The shock news that two Australian journalists had been rushed out of China back to safety in Sydney capped off a high-stakes stand-off between Beijing and Canberra that resembled nothing less than a clandestine Cold War drama.
The first that the public knew of the week-long ordeal endured by the ABC’s Bill Birtles in Beijing and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith in Shanghai, was the photo of the relieved pair arriving at Sydney Airport on Tuesday morning.
The stand-off had started with a midnight visit from China’s state security to the reporters’ homes, followed by a flight to sanctuary in the Australian embassy in Beijing and the Australian consulate in Shanghai, secret negotiations to allow them out of the country and finally their flight home.
Much like hostage dramas that played out during the Cold War, the story’s narrative is being fleshed out only after the public has been presented with the drama’s resolution.
For the moment only the reporters, and governments in Canberra and Beijing, can fill in the details of what happened and, to the extent they know, why they were approached with such menace. Let no one doubt that the threat to the pair’s safety was real. Once pulled in for questioning in China, they could have had their rights extinguished for an extended period and might have been detained indefinitely.
To state the obvious, the incident underlines how far into a hole the bilateral relationship has fallen since its most recent positive peak, in late 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping was invited to address the Australian parliament.
But the spy-versus-spy style harassment of the reporters gives us important clues about how the relationship is being handled inside China itself, and they don’t bode well for the future.
As a reporter in China, first for The Australian from 1995 onwards, then later for the Financial Times for the first decade of the 21st century, it was common for me to run into all manner of obstacles. The police and local governments and their offices for dealing with foreigners and the police and the like were all potential roadblocks to be managed.
Even individual districts in Shanghai, China’s sophisticated commercial capital, had their own units of secret plainclothes police who would drop into the office, unannounced, for a chat. It was usually advisable to invite them in for a cup of tea before politely begging to be allowed to get back to work.
Above all of these different power centres sat the Foreign Ministry, which was the host organisation for foreign reporters in China and which held sway over your visa. The Foreign Ministry was never your friend, but at the same time staff were usually professional and, as guardians of China’s relations with the rest of the world, could be surprisingly helpful.
They were also in charge, which is to say that they seemed to be able to fend off those parts of the Chinese system, like the Ministry of State Security, that were much less friendly and saw no need to accommodate foreign journalists. From the mid-1990s onwards, Beijing expelled and denied the visas of only a handful of foreign journalists. It was not uncommon to be briefly detained by local officials, but I can’t remember an instance of state security officers turning up with menace on someone’s doorstep after midnight, as happened to Birtles and Smith.
With the rise of Xi and a more powerful, resolute China, full-throttle competition with the US and pushback from middle powers such as Australia, the landscape is now radically different.
There were already clear signs earlier this year that state security prerogatives were gaining the upper hand in dealing with foreign journalists, during a clash with the Trump administration over Chinese state media in the US.
State security in Beijing had long wanted to target US journalists in China, especially after they had published lengthy detailed articles about the wealth of top leaders. They had been restrained, however, by forces aligned with the Foreign Ministry that had an eye on the larger relationship.
The Trump administration’s ill-advised decision to order Chinese state media to cut the number of their reporters in the US gave the dark side in China a perfect excuse to do what it has long wanted to do.
Within weeks, Beijing had expelled most of the American journalists based in China from the three top US dailies: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
It was a poor deal for the US, the equivalent of exchanging rooks for pawns. Chinese journalists in the US add nothing to the sum of knowledge about America, whereas American and other foreign journalists in China are indispensable in trying to shed light on Beijing’s opaque party-state.
As with the US, Australia’s relationship with China is in such poor repair that it offers no defence to the worst elements in the system getting their way.
Hence, the targeting of Australian journalists with nary a Chinese diplomat in sight.
Unfortunately, the commendable reporting skills of the two journalists are irrelevant as they have become pieces to be moved around the board or taken out altogether in a much bigger game.
If there is anything positive out of the whole episode, it was that Australian diplomats were able to negotiate safe passage for Birtles and Smith out of China.
However bad bilateral ties might be, some parts of the Chinese system clearly saw no benefit in the additional aggravation from having the two journalists kept in China against their will indefinitely. In any case, Beijing already has two Australians in detention, writer Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei, a journalist for Chinese state-owned global network CGTN.
Some in Canberra no doubt will advocate that Australia should respond by withdrawing the visas of Chinese state journalists based in Australia in retaliation.
That would be wrong. As the American tit-for-tat episode over journalists has shown, if you want to race to the bottom, China will win every time.
Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.