Media in the Asian Century. Tit for tat for journalists.

Sep 11, 2020

And did anyone in Canberra get the chance to tell Peter Dutton and Christian Porter that raiding some Chinese journalists, hardly deep-cover agents, might invite retaliation in kind? Was the lure of building an ALP-linked Chinese influence case, with Professor Chen Hong’s earlier work for Bob Hawke thrown in, simply too much to resist?

Correspondents in from the cold

So the cold war is setting in, after the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith, the last two Australian reporters in China, took flight home after the shock of a midnight call at their homes by the Ministry of State Security and a summons for interview.

The federal press gallery, as is its wont, rushed to Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Rory Medcalf of the National Security College for comment. Commentators reached into the spy-thriller canon. SBS went for the UTS academic Feng Chongyi, a critic of Beijing, and Clive Hamilton, author of two books raising a shrill alarm about Chinese influence.

For others, the spy-thriller canon was irresistible. Stepping aside from the on-going News Corp attack on Victorian premier Dan Andrews, now routinely cartooned in Mao-era uniform, The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan evoked the atmosphere of Berlin circa 1960:

That Australian journalists and diplomats in China have been reduced to acting out a John le Carre cum James Bond series of late night emergency pick-ups by embassy cars, days of uncertain shelter in the fragile security of diplomatic compounds, tense and secret negotiations over an exit path, ritual interrogations and finally diplomat-supervised flight from China is evidence — more dramatic than anything else we have seen — of the profound crisis that confronts Australia/China relations.

This sequence of events is unprecedented, bizarre, ominous and a pointer to an immediate future likely to become more fraught, and more dangerous. It indicates a new level of crisis between Canberra and Beijing. It also indicates an extreme bullying attitude by China towards all foreign nations, with the partial exception of the US, which Beijing still fears. And worst of all, it almost certainly indicates a further shift towards the practice of brutal hostage diplomacy by Beijing.

 The Chinese were not taking this lying down. Within a day of Birtles and Smith landing back and the news coming out, the Global Times and Xinhua revealed that four Chinese journalists in Australia had been subjected to ASIO dawn raids at their homes on June 26, and their electronic devices confiscated – even their children’s tablets and smart toys. In addition, two well-known Chinese academic specialists in Australian history and literature, Chen Hong and Li Jianjun, later had their visas to visit Australia cancelled. It was all yěmán wúlǐ xíngjìng or “barbaric and unreasonable behaviour,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry later summed up.

ASIO was not saying anything: “As is long-standing practice, ASIO does not comment on intelligence matters.” But the spooks and their political masters were talking on background. It was all linked to the raids on NSW upper house MP Shaoquett Moselmane and his part-time staffer John Zhang the same day, June 26. The journalists, the academics and Zhang had been part of a conversation circle on the Chinese messaging and e-commerce app WeChat, pushing the influence of State Security and the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department into the NSW Parliament.

An account by The Sydney Morning Herald’s Anthony Galloway and Eryk Bagshaw on September 9 was studded by attributions to “senior Australian security sources” . “Sources close to the investigation, who declined to be identified because inquiries are ongoing” and “Senior Australian government sources.”

Trading castles for pawns

The narrative needs some examination.

Take the line that Birtles and Smith were “forced” to flee. Would State Security have mounted the midnight visits on September 3-4 if the ABC had not booked Birtles a flight out of China on September 4?

Would the secret police and external intelligence agency have been content with just calling them in for an interview about what they knew of Cheng Lei, the Australian veteran with China state television’s English-language business program, who had been arrested two weeks earlier?

This is just what State Security wanted and got, before letting them leave China in a deal deftly handled by the Australian ambassador, Graham Fletcher.

Any foreign correspondent assigned to China has the experience of being arrested, interrogated and sometimes searched by Chinese police and paramilitaries, usually on trips outside Beijing and usually for a few hours before being run out of town. In my case, it was three times. You quickly learnt to hit town, get your pre-arranged interviews, and get out ahead of the posse.

As Tony Walker, twice posted there for The Age and the Financial Times, told me this week: “You are always walking on eggshells, and if you are an experienced correspondent, you know where the boundaries are.”

A midnight door-knock, by State Security not the regular Public Security police, is a step up from this periodic event and extra scary. Birtles and Smith were not being arrested and taken away. They were “persons of interest” in the Cheng Lei case; both of them say they hardly knew her. Hardly reassuring from an agency that can construct national security offences from very little or nothing. But should the correspondents have stayed on?

What caused the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to advise the ABC and AFR to get their correspondents out, and tell The Australian not to return its correspondent, Will Glasgow?

Was a sense that the disappearance and then confirmed arrest of the China state television host Cheng Lei in mid-August was only the start of things? Was there a hint from China’s Foreign Ministry that it was being pushed aside from the handling of foreign correspondents by State Security?

No wonder, when the guarded overtures extended by China’s deputy ambassador Wang Xining at the National Press Club on August 26 were followed a day later by Scott Morrison’s announcement that DFAT would be using the constitution’s external affairs power to monitor all foreign relationships of states, local councils and public universities, and veto them if the foreign minister deemed them against the national interest.(see articles by Graeme Orr and Melissa Conley Tyler on why this is a thoroughly dumb idea:

And did anyone in Canberra get the chance to tell Peter Dutton and Christian Porter that raiding some Chinese journalists, hardly deep-cover agents, might invite retaliation in kind? Was the lure of building an ALP-linked Chinese influence case, with Professor Chen Hong’s earlier work for Bob Hawke thrown in, simply too much to resist?

As Sydney University’s David Brophy put it in a tweet: “If that’s what’s going on here, it’s not hard to see how dangerous it is. The security agencies can provoke responses that will be written up as inexplicable Chinese aggression, and drive Australia-China relations into a ditch, while we have no idea what our side is doing.”

But yes, the SMH informs us today, that Morrison, foreign minister Marise Payne and the whole National Security Committee of cabinet was informed that “ASIO was executing the warrants to question the Chinese journalists, which was standard practice. One source said the government weighed up all the risks of the operation, including the foreign policy implications, but pointed out it was important to let ASIO do its job.” So the practise, it seems, is to stand aside and not raise any objection to ASIO. Likewise, the withdrawal of visas for professors Chen and Li was on ASIO advice. The two say the suspect WeChat group was just innocuous badinage, named FD for “Fair Dinkum.”

The result is that for the first time since 1973, Australian media has no correspondents in China. As put by Richard McGregor, formerly in China for The Australian and the Financial Times and now at the Lowy Institute, we’ve sacrificed two rooks for four pawns. Or, as Jennifer Hewett put it in the AFR yesterday, business fear Morrison has kicked another own goal.China’s Foreign Ministry is now saying the Australian embassy and consulate exceeded diplomatic protocol by sheltering Birtles and Smith, which might be prelude to some expulsions of diplomats.

Our Man in…

With the clouds of Chinese suspicion about to burst on Birtles and Smith, it was perhaps an unfortunate time for the last Weekend AFR to run a piece asking whether the ABC’s “greatest foreign correspondent” had been a spy for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.

The very long article, nearly 4,000 words, by Aaron Patrick was an extended obituary for Peter Barnett, who had died a month earlier aged 90. By the end of the article, Patrick had pretty well answered the question in the negative, though it was an entertaining wander through a long-ago era of journalism and intelligence-gathering.

The main suspicion came because his brother, Harvey Barnett, was a career ASIS officer rising to deputy director before transferring to ASIO as deputy director-general in 1976 and director-general from 1981. As Peter Barnett himself wrote late in life, he stayed with his older brother in Singapore in 1961 while looking for a reporting post in Asia. At times, Peter was banished from the house while Harvey entertained his field agents.

Peter soon jumped into correspondent positions with the ABC in Asia and then Washington. “For almost two decades, Peter Barnett covered international affairs with an effortless authority and access to power that made him a role model for a generation of broadcast journalists who followed,” Patrick wrote.

The assertion has drawn horse-laughs from many successor correspondents. To them, Barnett was emblematic of an era when foreign correspondents were ambassadorial figures granted deferential and polite interviews with foreign leaders, rather than ferreting out their dirty secrets.

With war experience as soldiers and correspondents, figures like Denis Warner and Peter Hastings were sought after for their insights when back in Australia. For those “declared” by having reliable views on national security, anti-communism and secrets, there were invitations to come in and swap notes at “Central Planning,” as the ASIS headquarters in the St Kilda barracks was name-plated. The Australian media then followed the D-Notice system, which included any mention of things like signals intelligence and the whereabouts of the Petrovs, the Soviet defectors given new identities.

That cosiness dissipated after Whitlam took power in 1972 and exposés around that time in Washington about the CIA’s support for oppressive regimes and the support role by ASIS. Correspondents in Asia generally knew who were the spooks in the embassy, and they knew we knew, but it was not done to mention it. Recent laws have made it illegal to name present and past ASIS personnel, except for its directors-general.

A more interesting tangent Patrick could have followed was his mention of Peter Barnett’s conversation to Islam in 1994, at age 64, his marriage in 1970 to Radio Australia announcer and poet Siti Nuraini Jatim, born in Indonesia, and his authorship of a book on Said Nursi, the Kurdish theologian who founded a widely-followed school of modernist Islam. For that matter, he could have mentioned that Harvey Barnett, like some other ASIS and MI6 officers in Jakarta, became a followed of the spiritual sect Subud, founded by the late Javanese mystic Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo.

Now that’s foreign influence, which might not go down too well these days.

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