still want to go back to China if you had the opportunity?
Bill Birtles: It’s such a shame. I would love to go back one day. But I don’t think there’s much likelihood of my going back as a journalist now.
Reported by Jane Tang for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.Print