In September 2020, deteriorating relations between Australia and China led to a five-day diplomatic standoff during which the two remaining foreign correspondents employed by Australian media, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, were evacuated from the PRC. In a Zoom event hosted the by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and moderated by FCC President Keith Richburg, the two journalists shared their accounts of the days leading up to their escape.
“When the warnings first came from our government, we didn’t really quite believe it, we didn’t really take them too seriously. We actually thought they were playing politics with us, and that we didn’t need to get out of China at all,” said Smith. “It was all rather dramatic when things did escalate, and you get that knock on the door. There’s a lot of theatrics involved and I think it was designed to intimidate.”
One important factor was that both journalists were unaware that the homes of several Chinese state journalists had been searched by Australian officials several weeks earlier, and they had only just found out about the detainment of Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei.
“That’s why it came as such a shock, because a lot had been happening in the background and we weren’t privy to this information,” said Birtles.
Birtles described the surreal experience of having to prepare to leave the country and relying on fellow journalists to pack up his apartment whilst not trying to draw any media attention.
“There was this concern at the time from the Australian diplomats, of course, that if the story broke in the Australian media, then it might force the Chinese side to dig in,” said Birtles. “If we for example, are holed up taking shelter at these embassies, supposedly avoiding Chinese investigators in a national security case, then it would look like the Australian government’s interfering by preventing us from doing the interviews.”
Both Birtles and Smith have now published books about their experiences: The Truth About China and The Last Correspondent, respectively. Though they’ve had plenty of time to process what happened, they still feel surprised by how they ultimately had to flee the country in order to avoid potential incarceration.
“I never felt unsafe in China,” said Smith. “I always thought the worst thing that could happen to me is that I’d be deported, like a lot of American journalists have been.”
Watch the full discussion below: