cheng lei bill birtles michael smith
Journalist Michael Smith, anchor Cheng Lei and journalist Bill Birtles (Images: CGTN; supplied)

Now that it’s become clear China was deliberately targeting Australian journalists as some sort of tit-for-tat in the escalating diplomatic stoush between the two countries, perhaps it’s time to consider some reciprocity.

It’s not just the AFR’s Mike Smith and the ABC’s Bill Birtles who were targeted and driven from the country. The new ABC bureau chief-in-waiting Sarah Ferguson and Nine’s China correspondent-in-waiting Eryk Bagshaw have been cooling their heels for 10 and eight months respectively, awaiting their visas.

The ABC told Crikey last night that it was continuing to pursue a visa for Ferguson but would not comment on how many local Chinese it has working in its Beijing bureau or whether they were still being paid or on leave.

Throwing some mud in the water, the Chinese Communist Party’s hyperbolic, nationalist tabloid Global Times ran an unsourced story claiming that Australian security operatives had raided the offices of Chinese journalists in Australia.

“Staff from the Australian intelligence agency recently raided the residences of Chinese journalists in Australia, and questioned them, seized their computers and smartphones, and asked them not to report the incident, the Global Times wrote, citing an unnamed source and describing it as a “serious political incident”. 

Multiple Chinese media sources now claim the ASIO raided four Chinese journalists in Australia.

Given the focus on Chinese espionage in Australia at the moment this may be true — and could possibly tip the problem on its head — but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would not confirm or deny it.

Dozens of Chinese journalists are working in Australia

Australia is home to dozens of journalists and other staff working for China’s sprawling state-run news organisations, the subject of a multibillion-dollar global push for so-called soft power by Beijing.

No one seems to know exactly what the numbers are, and if DFAT does know — and that’s unlikely — it’s not saying. But the state-owned news wire Xinhua and the Communist Party-controlled publications like China Daily, People’s Daily and Global Times all have well-staffed offices around Australia.

One Canberra insider said they could count at least 30 frontline journalists, a number than would at least double if editors, translators, production and support staff were added.

Reciprocal action would be to put pressure on some journalists, or even demand that Australia be able to send to China as many Chinese journalists are in Australia.

The long-held problem with reciprocity is ceding the moral high ground — in Australia there is a free and open press that’s not restricted or required to register for. 

And that was pretty much Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne’s response yesterday: “That is not how Australia operates. Australia operates according to law and in our national interests. And unless individuals are breaching laws in Australia, then that would not be an approach we would take. At this point that is our consistent view.”

This in sharp contrast to China where only a handful of private news media companies operate outside social media, most notably in the business and finance sector. All media is heavily policed and Chinese journalists are regularly detained, disappeared or imprisoned.

The number of international media representatives is heavily restricted to about 600, almost exclusively in Beijing and Shanghai but with a few outlying bureaus in Guangzhou and some second-tier cities for Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean publications.

The US has done what Australia will not

The United States has recently done what Payne will not (for now). After China expelled three US journalists in February, Washington designated four Chinese media agencies as foreign missions and has since designated three more. The new designation affects all the major Chinese outlets in Australia.

But the focus of Chinese authorities remains unclear: Australian citizens who are journalists or Australian news outlets? The detention of Australian-Chinese CGTN news anchor Cheng Lei a week ago adds some confusion.

Smith and Birtles have said they were questioned about her — despite only a passing or casual acquaintance — rather than much about their own reporting. Other Australian journalists in Beijing who know Cheng are understood to have not been visited by police so far. 

Chinese authorities confirmed last night that Cheng was being held for “criminal activity endangering national security”.

There is a broader crackdown on foreign media under way: the Foreign Correspondents Club of Beijing said 17 foreign journalists had been expelled or not had their work permits renewed this year. China ranks 177 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

There are some prominent Australian journalists in the mainland, including former ABC bureau chief Stephen McDonnell, now with the BBC, and a number of other Australians who work for Chinese state-run media — including at CGTN — have been warned by Payne to tread carefully.

There are also a handful or two Australians working for international news wires and the South China Morning Post, and a smattering of freelancers in Hong Kong. Already some Hong Kong journalists have run into trouble renewing their visas and Birtles said he was questioned about Hong Kong sources.

It is unlikely this will be the end of Beijing’s foreign media purge. Reports are circulating that US nationals for major outlets have had early problems renewing their visas.

From Australia’s point of view, with security and defence forces now paramount in Canberra, it remains to be seen how long Payne can maintain the moral high ground on reciprocity — or indeed if she should.