Fresh out of two weeks of hotel quarantine, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith are still coming to terms with the extraordinary circumstances in which the Australian journalists fled China after an intense diplomatic standoff to secure their departure.
One thing they’re sure about, though, is that the situation on the ground in China has been tightening over the past few years.
“The China that I left just a few weeks ago was markedly more closed off, frankly, than the China that I came to five years ago, and certainly when I was living there previously in about 2010 and 2011,” Birtles, an ABC journalist, said at a Lowy Institute event this week focused on the growing tensions between Australia and its largest trading partner.
“We’re probably in the most extreme ideological period we’ve seen since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1970s. That’s how tight things have got now in China.”
Birtles said the Chinese Communist party was now more conspicuously at the “front and centre” of daily life. He noticed little things, such as the increasing tendency of people wearing Chinese Communist party badges while catching the train.
He also spoke of increasing conservatism and caution throughout the general population which “made it almost bloody impossible to interview anyone by the end of my stint”. He said even the most benign topics had become difficult to cover because of people’s reluctance to talk to reporters. He noted the Chinese government had “all the tools of a surveillance state to absolutely snuff out any opposition to the party quick smart”.
Smith, who had been based in Shanghai for the Australian Financial Review, agreed that there had been a tightening. He said in early 2018 it wasn’t taboo to be critical about China’s economic management – but more recently China-based experts were reluctant to speak out.
“Over the last year or so we’ve seen everything tightening. It’s going to be harder for companies getting into China now. There’s more regulation, more red tape, so everything is closing up a bit.”
The pair gave their observations during an event titled “Coming undone – Australia and China’s fractured ties”.
There was fresh evidence of the strained relationship this week with China announcing via state media that it would ban Australian academic Clive Hamilton and Australian Strategic Policy Institute researcher Alex Joske from visiting the country.
The move followed the Australian government’s cancellation of visas for two Chinese academics, Chen Hong and Li Jianjun, over security concerns.
Hamilton, author of the 2018 book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, described the Chinese government’s move as “more of a symbolic act”. He and Joske had both come to the judgment in recent years that it would be too dangerous for them to travel to China.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, was asked about the latest developments in the strained relationship at a regular press briefing this week.
He said China was “firmly opposed to behaviours that use academic study as a cover to spread disinformation, deliberately attack China and endanger China’s national security”.
Wang said China wanted a sound and stable partnership with Australia and it wasn’t to blame for the current tensions.
“The crux of the current difficulties in China-Australia relations is the Australian side’s repeated erroneous words and deeds on issues concerning China’s core interests including sovereignty and territorial integrity and its wanton restrictions on normal exchange and cooperation between the two sides, which gravely harmed mutual trust,” Wang said.
“We urge certain people in Australia to reject Cold War mentality and ideological bias, see China in an objective and rational light, stop smearing and vilifying China, and work to enhance mutual understanding and trust, not the contrary.”
For their part, Birtles and Smith both say it is a shame they were used as “pawns” in the broader diplomatic tensions.
The Australian government had earlier advised them to leave the country, but before they could do so they received knocks on the door one evening shortly after midnight. Chinese authorities said they wanted to question the pair over a security matter and that a temporary ban had been placed on their exit from China.
It was apparently linked to an investigation into Cheng Lei, another Australian journalist who was detained in August over what China describes as a national security matter. They ultimately agreed to be interviewed in return for assurances they would be allowed to leave the country.
Smith said the pair was not aware at the time that Australian authorities had raided four Chinese journalists as part of an investigation into alleged foreign interference back in June.
“There’s always going to be a tit-for-tat reaction,” Smith said. “No one told us that at the time.
“Was our experience directly related to that? It seems like there must be some link, but it’s all still unclear.”
They are sad that at a time when a greater understanding of China is more important than ever, there are no longer any accredited Australian journalists for Australian media in the country.
“I’m quite disappointed to leave the way we did,” Smith said.
“It feels like a real shame for journalism … it’s going to erode Australia’s understanding of China and it’s not going to do China any favours either.”
Kirsty Needham, the Sydney Morning Herald’s former Beijing correspondent who now reports on China for Reuters but is based in Sydney, also joined in the webinar discussion.
She pointed to the role of the national security community and hawkish advisers in driving some of Australia’s measures over the past few years, which have included Malcolm Turnbull’s introduction of foreign interference laws and banning Huawei in the 5G network.
Smith said the Morrison government’s call in April for an independent international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and how it had developed into a pandemic was seen as a tipping point in the relationship.
He said Australian business people in China did not disagree with the principle behind such an inquiry but wondered whether Australia needed to be the country to lead the calls so publicly.
Birtles characterised it as the straw that broke the camel’s back – but said if that had not happened, there would have been some other straw.
Despite the Chinese government’s subsequent trade actions on Australian barley, red meat and wine, there seemed to be a belief on the Australian side that iron ore would not be targeted.
“It seems to me like both sides actually know each other a lot better now after a few years of argy bargy,” Birtles said. “It’s probably going to be pretty rocky and not particularly friendly for a long time and that’s the new normal.”