This handout photograph taken and released on September 8, 2020, by ABC News shows Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Bill Birtles waving as he arrives in Sydney after leaving China over arrest fears, amid worsening diplomatic relations between the two countries. Photo: AFP/Taryn Southcombe/ABC NEWS

Two Australian journalists were rushed out of China overnight after Chinese police sought to question them, their employers said Tuesday.

The withdrawal of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review (AFR) correspondent Michael Smith came shortly after China detained a high-profile Australian journalist working for its state-run CGTN TV network.

The ABC said Birtles, who was based in Beijing, and Smith, who worked from Shanghai, had sheltered in Australian diplomatic offices for several days before being allowed to leave the country.

The pair flew out of Shanghai accompanied by Australian diplomats on Monday and arrived in Sydney early Tuesday.

The incident comes amid worsening diplomatic relations between the two governments and followed the detention last month of Cheng Lei, an Australian working as a business news anchor for CGTN.

Chinese authorities have given no reason for Cheng’s detention.

The ABC said Australia’s foreign ministry warned Birtles last week that he should leave China, but on the day before his scheduled departure on Thursday, seven police officers visited his home at midnight and said he was banned from leaving.

The police said they wanted to question Birtles over a “national security case,” prompting him to take refuge at the embassy. 

Birtles was questioned by Chinese police later in the week in the presence of Australian diplomats and the travel ban was lifted, the ABC said.

The AFR said Smith was also visited by police the same night in Shanghai and that both men were questioned in relation to the case against Cheng.

“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,” the Financial Review’s editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury and editor Paul Bailey said in a statement.

Australia earlier this year warned its citizens they faced the risk of arbitrary detention in China.

Ties began to sour between Australia and China – its biggest trading partner – more than two years ago when Australian authorities began to move against what was seen as China’s growing political interference and influence-peddling in the country.

Beijing was particularly infuriated by Australia’s leading role in international calls earlier this year for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Since then, China has taken steps to curb key Australian imports and encouraged Chinese students and tourists to avoid the country. 

Cheng is the second high-profile Australian citizen to be detained in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage.

Meanwhile, the United States on Tuesday accused China of “threatening” and “harassing” foreign journalists after it refused to renew press credentials for several employees of American media organizations.

The two superpower rivals have restricted reporter visas – with China expelling journalists – as brinkmanship over trade and tech, Hong Kong and the coronavirus, spills over into the media.

China’s record of “threatening, harassing, and expelling US and other foreign journalists goes back decades,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement provided by the US Embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently informed the US embassy in Beijing of new curbs on foreign reporters “by denying them press card renewals and refusing to process pending visa applications for journalists who were expelled earlier this year,” she said.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) on Monday confirmed the action, saying at least five journalists at four media groups – including the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Bloomberg – had been denied new press cards.

More are expected to receive similar treatment in coming weeks, placing further pressure on the already diminished foreign press corps.

The US has been “working relentlessly” to convince China to allow US journalists back into the country, the State Department spokeswoman added.

A record 17 foreign journalists were expelled from China in the first half of 2020 alone, the FCCC said. 

Foreign journalists are usually not allowed to work in China without valid press cards, which are also a requirement for gaining a residence permit.

Reporters are instead receiving letters that temporarily allow them to work using their expired press cards, but these “could be revoked at any time,” the FCCC said. 

China says the moves merely mirror curbs placed on its journalists working in the US – where Donald Trump’s administration has curtailed the visas of Chinese reporters to 90 days.