The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith, left, and Bill Birtles of the ABC arrived in Sydney on Monday © ABC

Two Australian journalists working for the nation’s media outlets in China have been rushed out of the country following an extraordinary diplomatic stand-off.

Bill Birtles, the ABC’s correspondent in Beijing, and Michael Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s Shanghai-based China correspondent, flew back to Sydney on Monday.

The pair were forced to shelter under Australian diplomatic protection for five days after Chinese police visited their homes after midnight last Wednesday and informed them they faced questioning over a “national security case”, according to reports published by the ABC and Australian Financial Review.

The departures mean Australia's main media outlets do not have a representative based in mainland China for the first time in four decades. 

ABC said Mr Birtles initially refused to speak to Chinese officials, “citing fears for his personal safety”.

After negotiations between Australia and Chinese officials in Beijing, they were interviewed by China’s Ministry of State Security. Both journalists were then allowed to board flights to Australia.

“The ABC has brought back China correspondent Bill Birtles to Australia following advice from the Australian government,” the national broadcaster said in a statement.

Australian diplomats in Beijing had warned the ABC last week that Mr Birtles should leave China.

Last month, Chinese authorities detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who worked as a news reader for China Global Television Network, the state-controlled broadcaster.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry said Ms Cheng was “suspected of engaging in criminal activities endangering China's national security”, without elaborating. It added that the questioning of Mr Birtles and Mr Smith was conducted “according to law” in the context of a “normal law enforcement action”.

The Australian Financial Review reported that state security officials questioned Mr Birtles and Mr Smith about Ms Cheng.

The departure of the Australian journalists represents the latest deterioration in relations between Canberra and Beijing following a series of diplomatic disputes and trade tensions.

In July, the Australian government upgraded its travel advice for China, warning that its citizens faced “arbitrary detention” in the country.

Beijing’s targeting of Australian media outlets also follows an escalation in tit-for-tat retaliation between Beijing and Washington over the issuing of media visas and treatment of their respective news organisations. At least five journalists working for US media organisations in China, including CNN, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News, have been told they could not renew their visas or press cards as normal. They were instead given letters allowing them to remain and work.

The freeze on visa renewals affects not only American citizens but correspondents of various nationalities working for US media. Beijing has explicitly said the measures were in retaliation for US restrictions on Chinese journalists.

Richard McGregor, analyst at Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank, and a former journalist for the Financial Times, said: “The threats to the Australian journalists are bad enough of themselves, because once dragged into an investigation in China, they would have had no rights for extended period of time, and might have also been detained.

“But it also marks a new low in a relationship which already seemed to have reached rock bottom.”

Beijing’s treatment of the Australian journalists prompted calls by some parliamentarians for Canberra to reciprocate against Chinese state-owned media organisations, including Xinhua, the news agency.

“If Australian journalists can no longer safely report from China, then it appears quite inappropriate for Australia to tolerate the Chinese Communist Party’s leading propaganda outlet having a presence here,” said Rex Patrick, a senator.

Mr Birtles wrote on Twitter that it was “deeply disappointing to leave China under such abrupt circumstances. It's been a big part of my life & the past week was surreal.”

Mr Smith told the Australian Financial Review he was grateful to be back in Australia. “The late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now,” he said.

Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said in a statement that Canberra had provided consular support to the two men and engaged with Chinese authorities “to ensure their wellbeing and return to Australia”.

Michael Stutchbury, editor-in-chief of the Australian Financial Review, and Paul Bailey, the newspaper’s editor, said: “This incident targeting two journalists, who were going about their normal reporting duties, is both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu

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