Australian Media in the Asian Century.

Jul 2, 2021

This edition of ‘Australian Media in the Asian Century’ explores mainstream media coverage of the centenary for the Chinese Communist Party, UNESCO’s “in danger” listing of the Great Barrier Reef, abundant reports on the Miami building collapse and Australia’s Covid third wave in comparison to reports on Covid outbreaks in neighbouring countries, and ongoing tension between Australian universities and its Chinese students.

Gough’s mid-course guidance 

By this morning, our media will be filled with coverage of the Communist Party of China celebrating its centenary in a high-tech extravaganza exceeding anything its comrades over in North Korea can muster, with “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” afforded the reverence given in Pyongyang to Juche (Self-reliance) and “Songun” (Army First) to doctrines of the Kim dynasty.

But here in Australia, we’ve given equal prominence to another anniversary, marking the 50 years since our own Great Helmsman gave mid-course guidance to the CCP. Casting aside “historical nihilism” the two bastions of conservative thought, The Australian and the Australian Financial Review, both rediscovered a need for pragmatic dealings with the reality of communist China.

Gough Whitlam’s 1971 visit, declared the AFR, “was a watershed moment when Australia stopped putting Cold War ideology and fear of falling dominos ahead of constructive engagement with China, while extending the postwar reorientation of our trade and diplomacy towards the Asia-Pacific region”.

Once more, the AFR editorialised, “trade and mutual gain must come before ideology and power politics. Australia’s national interests are best served by seeking to pull China back into the international system. China is good for Australia and has much to offer the world; and operating in the rules-based international system is good for China”.

The Australian gave even more extensive coverage to the Whitlam visit while noting it had been “partly funded” by Mr Murdoch’s newspaper itself. “The optimism that surrounded Whitlam’s visit and the openings it achieved with Zhou mostly have served China and Australia well for a half-century,” it editorialised.

That is, until Wuhan. But it notes, “most countries in our region have found a way to engage with China to their benefit, including Japan, which has deep-seated grievances with China.”  It quoted with approval Stephen FitzGerald, who accompanied Whitlam, that we could do with “a dose of Whitlam-Nixon realpolitik” now, though “China’s expansionism across the region, its crushing of Hong Kong and its hostility over trade cannot be swept under the carpet.”

The newspaper cited FitzGerald’s suggestion of “back-channel discussions, provided the right envoy could be found, such as a former prime minister or foreign minister” to pave the way for high-level meetings. “The possibility is worth considering while holding our ground on key issues,” the newspaper conceded.

John Howard, step forward.

Meanwhile, sniping continues

When UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee moved to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” Environment Minister Sussan Ley howled she’d been led to believe it had the numbers to block this move, so it must have been a plot by the Chinese members pulling the Belt and Road Initiative strings of other delegates.

Some members of the press gallery went along with this. The New York Times went to Jon Day, senior researcher on coral reef studies at James Cook University in Townsville. “This hasn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” he said. “For the government to complain they were blindsided and ambushed is a bit cute.”

In The Australian, Geoff Chambers and Joe Kelly had an “exclusive”:

Fifteen Coalition MPs are ­demanding Josh Frydenberg ­impose tougher controls on the half-Chinese-owned Port of Newcastle because they fear its monopoly powers could be ­exploited to impose “punitive costs” to hurt Australian coal ­exporters. In a letter to the Treasurer and Scott Morrison, the MPs call for new arbitration measures for the Port of Newcastle arguing the current regulatory regime gives the “Communist Party of China a geopolitical advantage over the export of Australian coal’’.

The reporters went to ASPI’s Peter Jennings. “Any Chinese company can be subject to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to meet the party’s political objectives,” he told them.

No one noted that as China is blocking Australian thermal coal imports anyway, it all seems beside the point right now.

In The Sydney Morning Herald, reporters Marta Pascual Juanola, Eryk Bagshaw and Hamish Hastie had a Gotcha moment:

“The WA government appointed two pro-Beijing community leaders to a new paid advisory council before Premier Mark McGowan escalated his criticism of the Morrison government’s handling of the China relationship.”

The Federal Government got another nasty surprise, as Will Glasgow reported in The Australian:

“China has launched a surprise volley of cases against Australia in the World Trade Organisation, with producers of railway wheels, wind towers and stainless-steel sinks now caught up in Beijing’s audacious Geneva attack.

The cases appeared to be a tit-for-tat response to the Morrison government-supported WTO cases against devastating tariffs on barley and wine, part of Xi Jinping’s campaign of trade strikes on Australia worth some $20bn.

Australian officials were stunned by the Xi administration’s latest hit, which was announced with a one-sentence statement from Beijing’s Ministry of Commerce.”

In The Australian, Richard Ferguson joined Sharri Markson with another exclusive:

“Coalition senator Sarah Henderson is calling for a full review of the CSIRO’s foreign activities after revelations it conducted ­research with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The Australian revealed this week that the nation’s top ­research body and several Australian universities had engaged in at least 10 joint projects with the Chinese virus lab in the past decade, which US intelligence has linked to the Chinese military and which is suspected of being at the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Somewhat embarrassingly for the Australian media, it was the Bloomberg news agency of the United States and its medical science reporter Michelle Fay Cortez who tracked down the only foreign scientist working at the Wuhan laboratory until shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak was announced. This was the Australian researcher Danielle Anderson, and the Bloomberg story sums up her observations:

“Half-truths and distorted information have obscured an accurate accounting of the lab’s functions and activities, which were more routine than how they’ve been portrayed in the media.”

In the AFR, stranded China correspondent Michael Smith found Chen Yonglin, the diplomat who defected from the Chinese consulate-general, who warned the CCP “is intent on bolstering its influence in Australia and around the world and that Xi Jinping’s next move will be to take over Taiwan.” He defected in 2005.

Local focus

While Australia focuses on its own Covid third wave, and the media gives inordinate coverage to an apartment building collapse in Miami – a frequent and barely reported event in places like Mumbai – the region around is spiralling downwards in the pandemic, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing.

In the SMH, Singapore-based Chris Barrett and Jakarta-based Karuni Rompies did tell us this week about the dire situation in Indonesia where the pharmaceutical authority has approved children aged 12 and above being vaccinated because of a surge in cases, including one of the highest rates in the world of child infections. Last Sunday Indonesia recorded 21,342 cases, the highest daily rate so far, taking the total past 2.1 million, with the death toll 57,138.

The ABC’s 7.30 Report on Wednesday night finally got mainstream media attention to the new outbreak in Fiji, where almost 300 new infections are now being reported daily among its 900,000 people. Since the outbreak started in April, 19 people have died.

Covid is starting to cause civil disorder in some parts of the Pacific. Street brawls have occurred in Fiji. In Papua New Guinea, the ABC’s Natalie Whiting this week filed a horrifying report on a surge in cases of mob violence against perceived witches, mostly older women, blamed for deaths.

But you’d have to look hard for Whiting’s report, on the ABC or Radio NZ website.

Show us the money

The Morrison government regularly criticises the Chinese suppressive moves in Hong Kong, but its practical help for those directly hit by the national security law sledgehammer is wanting, reports The Australian’s also stranded China correspondent Will Glasgow:

“Australia has been closed to those without citizenship, permanent residency, or a resume that would allow them to use the federal government’s Global Talent Visa Program for targeted, highly skilled workers.

Former Hong Kong politician Ted Hui was a rare exception after the federal government granted him a travel exemption to enter in March.

‘If an Apple Daily journalist walked into my office, I would have to tell them that I can’t help them,’ said Paul Bernadou, a Hong Kong-based migration agent, who specialising in relocation to Australia.”

Where are our freedom warriors at places like the Centre for Independent Studies on this?

Plodding on

This week, Human Rights Watch issued a paper on the snitching and intimidation going on among Chinese students at Australian universities, something known since 2016 when young ANU student Alex Joske (now at ASPI) unmasked a young bully with the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, linked to the Chinese Embassy.

It looks like being another cudgel to use against the universities. The Guardian’s Daniel Hurst quotes the chair of parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security as saying the revelations “are profoundly disturbing and indicate many universities are failing their duty of care for their students”.

“Universities must be more proactive in protecting students from foreign government coercion and intimidation,” Paterson said. “If they fail in their moral obligation to do so we may have to look at tougher legal obligations to make sure they do.”

The HRW report does blame universities for not addressing the problem seriously. But it includes at least one case of a Chinese student who tried to report his harassment to the Australian Federal Police, the agency which along with ASIO is supposed to conduct counter-intelligence work against such things:

“I thought they might have some kind of department or service that could help me. But when I called them, they said so what, that was their attitude. They were pretty careless; I don’t remember exact words but mainly what they said was,’So what if they’re asking your details? If you’re concerned just don’t tell them’. And when I told them they have my mum sitting next to them and they’re threatening me, he said he can’t do anything about it.”

No one in the press gallery yet seems to have asked Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews or the agency heads what they are doing, and it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the intelligence committee.

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