Friends and colleagues of Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s correspondent in Beijing, gathered in his apartment last Wednesday for a final round of drinks before his departure from China, at the advice of Australian diplomats, amid mounting tensions between the two countries. At midnight, state security officers arrived.

Michael Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s correspondent based in Shanghai, received a similar visit that night.

The officers informed the reporters they could no longer leave China, the ABC reported. Authorities wanted to question them about the case of Cheng Lei, an Australian news anchor for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN who was detained on Aug. 14 for reasons that remain murky.

The reporters sought refuge in the Australian Embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai while diplomats negotiated their departure, the ABC reported. Four days later, they were cleared to leave the country. Birtles and Smith were the last reporters for Australian outlets remaining in China, leaving the Australian media without any foreign correspondents on the ground for the first time in decades.

The incident could increase discord between the two countries. The relationship was already strained by Cheng’s detention last month amid Canberra’s criticism of Beijing’s efforts to revoke Hong Kong’s autonomy, its military activity in the South China Sea and human rights violations targeting the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

It was the latest step by Beijing to detain, expel or restrict the activities of foreign journalists.

Just hours after the reporters landed in Australia, Chinese authorities announced that Cheng, an Australian citizen who was born in China, had been arrested last month on charges of “carrying out illegal activities endangering China’s national security.” They provided no further information.

China this week delayed the renewal of visas for several journalists working with U.S. news outlets, including Bloomberg, CNN and the Wall Street Journal, Reuters reported. In March, Beijing effectively expelled from the country U.S. journalists from The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, pulling their credentials.

The move was seen as retaliation for the Trump administration’s limits on U.S.-based Chinese state media.

‘Journalists as pawns’

On Wednesday, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China issued a statement condemning “the Chinese government’s unprecedented harassment and intimidation of two Australian journalists” and denounced what it called the use of “foreign journalists as pawns in wider diplomatic disputes.”

“Such actions by the Chinese government amount to appalling intimidatory tactics that threaten and seek to curtail the work of foreign journalists based in China, who now face the threat of arbitrary detention for simply doing their work, and difficult circumstances that make it untenable to remain in the country,” the statement continued.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, called the questioning of Birtles and Smith the “normal enforcement of law,” the Guardian reported. The ministry said that foreign journalists are welcome in China, “as long as they observe Chinese laws and regulations, and report according to law.”

‘Very disappointing’

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, in an interview with Sydney’s 2GB radio, called the standoff over Birtles and Smith “a very disappointing series of events.”

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

Payne told 2GB that Australian authorities became increasingly concerned about the safety of Australian journalists in China after Cheng’s detention.

Australian consular officials have had one meeting with Cheng since her detention, by videoconference because of coronavirus precautions, Payne said. Under Chinese law, Cheng can be held for up to six months without access to a lawyer.

Shrinking media access

Birtles told the ABC that he had been on his way out of China when the officers came knocking. He called the scene that unfolded in his apartment “extraordinary and unprecedented.”

“On one hand, this is urgent enough for them to rock up to my front door at midnight, with a total of seven people, to tell me I’m involved in a state security case,” Birtles said. “On the other hand, they say, ‘Hey, we’ll ring you tomorrow afternoon to organize a chat.’”

He did not wait for the call. Instead, he contacted the Australian Embassy, which sent officials to collect him. Birtles then spent four days in the diplomatic compound before he was cleared to fly out. As part of the agreement reached between Australian and Chinese authorities, Birtles agreed to be interviewed by state security officers before his departure.

He said his Chinese interrogators asked mainly about Cheng.

“I know Cheng Lei but not especially well, and Mike Smith in Shanghai had only met her once in his life,” he told the ABC. “We didn’t seem like the two most logical people you would talk to, if you really wanted to talk about her situation.”

“It felt very, very political,” he said. “It felt like a diplomatic tussle in a broader Australian-China relationship more than anything specific related to that case.”