China continued to welcome foreign journalists and discriminated against none, a Chinese envoy said on Wednesday, contradicting an Australian reporter’s opinion that they were “barely tolerated.”
Wang Xining, the Chinese Embassy in Australia’s deputy head of mission, and Michael Smith, one the last journalists working for Australian media to flee China, were taking part in a panel discussion about China at the National Press Club of Australia.
Smith, a reporter for The Australian Financial Review who fled Shanghai in September after police demanded an interview and temporarily blocked his departure, said China once welcomed foreign journalists to “spread the news about China’s economic miracle.”
“In China, there’s no room for any opinion that does not match that of the Chinese Communist Party,” Smith said. “It feels like these days we’re, sort of, barely tolerated.”
Wang said he was “quite sympathetic” toward Smith and Bill Birtles, an Australian Broadcasting Corp. reporter who fled Beijing at the same time as Smith and under similar circumstances.
“It was not … my embassy or … any of our Chinese authorities who advised them to leave,” Wang said.
“Michael and I discussed that issue, we’ll continue to discuss and we’ll find out a solution for this. But in general, I would disagree with Michael saying that my government no longer welcomes foreign journalists because our policy is we welcome journalists from every corner of the world and also from the Western countries,” Wang added.
Many foreign journalists in China have been placed on sort-term visas of as little as three months, making travel within the country difficult. China has also blocked already limited access to the BBC, partly in retribution for Britain’s revocation of the UK broadcasting license of the foreign arm of the state news channel CCTV.
Smith said BBC’s former Beijing correspondent John Sudworth was the latest high-profile journalist to leave China after reporting about detention camps in northwest Xinjiang and allegations that minority groups were coerced into working in textile factories.
BBC reported last month that Sudworth and his family had moved to Taiwan following pressure and threats from Chinese authorities.
Wang said BBC journalists “failed to present a truthful image” of Xinjiang.
“We never discriminate against any journalists, but we hope foreign journalists in China will present the true image of China,” Wang said.
Smith and Birtles had sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds before they were allowed to leave China under a deal brokered between the two governments.
China’s foreign ministry later said Australian security agents had in June raided the Sydney homes of four journalists working for Chinese state media and seized their electronics, citing possible violations of Australia’s anti-foreign interference law.
The journalists representing Xinhua News Agency, China Central Radio, CCTV and China News Agency had since returned to China.
Smith said on Wednesday that the Sydney raids were “obviously the trigger for what happened to us.”
“Bill Birtles and myself sort of became pawns in this tit-for-tat political game being played by Australia and China,” Smith said.
Before their departure, Chinese police questioned both journalists about Australian citizen Cheng Lei, a business news anchor for CGNT, China’s English language state media channel, who had been detained a month earlier.
Wang said Cheng lawfully remained in detention.
“She was apprehended because she was suspected of violating the security law of China and all these cases will be handled according to Chinese legal procedure and legal documents,” Wang said.