Beijing decries Australia’s search of Chinese state media employees’ homes

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Australia Global Alumni Reuters

Australian Cheng Lei, who worked for China’s state television CGTN, has been detained by Chinese authorities.

Australian officials recently searched the homes of four Chinese journalists, China’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday, a day after two Australian reporters fled China over safety concerns amid a public breakdown in the two countries’ already tense relations.

“As we understand, the Australian side hasn’t provided any reasonable explanation so far for the searches, and hasn’t returned all the seized items to our journalists,” China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine news conference.

Zhao accused Australia of blatantly violating the interests of Chinese journalists in the searches in June, causing severe harm to the mental health of those reporters and their families. He said laptops, cellphones and children’s toys were seized from the employees of state-run Xinhua News Agency, China Media Group and China News Service.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported on Wednesday that those raids were part of an Australian investigation into an alleged foreign interference plot involving the New South Wales state Parliament.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

[Two Australian journalists flee China after tense standoff]

Beijing’s vitriol against Australia appeared to be a defense for its own interrogations of two Australian journalists days earlier, prompting their dramatic flight from Beijing, and its detention of a prominent Australian TV anchor in China over the summer for murky reasons.

Australian authorities were notified in mid-August that Cheng Lei, an Australian TV anchor working for China’s state-run China Global Television Network, had been detained. Beijing announced on Tuesday that she was suspected of endangering China’s national security, without providing details.

Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Reuters

Australian reporters Bill Birtles, left, and Michael Smith, fled China after intimidation by Chinese security officials.

Last week, Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s correspondent in Beijing, and Michael Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s correspondent in Shanghai, received visits from state security officers who told them they could no longer leave China. They sought shelter in Australian diplomatic compounds and arrived home in Australia on Tuesday after Birtles was interrogated by security officers about Cheng, he later recounted.

Zhao denied that these recent events were retribution for Australia’s raids on the Chinese journalists’ homes.

“I believe these are two different things, and we do not have to over-interpret this,” he said.

[China detains Australian anchor for Chinese state-run TV network]

The departure of Birtles and Smith left Australian media organizations without foreign correspondents in China for the first time in decades. Several Australian nationals remain working in Beijing for non-Australian media companies.

The tensions add to the rapid breakdown in relations between China and Australia over the U.S. ally’s calls for an inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic, its barring of Huawei from its 5G rollout, and Australian criticism of Beijing’s military buildup in the South China Sea and crackdowns on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

They also come against a backdrop of deteriorating press relations between China and Western countries, especially the United States, after the Trump administration’s restrictions on Chinese state media outlets.

China this week delayed the renewal of visas for journalists at the U.S. news outlets Bloomberg, CNN and the Wall Street Journal, Reuters reported. In March, Beijing effectively expelled American journalists posted to China for The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

In July, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade upgraded its travel warning for China, advising travelers they could face arbitrary detention.

Liu Yang and Lyric Li in Beijing and Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.

Two Australian journalists flee China after tense standoff

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, World reports

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