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China blocked my visa. I spent three years getting as close as I could

Starting your tenure as a foreign correspondent during the pandemic was both a blessing and a curse. It was the biggest international news story in generations, the geopolitics were absorbing and the economic costs astounding.

But it made travel very difficult, not to mention the death and misery it inflicted upon the world. Border closures and visa challenges meant my partner and I had to delay our departure for more than a year. And because my long-term visa had been denied, my destination was not Beijing but Singapore, where we had set up a new Asia bureau with my colleague Chris Barrett.

A waiter serves dinner to The Australian’s North Asia correspondent Will Glasgow inside the Beijing Olympic bubble. Credit: Eryk Bagshaw

When we finally left Sydney Airport in April 2021 one lonely kebab store was open. Even McDonald’s was closed. The international terminal that usually services 14.6 million passengers a year was deserted, save for the dozen passengers on our flight.

China had largely locked me out, so I made it my mission to get as close as I could as often as I could. In the end, its actions amplified voices it had hoped to suppress.

I travelled to Mongolia to interview teachers who have seen the Mongolian language and culture wiped out in Inner Mongolia, China’s northernmost province. Beijing’s reach had extended further into its neighbour, targeting activists living in exile who were suddenly arrested and deported.

“I might die or be murdered tomorrow,” Mongolian language teacher Balijinima Bai told me in his yurt outside Ulaanbaatar. “Please tell the world about our story.”

Children race horses in Mongolia.

Children race horses in Mongolia.Credit: Sanghee Liu

We hired a helicopter to get to the peak of the growing rivalry between India and China in the Himalayas on the border with Tibet. It conked out three times trying to lift itself off the tarmac.

That was enough for me and my editors, so my colleague Saurabh Yadav and I drove 24 hours on the most perilous roads I have ever seen. When we arrived we found communities that missed their ties to their Chinese colleagues across the border but had seen that relationship tinged with suspicion and fear fostered by governments of both sides.

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“I remember when my ancestors and elders used to trade with the Chinese,” said Harender Arya, who runs the India First Tea Shop in Mana, the last village before the Chinese border. “Things have changed now.”

On Taiwan’s Matsu Island, 25 minutes by boat from China, we found a 10-metre-tall stone sign carved in red into the rock of the bay opposite: “Always be ready to fight even when you are sleeping,” it said. The sign watches over a local population that has become so used to the threat of war with Beijing that has become a part of daily life.

A tourist reacts near a billboard with a message reminding people to be ready to fight on the island of Matsu.

A tourist reacts near a billboard with a message reminding people to be ready to fight on the island of Matsu.Credit: Daniel Ceng

In Hong Kong and Macau, photojournalist Daniel Ceng and I reported on two distinct cultures struggling to survive.

MJ, a Hong Kong student, said in the four years since Beijing implemented national security laws in one of the world’s great global cities, its liberal identity had been wiped out.

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“And the rest of the world has just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Oh well’,” she said. “The only choice you have left to decide is whether you want to stay or whether you want to go.”

Further afield in Africa, we found stories of Chinese investment being welcomed but also exploitation and corruption.

The Ghanaian government launched an inquiry after my Blood Gold investigation with Edward Adeti revealed the deaths of dozens of miners and the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars of gold from an Australian mine by a Chinese-state-linked mine.

In the Pacific, our reporting with 60 Minutes showed Beijing’s influence had grown to encompass everything from infrastructure to media, mining, policing and healthcare in some of Australia’s closest neighbours.

“China is beautifying the country,” said 27-year-old Junita Javi as she lined up outside the new Chinese-built national stadium in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s press conference at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji in 2022.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s press conference at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji in 2022.

One thread is consistent across all of China’s borders and inside its economic partners. While governments are on edge, for most ordinary people, the fear of China is much greater the further you are away from it than for those who interact with it daily.

The Chinese government should learn from this. Interaction is not to be something to be scared of. A degree of transparency makes people understand each other: their strengths, weaknesses and fears. After all, they are just people, trying to make it day to day in the hope that their children will be better off than they were, in China and abroad.

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None of these stories would be possible without the news assistants, reporters, photographers and researchers who work with us along the way. I have given them credit when it was safe to do so, but sometimes it was not.

They do this work because they believe journalism will give their countries a better future – often at great personal risk and without the recognition they deserve. They are the heroes of this profession. We take the freedom to report without fear or favour for granted in Australia. For their sake, we should not be complacent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claps during the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claps during the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Credit: Sputnik

Few moments brought that sense of vulnerability home as sharply as the sight of Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the stands at the Olympics in Beijing. It is a scene I will never forget. Hundreds of dancers were twirling around Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium when all our phones began buzzing. Putin and Xi had released a communiqué. It declared there was no longer any “forbidden areas of co-operation” and that their friendship was “unbreakable”.

Just days after the closing ceremony, Putin invaded Ukraine. China has sat on the sidelines ever since while presiding over the dismantling of freedom of speech in Hong Kong and threatening the democratic island of Taiwan.

These moments of history bookmark our reporting, but the personal stories are the ones that stay with you. They remind you that while you are just an observer, for many of those who are telling you their stories, these are their lives. To put them on the public record takes an enormous amount of courage.

Eryk Bagshaw and the 60 Minutes crew including Natalie Clancy, Jack Donohoe and Michael Breen in Japan.

Eryk Bagshaw and the 60 Minutes crew including Natalie Clancy, Jack Donohoe and Michael Breen in Japan. Credit: Natalie Clancy

Our joint 60 Minutes investigation with Natalie Clancy on child abductions in Japan will stay with me for years. There are now 89 Australian children who have been taken by their Japanese mother or father and disappeared. Three years after I first spoke to half a dozen Australian parents during the Tokyo Olympics, they still have no firm resolution. They are still clinging to the hope they might see their children again, but many may not.

Importantly, the Australian government has significantly escalated its pressure on Tokyo since we published the first of a dozen stories in 2021. The Japanese government is now debating changing the century-old laws that allow parents to legally abduct their children.

One thing is clear: the longer the current system exists, the longer it will remain an inconceivable injustice perpetuated by one of Australia’s closest allies.

So too is the ongoing detention of Australian pro-democracy writer Yang Hengjun, who has been stuck in a Beijing prison on vague national security charges as Australia’s relationship with China has gradually stabilised.

By April, all but two of the $20 billion in trade strikes we began reporting on in May 2020 had been removed. In November, Anthony Albanese became the first Australian prime minister to visit Beijing in six years.

Albanese was welcomed to the Great Hall of the People with a full military guard while Yang languished in a jail cell with no natural light.

Cheng, the Australian journalist who had spent three years in the same detention centre for breaking a media embargo, was released weeks before Albanese’s visit. Yang was handed a suspended death sentence in March.

Australians detained by Chinese authorities, Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei.

Australians detained by Chinese authorities, Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei.Credit: SMH/The Age

The father-of-two has always maintained his innocence despite enduring years of torture to extract a confession. Just before his closed-door trial, he wrote to his sons that he has “no fear now”.

“I love you all, and I know that I am loved,” he said.

Yang and Cheng are symbols of China’s repressive turn, where economists, business executives and the public are becoming more fearful of speaking publicly than they have been in decades.

This situation is unlikely to change as long as Xi is in power. In March, he removed the final hurdle to his unobstructed rule – the power of the State Council.

The growing influence of the Ministry of State Security and the surveillance apparatus has meant that it is not just the media concerned about operating in China, but also businesses, which have pulled out of foreign investment at a record rate.

President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in September 2023.

President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in September 2023.Credit: Getty

When my visa was blocked, the Chinese government did not want us to be based permanently in China any more. Now the Australian government is also advising against posting Australian correspondents there. There are understandable fears that Australian journalists could again become collateral damage if diplomatic relations deteriorate. After the treatment of Yang and Cheng, who could blame it?

We are all poorer for it. Independent, on-the-ground reporting is vital to help countries understand each other. The shouting match that characterised my first two years in the role was exacerbated by the loudest voices in the room – the government spokespeople on either side yelling from behind a microphone.

Hopefully, we have seen the back of those days. I also hope that one day, correspondents working for Australian media can return permanently to China, a country that at its best is as diverse, quirky and optimistic as any other.

Eryk Bagshaw reporting during the 2022 Taiwan elections.

Eryk Bagshaw reporting during the 2022 Taiwan elections. Credit: Daniel Ceng

I was lucky to have a family who sacrificed so much to give me a chance to do this job. Journalism is in the public interest, but it is ultimately a selfish profession. You spend weeks away from home to chase a story and meet a deadline. I owe them so much. Just like I owe our subscribers who have invested their time and money so we can bring you stories from around the world. Thanks for reading.

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