Australian journalists in China: Send them back!

Apr 15, 2023
Map of china in hand.

In August, it will be three years since Australia’s China-based correspondents were harried out of China. In an extraordinary over-reaction, the ABC, Fairfax, and News Corp closed their offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

The ABC opened its Beijing office in 1973. It was one of a handful of European and Canadian news organisations to have reporters on the ground in China. In 1971, Opposition leader Gough Whitlam said that it would not be if, but a matter of time before the ABC had a Beijing Bureau. With the election of the Labor Government in December 1972 and its recognition of the People’s Republic of China, an ABC Bureau followed soon after.

In those distant days, Australia had been ahead of much of the Western world in understanding the singular importance of China for its national interests. An informed domestic public was essential to this. A media presence in China to convey the contemporary reality of China was indispensable.

By the 1980s, Fairfax had opened a Beijing bureau. When I arrived in Beijing for my first stint at the Embassy, a young boyish Robert Thomson was the Fairfax correspondent. A former cadet journalist with the Melbourne Age, he is best known now as CEO of News Corp. He was a brilliant reporter on the day-to-day changes sweeping China during that remarkable decade.

He was also, as his predecessors and successors had been, a stringer for the Financial Times of London. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the world’s major financial newspapers still had not posted a full-time accredited correspondent to China, despite the extraordinary story of reform and opening that had been unfolding in China throughout the 1980s.

The Financial Times then had a big and expensively staffed bureau of expats in Hong Kong. Its London editors were not convinced that China as a ‘communist’ country could achieve substantial economic transformation. Once a year, a dozen or so editorial worthies from London and Hong Kong would visit Beijing. For some reason, I would be invited to a salubrious lunch at Justine’s Restaurant at the Jiang Guo Hotel, one of two western four/five-star restaurants at the time.

The Financial Times believes it monopolises the ‘sensible centre’ of public opinion. Any deviation from the FT’s world view is nothing short of deranged, be it to the right or left. The FT management could not accept that a notionally communist country could embrace market determined prices, profit-based business decisions, foreign trade, and much more.

At the end of my briefing lunches where I had given a robust exposition of why and how China was reforming and trying to help the worthies understand it was for real, the same question would be asked: should the FT open a bureau in China? My answer was always the same. As a newspaper with pretentions to be a serious global business journal, how could you not be there? It took the FT until the mid 1990s to be so confronted by the reality of China that the ideological and incipient racist scales fell from the worthies’ eyes.

And now, the world’s media is present in China and reports daily on what is going on except for the Australian media. Once among the pioneers of foreign media in China, the Australian media has itself decided not to report on what is still one of the greatest news stories in the world today.

It is simply not credible for Australia’s news outlets to have ‘China correspondents’ based in Tokyo or Taipei. They are entirely dependent on what they can pick up on the web or by speaking on the phone to ‘contacts’. All these things they could do from Sydney, so why waste money on having them in these places? Their reports have no more credibility than those from someone in Australia. Value-added by them is zero.

Not surprisingly, these journalists report more on China using their second-hand sources, than they do on Japan or Taiwan. It is not that they don’t have great local contacts where they are based, it is that China is the big story, not Japan or Taiwan. So, we get neither first-hand authentic reporting from China, nor the full attention of our journalists on the important stories from where they are based. It is the worst of all worlds.

The journalist as professionals would all like to be back in China, but their editors and boards won’t agree. DFAT’s travel advisory warns Australians of the threat of ‘arbitrary arrest’ if they visit China. ‘Arbitrary’ is an entirely subjective adjective. The Chinese side would certainly dispute this. But what has changed in China from the time Australian media had a presence until now? The capriciousness of the Chinese legal system was ever thus, even when we had a strong media presence.

In mid 2020, the Morrison Government embarked on its tit-for-tat retaliation with China after China imposed trade measures against Australia to express its unhappiness with Morrison’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. China’s trade measures were unjustified and excessive. Ultimately, they were utterly counterproductive.

In July of 2020, ASIO and the AFP raided Chinese government media representatives in Sydney. Some were detained for hours as their computers, phones and files were examined. In August 2020, Australian CGTN business anchor, Cheng Lei, was taken into detention, ‘disappeared’. DFAT apparently had not been informed of the raids in Sydney. Alarmed over the reports of Chen Lei’s disappearance, ASIO and the AFP fessed up to DFAT about what they had been up to.

DFAT in the circumstances panicked and advised the heads of Australia’s media organisations to withdraw their correspondents. It is even doubtful that Cheng Lei’s detention was related to the parlous state of the bilateral relationship at that time.

Presumably, learning of the recall of the Australian journalists, Chinese security undertook Keystone Cop like ‘raids’ on the journalists. It is hilarious to think of the ABC journalist in Beijing being taken for questioning when he was hosting a farewell party with forty others in the wee hours, including many foreign journalists. If anyone wants to understand the ruthless efficiency of China’s internal security services, they need to look no further than the ‘disappearance’ of Cheng Lei. That is how the grown-ups do it in China.

It is not as if Australian journalists are not working in China, it is just that they do not represent Australian media companies. One of the leading correspondents for the BBC working in China is Australian. He has not felt under threat, although over his many years working there he has filed many stories that have upset the Chinese authorities.

Australian media needs to return to China as soon as possible. China is the biggest commercial and strategic story for Australia in international affairs. China is in a constant state of flux and so much more is required for informed public debate than second-hand stereo-type stories that are run in much of the Australian media. Like it or loathe it, China is with us and it is utterly irresponsible for Australia’s news organisations, aided and abetted by nervous nellies in DFAT, to deny the Australian public authentic reporting from Australian journalists on the ground in China.

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