Australian media in the Asian Century

The struggles and contradictions in media understanding of China.

Return to China?

Should they go back? The ABC’s Bill Birtles, the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith and The Australian’s Will Glasgow are the only correspondents for mainstream Australian media with valid visas to report from China.

Despite the continuing narrative from their organisations that Birtles and Smith were “forced out” of China, their departure was actually precipitated by advice from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to leave. Midnight calls from the Ministry of State Security, which had woken up to their imminent departure, were alarming. But once the two had submitted to questions about the detained Australian journalist working for Chinese state television, Cheng Lei, they were free to leave China – or stay. Glasgow was already back in Australia when the DFAT advice came.

With no new correspondent visas being issued by China, ostensibly at least because of Covid-19, these three would be valuable assets for our running knowledge about the country if back on base. There are many other sources of news, though whittled down by the tit-for-tat expulsions of correspondents by Washington and Beijing, but none are likely to focus on Australian angles.

Two new appointees – Eryk Bagshaw for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and Sarah Ferguson for the ABC – seem to have run into visa difficulties unrelated to Covid. Speculation, where else but in The Australian’s media section, is that their non-delivery of visas since last year is punishment for the joint SMH-Age-Four Corners programs on Chinese influence. With China this week starting to lift its Covid-related barriers to entry and re-entry by foreigners, it may soon be apparent if the two have been PNG-ed.

A decision whether to send the three correspondents back must take several factors into account. The case being built around Cheng Lei is unknown. The evidence against her and any associates will be what State Security wants it to be. A whiff of the potential nastiness of security reprisals came this week in a chilling account [ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-21/matthew-carney-foreign-journalist-china-intimidation-birtles/12678610 ] by former ABC correspondent Matthew Carney about a threat in 2018 to whisk his 14-year-old daughter away to undisclosed detention, ostensibly for a small visa lapse, but probably over Carney’s reporting on Uighur re-education camps and Xi Jinping’s moves to extend his power.

Yet this is one case, and Birtles and other correspondents have continued to report on these and other sensitive issues in the two years since. For correspondents actually thrown in the slammer, you’d have to go back to the days of Reuters’ Anthony Grey (locked up for 27 months in 1967-69 over the detention of Chinese journalists during Red Guard rampages in Hong Kong) or Francis James of The Anglican, Sydney (jailed 1969-73 for his probably fabricated reports about visiting China’s nuclear test site at Lop Nor).

Once a bureau is left unattended for 10 months, under the Chinese foreign ministry system, all its permissions lapse, and the organisation must start applying again.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs has made it clear it couldn’t care less about potential payback against Australian media, business and other personnel in China for its raids and leaks against perceived Chinese influence targets. If she raises it in the National Security Committee of federal cabinet, Foreign Minister Marise Payne seems to get overruled. More raids and dire warnings about certain “state actors” from ASIO’s Mike Burgess and the Australian Signals Directorate Rachel Noble could set off more reprisals.

For now, the score seems settled with the raids on Birtles and Smith, and by the visa ban announced this week by Beijing’s answer to tabloid journalism, the Global Times, on author-academic Clive Hamilton and ASPI researcher Alex Joske, both strident critics of the CCP and its machinations. This seem retaliation for Australia’s withdrawal of visas from two professors of Australian studies at Chinese universities, Chen Hong and Li Jianjun. Neither Hamilton nor Joske were likely to venture into China.

If Joe Aston’s scoop from his Hollywood base in the AFR’s Rear Window column about cabinet secretary Andrew Shearer finally replacing Nick Warner as head of the Office of National Intelligence is right, the approach of Canberra’s security-intelligence apparatus will only harden up further. A lengthy article this week in the Global Times [ https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1201504.shtml ] included Shearer in its sights. It quoted him as testifying to US Congress that China was intent on undermining the liberal world order and its institutions.

Shearer’s appointment would override ALP objections that he was too partisan, in Australian politics, for the job, as the AFR’s Philip Coorey reported last December.

Then there is DFAT advice, which tends to err on the side of caution at the best of times. Currently anyone intending to visit China, including now Hong Kong, is warned about the possibility of “arbitrary arrest”. All of which will have managements at the ABC and Nine having kittens about risk, and bean-counters looking at the savings from keeping correspondents back home.

Voices at Party Central

 While the ideologues at The Australian are pretty clear about the party line – attack renewables, Dan Andrews, the ABC, industry super etc – there is a clear contradiction emerging on China.

On one hand, there are reporters in Canberra who would have us believe everything is Beijing’s fault, and out security agencies are doing a splendid job. Take foreign affairs and defence reporter Ben Packham, who told us on September 11 that ASIO had concluded from its raids on four journalists here for Chinese state media that they were “part of a Communist Party propaganda operation in Australia.” If so, ASIO chief Mike Burgess is definitely onto something there.

They are joined by Melbourne-based foreign editor Greg Sheridan, who concluded on September 12 that Xi Jinping was out to overturn the American order, and this was a worry and troubling days were ahead. But he reassured us: “There is no need to panic. The Morrison government has done well in handling each trade issue on its merits while defending core national interests.”

Thankfully there is emerging some push-back from veteran cadres at the Oz. Glenda Korporaal has explored the deep anxiety of a business community that the Morrison is virtually daring the Chinese to buy their iron ore elsewhere. John Lord, who chaired Huawei Australia for nine years until recently, told her on September 19 they were building infrastructure to do exactly that.

“The Chinese government always thinks long-term,” said Lord, a former RAN rear-admiral. “We are all working on the assumption that iron ore will be untouchable and that they will have to buy our iron ore forever. But that may not be the case.” Other sectors such as service and medical industries that “had been primed to go into China” were vulnerable to Beijing directing its business elsewhere. “We need our trade to be solid for the foreseeable future.” Lord said he believed that some elements in Australia were being “wound up” by US interests to maintain strong criticism of China. He said Australia needed to learn to make some of its critical points with China in more diplomatic ways.

Rowan Callick, former correspondent in Beijing and Hong Kong, questioned the Home Affairs removal of visiting visas for professors Chen and Li. Both have been coming here for years, and going back to bring Chinese students the delights of Patrick White and other elements of our culture. The visa removal had sent “shockwaves” through academic communities on both sides, Callick said.

Kelly weighs in

The biggest addition to this school has been the grandest poobah of all in The Australian’s pantheon: Paul Kelly.

“There is a dangerous mood afoot in parts of the Canberra bur­eaucratic and political systems,” he wrote on September 16.Beyond that, these dangers now extend into our opinion-making elites. What is the goal of our China policy? If we operate on the assumption that China is the enemy then, as history foretells, China will become the enemy. Nothing is more certain. Our assumptions will be realised and the worse things get, the more the China hawks will boast how right they were.”

Kelly attacked three myths that were “clouding our minds.” Crunched down, Kelly’s argument is:

The first is that we can do nothing to improve relations because that would only compromise who we are. Such thinking is monumental folly. The China debate cannot end with Australia luxuriating in its resolution when what is needed is judgment…This country has much to lose if today’s downward spiral continues for another three or four years. Yet the domestic debate on China is being driven in only one direction because, unusually, the right and left agree. The right sees Beijing as an existential danger. The left can’t excuse China’s human rights abuses and its evolving surveillance state. It would be a mistake to “fix” relations by selling out to Beijing; but it is an equal mistake to offer nothing and make no effort to “fix” relations for fear of looking as if we have sold out.

The second myth is that our massive resources trade is safe from Beijing’s retaliation. We assume Beijing won’t act against our coal, liquefied natural gas or iron ore because that would hurt China. This answer is too short-term when China thinks long term. Does anybody doubt China wants to reduce its dependence on Australian imports? Yet the people who keep pointing out that China is an authoritarian, ideologically bound, one-party state are often the same people saying when it comes to the resources trade China will act as an economically rational liberal state, thinking only of price competitiveness. Have no doubt, if the downward spiral continues, Australia has stacks of treasure yet to lose. China has thrown out the rule book this year; it has engaged in retaliations once merely the subject of university seminars — witness barley, beef, wine and media among others. And Australia doesn’t know what’s coming next. Imagine the feeling in WA about Federation then.

The third myth: the rupture in relations is not primarily Australia’s fault but stems from China’s own actions that we have little or no discretionary capacity in this situation. This is a mindset problem. China needs to be handled as patiently as Trump. Areas of conflict have expanded and areas for co-operation contracted. But they have not disappeared. In this new normal Australian policy needs to rebalance, and give greater priority to where Canberra and Beijing can work together, starting with renewal of economic, trade and tourism ties post-COVID-19 world.

Kelly concluded: Canberra needs to ensure that the intelligence and security agencies do not dominate bilateral relations. Signs are that Chinese action against the two Australian journalists was driven at least partly by ASIO probes against Chinese journalists in Australia. So, how successful was this transaction? Our foreign interference laws can set up a cycle of action and reaction. The obvious answer is to say: Beijing should stop its interference. The harder, realistic response is to say that Australia must be careful how it operates in that grey area between interference and influence.

Contact: [email protected]

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Hamish McDonald has been a correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, New Delhi and Beijing, and was Regional Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and Foreign Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He has won two Walkley Awards for reporting from Asia and was made an Inaugural Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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