By Bill Birtles
Paramilitary police outside Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium. Credit:
At about half past five in the afternoon on August 31, 2020, I received the call that changed everything. I was in my office, furiously tapping out a big story, when my phone rang.
It was one of the managers from International News back in Sydney. His tone serious, he told me that DFAT – the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – had just called the ABC. And two other media outlets.
“F…, f…, f…! I’m just about to file this and they must be ringing up all the media to leak it,” I exclaimed down the phone. It was a major scoop exposing just how dire the situation had become in China. The manager was confused. He wasn’t ringing about that, or any other story. “I’m calling to tell you that the Australian government wants to get you out of China,” he said. We were talking about the same topic and didn’t even realise it.
Hours before, I’d stumbled upon what appeared to be a massive escalation in China’s aggression towards Australia. Although I felt I was like the last person in Beijing to know about it, the story somehow hadn’t been reported. I’d learnt that Cheng Lei, a Chinese-Australian TV anchor well known to Australians in Beijing, had been taken from her apartment and detained by state security police.
Cheng, a mother of a 10-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy, was sociable, down-to-earth and irreverently funny. Well-liked and respected, she didn’t feel the need to defend the more egregious propaganda editorial lines of her employer, CGTN, China’s government-mouthpiece TV network. As an anchor and business reporter, she was a step removed from CGTN’s more political roles, and she had no problem taking the piss out of her situation as an Australian fronting China’s highly nationalistic voice. I knew her personally but not particularly well. I wasn’t aware that her close friends and colleagues had been harbouring increasing concerns for her welfare.
My first inkling of a major diplomatic crisis had come from an unlikely source. Zoe Daniel, the former ABC Washington bureau chief, messaged me out of the blue to ask if I knew Cheng Lei.
Journalists from CGTN’s Washington bureau had told Zoe that they couldn’t reach Cheng, and her WeChat Moments feed [similar to Facebook’s Timeline] had gone silent. Her last post had been about the opening of Shake Shack in Beijing – about two weeks earlier. Her friends knew the silence online was uncharacteristic. Zoe wanted to know if I knew anything. Her inquiry surprised me. “I doubt Cheng Lei’s in trouble,” I said. Everyone always assumed the worst in China when often there was an innocuous explanation.
I went straight to someone who would know if anything was wrong. This person told me that Cheng had gone back to Australia due to “a pretty serious personal crisis”, which explained why her employer was hushing up her sudden departure. I bought the story. In hindsight it had some pretty big holes in it. Flying from China to Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy. I messaged Zoe to tell her what I’d been told, joking, “Glad she hasn’t been taken by the Chinese cops.”
Those nonchalant words were still on my message screen five days later when Zoe texted again. Her contacts at CGTN had noticed that Cheng’s presence on CGTN’s website and social-media accounts had been meticulously purged. Page by page, video after video.
I asked around again, and learnt that the concerns about Cheng were real. She had been taken from her apartment, her computer and devices had been seized, and Australian diplomats had already held their first consular visit with her over video chat. She was being held in Beijing under the dreaded “residential surveillance at a designated location”, an Orwellian legal procedure unique to China that seeks to mask enforced disappearance as something akin to house arrest. Officially you haven’t even been formally arrested, let alone charged. Investigators can shut off suspects from the outside world and interrogate them for six months while they build a case. It’s an unimaginably powerful legal tool for authorities to use and abuse.
Being held in “RSDL” could only mean one thing: Cheng was being investigated for national security crimes. Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne planned to issue a statement publicising the case and I was asked if I would hold off breaking the news until then. No one could imagine Cheng doing anything that would genuinely harm China’s national security. Politics was at play.
Detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei.Credit:
Cheng Lei wasn’t known to audiences in Australia, but she was an unusually high-profile Australian for China to target. It wasn’t just her presence as a face of a Chinese government news channel, but also her close ties to the Australian community in Beijing. She was a promotional “ambassador” for Australian education. She spoke at International Women’s Day events. Few visiting politicians or international business bigwigs would get through a China visit without sitting down to be interviewed by her. There really wasn’t anyone I could think of who better epitomised the idea of Australia-China engagement than Cheng Lei.
Australia’s relations with China were worsening by the week as Beijing slapped bans on various Australian exports in apparent retaliation for Australia’s hardening stance towards its biggest trading partner. Cheng’s arrest would send a shock wave through Australia’s political and business community. I was waiting on a response from the Foreign Minister’s office when the manager from ABC International, back at home, told me DFAT had rung him instead. “They want you to prepare to leave China as soon as possible.”
His words made no sense. I had a big story ready to break, and whatever it was about, Cheng’s detention had absolutely nothing to do with me. The manager had no idea about the Cheng case and, after hearing me explain it, he told me I should have immediately notified HQ when I learnt the details hours earlier.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that the sudden detention of an Australian-Chinese state-media employee would have any bearing on my safety,” I said. No foreign journalist had been detained by state security police before and Cheng’s case didn’t change that. The manager maintained that DFAT’s advice had been delivered as a matter of urgency.
Perplexed, I started to think someone had overreacted, and that it would quickly be sorted out. For five years I’d watched the relationship between Australia and China unravel little by little, but surely it hadn’t reached a point where Australian journalists needed to flee the country. And yet the wheels for my departure were already in motion.
Bill Birtles, at left, with Beijing-based cameraman Steve Wang.Credit:Courtesy of Bill Birtles
I had slept relatively well despite breaking the news to my partner, Yinan, that the Australian Government wanted us to pack up our lives and evacuate from her country with immediate effect.
“What’s the actual reason?” she asked me.
I couldn’t tell her. The ABC bosses couldn’t tell me. DFAT wouldn’t tell them.
We’d spent the evening talking in circles about what was likely going on, punctuated by calls to close friends. The most likely speculation was that the Australian authorities were planning to take some sort of investigative action against Chinese state-media journalists in Australia and they wanted me out before they started.
Perversely, Yinan and I took some comfort from how sudden and unexplained it was. Having first met in Beijing through foreign media circles, we had built a relationship, moved in together, adopted cats and made plans for children, knowing we would one day leave China to head to the next posting. Uncertainty was always present in our plans. But leaving under these circumstances was more than we bargained for. Before we went to sleep, we convinced ourselves that it must be a misunderstanding.
The Australian embassy was a relatively stylish understated 1990s building, far nicer than the brown brick bunkers of the neighbouring Canadian and German embassies. We were taken to the ambassador’s office – a first for us – and the solemn tone of the briefing sapped my optimism immediately. Everyone present was dead serious. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were in danger of being detained by the Chinese police, and that we should make arrangements to get on a flight out of China as soon as possible. We weren’t told exactly why, but it appeared to be linked to Cheng’s case.
“How long do we have?”
A senior diplomat looked at his watch. “Well, it’s 11am now …” A chill went through me. They were talking hours, not days. Once we flew out, they told us, “You will not be coming back.”
“Shit, it’s over,” I thought, tears starting to well in my eyes as the reality dawned. Just like that, my time in China was to finish.
With the briefing nearly wrapped up and having received assurances that Yinan would very likely be granted an exemption to enter Australia, I told them what was really rattling me. “My partner’s pregnant,” I blurted out. We’d only started trying for a baby a few months earlier after confirming I would extend my posting in Beijing for another year. It was still early days, and we hadn’t told others yet.
One of the embassy employees broke into a tight smile, exclaiming “Congratulations,” the most bittersweet of expressions glinting in her eyes.
Twenty-four hours after the briefing at the embassy, I still refused to believe we would be forced to go.
The earliest flight from China to Australia we could find was on Friday, two days away. I hoped the wait might help clarify what was going on and lead to us staying. The warnings were jump-starting my managers into action back in Australia, but they were also becoming aware of the long-term impact on the ABC.
The implications for news coverage were serious. If I left China in the middle of the pandemic, neither I nor anyone from the ABC would be back any time soon. Beijing would interpret the flight of the Australian media based on government safety advice as a highly political act.
Vague regulations governing foreign media stipulate that a bureau’s registration will be cancelled if an organisation goes more than 10 months without an accredited foreign journalist in the country. DFAT was effectively telling the ABC that it had to shut down its operations in China, for an indefinite period, after 46 years. Without explaining why.
Beijing would interpret the flight of the Australian media based on government safety advice as a highly political act.
It seemed a bit rich that the journalists sent to pick through the Chinese government’s opaqueness were expected to comply unquestioningly with opaque decisions made by our own. But that was the feeling of a phone call I received that morning from a very senior diplomat.
“I would have expected you to have booked flights already,” he said. The urgency and certainty in his voice hit me.
“What did he say?” Yinan asked me, an anxious look on her face.
Sitting at the table with her in our small apartment, it all proved too much. I broke down in tears and told her we had to go. The posting was over … for both of us … and we didn’t even know why exactly.
We booked the flights, looked around at all the stuff in the apartment – including an elaborate tank of tropical fish and the two cats we’d adopted – and snapped into action. We had a day to pack up our lives and get out.
Bill Birtles with his partner Yinan. Credit:Courtesy of Bill Birtles
I’d been to many farewells during my posting, but none like this. I was packing up my office, having a scotch on the balcony, and saying rushed goodbyes, all at once.
Yinan had hastily gathered a small group of friends and colleagues and called her parents, who were on holiday in a beachside town three hours away, to ask them to rush back to Beijing. She didn’t want to say why on the phone, given that the call might be monitored, but her tone made it clear that the vague unease her parents had always held about my job was warranted.
As evening approached, our apartment looked like a halfway house. Clothes and documents were scattered everywhere. With the late afternoon sun retreating through the window over the mountains to the west, emotion sat heavy in the air.
For me, the situation wasn’t completely unexpected. Journalism in China always carried the risk of a sudden departure. But for Yinan, it was devastating. Her colleagues from a theatre company she had set up after quitting the foreign media were all there. They were far more than colleagues, they were friends, some with young children, who had built a small creative start-up around an unusual passion for teaching Western children’s theatre in China.
Yinan’s close friends and former colleagues from her days working as a journalist for the German media were also there, as were my closest friends in Beijing.
We ordered a food delivery in a distinctively Chinese style. As the hotpots began to bubble with their mixture of spice and oil, our guests dunked their fishballs and slices of beef. The aroma of boiling meat and chilli oil added another layer to the drama. Drinks were flowing freely as I tried to get rid of whatever wine or whiskey was left in the cupboard.
But I wasn’t partaking much. Each time a friend arrived, I had to explain the whole situation again. The unanswered questions. The urgency. The doubts.
When Yinan’s parents arrived I had to go through it all again … in Mandarin. It would have been pretty hard in English, but it was particularly daunting using Chinese to tell your future in-laws that you’re taking their only child, pregnant with their first grandchild, away to a far-away country in the middle of a global pandemic due to concerns harboured by a foreign government that I was about to be arrested for political reasons that had nothing to with me personally. All things considered, they took it pretty well.
We still weren’t 100 per cent certain we’d be getting on the plane. The ABC’s management was asking questions back in Australia and wasn’t getting any clear answers, even from the highest levels.
As the hotpots boiled and drinks flowed, I took a call from David Anderson, the ABC’s managing director. He asked for my assessment. “I feel safe, Yinan feels safe and if it’s up to us, we don’t want to leave,” I told him. He congratulated me on the pregnancy news, passing on ABC chair Ita Buttrose’s best wishes too. I’d never met the legendary Ita, but she was now one of the first to know we were expecting. Most likely the Foreign Minister now knew, too. Surreal.
The Australian authorities were due to give a fresh briefing to the ABC the next morning, hopefully one that would shed some light. Management felt some solid justifications were needed before shutting down the bureau and fleeing the country. So now we were having a farewell party and didn’t even know if we were leaving.
Birtles and Australian Financial Review reporter Michael Smith leaving China.Credit:Courtesy of Bill Birtles
Five days later, we were sitting on a largely empty plane departing Shanghai with one-way tickets to Sydney. That initial advice to leave China had been followed by a midnight visit from Beijing’s National Security police, a ban on leaving China, a diplomatic standoff where we took shelter in the Australian embassy and finally a filmed interrogation in a downtown hotel room.
From there, we were escorted by Australian diplomats onto a flight to Shanghai and then finally to Sydney, where Yinan and I would begin two weeks of hotel quarantine as she battled the nausea of early pregnancy. I fielded interview after interview over Zoom – our rushed departure from China had become an international story. Everything was in flux, and we both felt so flat.
When we left quarantine after a fortnight, we noted how empty the streets of Sydney’s CBD looked. We were so far from the buzz and energy of living among 20 million people in the Chinese capital. But Sydney is just a temporary stop for now. While in Beijing, I had been assigned to become the ABC’s next Jakarta bureau chief. COVID had shut the Indonesian borders – leaving us no choice but to enjoy the Sydney summer, and then in late March, the birth of our son Casper.
He arrived blissfully ignorant of all the drama that unfolded during his earliest weeks in the womb. It’ll make a good story for him for one day. Like other Australian journalists, we’re now China correspondents in exile – covering a country from afar that was already quite inaccessible on the ground. The China media environment has become hostile,depressing and toxic. I’m glad I don’t have all my eggs in the China basket and am looking forward to moving on.
But others can’t move on. Cheng Lei remains in a Beijing detention cell, accused of leaking state secrets and denied visits from lawyers or phone calls to her two children in Melbourne. Similar cases have taken years to play out, and a conviction is almost a certainty.
This is an edited extract from The Truth About China by Bill Birtles (Allen & Unwin, $33), out Monday. Birtles will be speaking at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova on May 20, the Sydney Opera House on May 23 and the Australian National University Canberra on May 25.
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