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In this image made from a video, Australian Broadcasting Corp. journalist Bill Birtles speaks to the media on his arrival in Sydney, Australia, on Sept. 8, 2020.The Associated Press

A pair of Australian journalists sought diplomatic refuge in China for days after state security services barred them from leaving the country, heightening fears about Beijing’s use of its powerful security services for international political ends.

Bill Birtles, a Beijing-based correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., and Mike Smith, a Shanghai-based journalist with the Australian Financial Review, landed in Sydney Tuesday morning after a high-stakes standoff between Australian diplomats and China’s Ministry of State Security, in the midst of a deteriorating relationship between the two countries.

The standoff came after a late June raid on the homes of Chinese journalists in Australia by that country’s intelligence agency, Chinese state media reported Tuesday night.

Shortly after midnight Thursday morning, Chinese agents came to both men’s homes to tell them they were wanted for questioning in the investigation of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who worked for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN before her detention in mid-August. Ms. Cheng is accused of criminal behaviour endangering national security, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday.

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The Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith arrives at Sydney airport.The Associated Press

After the agents told the journalists they had been barred from leaving China – a controversial Chinese practice known as an “exit ban” – they sought protection in Australian missions in China, while diplomats negotiated on their behalf. Mr. Birtles was questioned by the Ministry of State Security on Sunday in the presence of Australian Ambassador Graham Fletcher before being allowed to leave Monday.

The men had been told they were persons of interest in Ms. Cheng’s case. Mr. Smith had met Ms. Cheng once at a social event. Mr. Birtles had met her a half-dozen times.

“The whole thing felt like arbitrary harassment based on broader issues,” Mr. Birtles said in an interview. State Security began by asking him if he had filed any stories about China in five years of reporting from the country. They later asked a few questions about Ms. Cheng, including how the two were introduced.

“I was confident that whatever it is they were looking for, I didn’t have anything they would find useful, simply because I’m not someone who knows her particularly well – and I think they already knew that,” he said.

The questioning, at a Beijing hotel, lacked focus and rigour, he said. “I think that reflected the fact that it wasn’t really about gathering evidence but probably more part of a broader political move involving the state of ties with Australia.”

He called the events of the past week “surreal,” after a series of extraordinary warnings from Canberra to Australian media outlets in China. Early last week, the Australia government urged journalists to leave as soon as possible.

Though Australian officials did not give reasons for the warning, China’s state media on Tuesday said Australian intelligence had committed “brutal and barbaric acts” against Chinese journalists by raiding their homes, questioning them and seizing computers and smartphones. “If Australia continues on its wrong path of anti-China and does not step back, it would backfire,” the Global Times said. Western intelligence agencies have frequently accused China of dispatching spies to other countries under cover as journalists for state media.

Mr. Birtles was at a hastily arranged farewell party at his apartment in Beijing on Wednesday, packing bags as friends ate hotpot, when seven State Security agents came to his door. He was scheduled to board a Thursday morning flight, but the agents told him he could not leave the country until he answered questions about Ms. Cheng.

He quickly arranged to be escorted to the Australian embassy in Beijing.

Mr. Smith, who received a similar midnight knock on the door, was taken to Australia’s consulate in Shanghai.

The two men then waited, not knowing how long they might be kept inside as diplomats sought to negotiate their safe passage out of the country.

Their sudden departure leaves Australian media without any correspondents in China and marked a dramatic escalation of friction between Beijing and a number of countries, in particular Western liberal democracies and U.S. allies. Journalists have been drawn into tit-for-tat battles between Beijing and Washington. Dozens of correspondents have been booted from both countries.

“The late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now,” Mr. Smith told the Australian Financial Review.

The moves against the two Australian correspondents “explicitly shows, in my view, that there’s now precedent for foreign journalists to be used as pawns, and that’s something that we haven’t seen before,” Mr. Birtles said.

All the evidence points to Chinese authorities questioning the two men as part of escalating tensions with Australia, which has angered Beijing by instating new foreign influence laws and, more recently, calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, a foreign policy think tank in Sydney.

“The inescapable conclusion is that it is about the bilateral relationship in one form or another,” he said. The message to the international community is this: “If your country has a bad relationship with China, all sorts of dangerous things can happen.”

Authorities “strictly followed the law” in questioning the two men, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday. He called China’s actions against Mr. Birtles and Mr. Smith “a normal enforcement of law.”

Chinese authorities have recently refused to renew press credentials for at least five reporters with U.S. media outlets, as Chinese journalists in the U.S. face an uncertain future there. Seventeen journalists have been expelled from China this year, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. The U.S. earlier booted 60 Chinese state media staff.

“The FCCC denounces this extraordinary erosion of media freedoms leading foreign journalists to fear that they could be targets of China’s hostage diplomacy,” the club said in a statement.

Long-time correspondents in China could recall no precedent for foreign journalists being made subject to an exit ban.

On Tuesday, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne urged Australians to consult the government’s travel advice, which urges people not to travel to China, citing in part the detention of foreigners on national security grounds and the “risk of arbitrary detention.”

Under Chinese law, people can be held incommunicado and subject to six hours of daily interrogation over a period of months. Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor both went through half a year of such secret detention, formally called residential surveillance at a designated location, after their disappearances in December, 2018. Both have since been charged with state security offences, although Chinese authorities have not revealed any evidence against them.

Their detention is widely seen as hostage diplomacy by Beijing, a reprisal against Ottawa for the arrest at Vancouver airport of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Ms. Meng of fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran.

Chinese authorities have also detained two Australian citizens – Ms. Cheng and Yang Hengjun, a writer and activist – over the past two years amid souring relations between the two countries.

Mr. Birtles expressed sadness over his departure.

“There’s often this perception that Western journalists have an adversarial relationship with China,” he said. But “just because we often cover stories and topics that the Communist Party doesn’t like doesn’t mean that we don’t have a huge affection for the country – for its people – and a desire to be there and to be a small part of broader Chinese life.

“It’s just deeply disappointing.”

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