An ABC journalist has broken his silence on how he and his family were intimidated by Chinese authorities in 2018, including a warning that his 14-year-old daughter might be taken away to an undisclosed location.
Matthew Carney, the ABC’s former China bureau chief, said he feared “serious trouble” when he and his wife were told to bring their daughter to the ministry of public security in north Beijing for questioning over an alleged breach of visa rules.
Carney has alleged a lead interrogator told him in slow, strident English: “Your daughter is 14-years-old. She is an adult under Chinese law and as the People’s Republic of China is a law-abiding country she will be charged with the visa crime.”
He disclosed the circumstances behind his 2018 departure from China – including videotaped confessions – in an article published by the ABC on Monday, saying he had not spoken sooner because he had not wanted to put other staff members at risk.
But that equation changed after his ABC colleague, Bill Birtles, and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith fled China earlier this month after being sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds for several days while the government negotiated to allow their exit from the country.
Chinese state security services sought to interview Birtles and Smith in relation to the case of Cheng Lei, another Australian journalist who was detained in August over what China describes as a national security matter.
Carney said his own story suggested there was more to the Chinese government’s actions against foreign journalists “than tit-for-tat reprisals as the Chinese portray” – a point also made by Birtles on Monday:
Following the controversy over Birtles and Smith’s departure, Beijing disclosed that Australian authorities had questioned four Chinese journalists in Australia in June this year as part of a widening investigation into alleged foreign interference – actions that the Chinese government said exposed Australia’s hypocrisy.
In the new article, Carney wrote that he had faced “more than three months of intimidation until my family and I were effectively forced to leave China”.
He said he had submitted his visa renewal application six weeks before it was due to expire to avoid trouble but was instead ordered to attend the ministry of foreign affairs for a two-hour “cup of tea”, which foreign journalists in China all knew signified a dressing down.
Carney said an “unassuming, bespectacled Chinese bureaucrat” had complained that his stories – including about re-education camps in the Xinjiang region and Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power by removing term limits – “had abused all the people and leadership of China”.
She also accused him of having personally broken Chinese laws and said that he was now under investigation.
He said he was called in twice more for “cups of tea” over the subsequent two weeks and the bureaucrat had indicated that China was outraged by Australia’s new foreign interference laws, which were introduced by then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
At one point, Carney was informed he, his wife Catherine and their three children would gain two-month visa extensions.
But when they went to immigration police to have these stamped into their passports, an official told them to immediately report to the ministry of public security – “territory where interrogations and detentions are the norm” – and to bring daughter Yasmine, who was 14 at the time.
“As I mulled the possibilities, fear sank into my gut,” Carney wrote.
“It felt like part of the Chinese playbook: to go after family members as a way to exact punishment and revenge.”
Given the escalation, he said, the Australian embassy in Beijing, the department of foreign affairs and trade in Canberra and his bosses at the ABC were made aware of the developments and were monitoring his movements.
Carney said he told officials at public security that he would take responsibility for any of her daughter’s alleged “visa crimes”, prompting an official to reply: “Do you know that as a law-abiding country we have the right to detain your daughter?”
“After some time she added: ‘I do have to inform you, Mr Carney, that we have a right to keep your daughter in an undisclosed location and I do have to inform you there would be other adults present’.
“I told her any attempt at this, and I would escalate the situation by involving the Australian embassy and Australian government, which was aware of my case.
“But if she was trying to terrify me, it was working.”
He then offered to leave China the following day, prompting the official to laugh and say: “Mr Carney, you can’t leave the People’s Republic of China! You are under investigation and we have put an exit ban on your passport.”
When he asked what would happen when the family’s visas ran out the coming Saturday, she said: “Well, you will be put into detention.”
After consulting embassy staff, Chinese colleagues and the ABC, “we all decided the best approach was to confess guilt and apologise for the ‘visa crime’, with the condition that Yasmine stayed with us”.
They were instructed, he said, to return the following day for him and his daughter to give videotaped confessions that they had not transferred the visa that was about to expire into a new passport.
Finally, they secured a two-month extension. However, he cut short the family’s stay on the advice of a lawyer after he received a defamation complaint from a Chinese woman featured in a program he had made about China’s social credit system.
The details have been revealed amid increasing tensions in the relationship between Australia and China.