Media in the Asian Century

Jun 19, 2020

It’s actually less august journos in the Murdoch chain of tabloids that are getting Xi Jinping’s goat and setting relations with China into a downward spiral, at some cost to Australian exporters.

Tabloid warriors

No doubt the likes of Greg Sheridan and Peter Hartcher, foreign editors in the “quality” media, imagine that Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye and his diplomats await their thunderings against his government, then pass them on with trepidation to Beijing.

But no. It’s actually less august journos in the Murdoch chain of tabloids that are getting Xi Jinping’s goat and setting relations with China into a downward spiral, at some cost to Australian exporters.

As pointed out by the China scholar John Fitzgerald this week, the first big sign of this came in a People’s Daily editorial on 28 April under the by-line Zhong Sheng, a pseudonym meaning “Voice of the Centre” and to be assumed, Fitzgerald says, as “the voice of Xi, one or two steps removed.”

“The Daily Telegraph newspaper in New South Wales of Australia recently defaced China’s national emblem, evilly associating COVID-19 with China,” the editorial opened, referring to a graphic putting a coronavirus crown on the emblem. It seems to have been a final straw, after calls by Scott Morrison and Marise Payne for a “independent” inquiry into the origins of the virus.

Fitzgerald sees the piece as sign of a top-level decision to punish Australia. “In the wake of the call for an inquiry, however, a decision has been taken at the highest levels in Beijing to consolidate earlier random and inconsistent critiques of Australia into a common communications strategy in support of a unified approach that involves leveraging trade and investment to punish Australia for challenging Xi’s version of events and his vision for the region,” he wrote.

Had the cadres at People’s Daily but known in time, the Tele was doubling down that very day. A front-page “exclusive” by its Canberra reporter Sharri Markson, an award-winner for her exposé of Barnaby Joyce’s affair with his staffer, said the Five Eyes intelligence agencies were investigating whether Covid-19 might have been released accidentally from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In following days, Markson went on with further “exclusives” including famously a secret Five Eyes dossier saying the institute had been deliberately tampering with lethal bat viruses, a dossier that turned out to have been a collection of press clippings by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team.

Outing the China “traitors”

Last Sunday, the Murdoch tabloids were at it again, with another “exclusive”, this time by Melbourne Herald Sun veteran Ellen Whinnett, revealing that the Sydney-based institute China Matters “gifted $2 million by the taxpayer and backed by some of Australia’s most senior business leaders, diplomats and academics has had its funding cut after concerns it was lobbying against Australia.”

News Corp could reveal, Whinnett reported, that the outfit would get no more funding from the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Defence and Foreign Affairs and possibly Attorney-General’s from June 30, adding to about half its funding, and would lose its tax-deductible charity status on the rest. How this is known, in the absence of a budget for 2020-21 is not revealed, but News Corp newspapers do function sometimes as a channel for leadership thinking like their Beijing counterparts.

The offences, it was reported, were that a former executive of China Matters supported Australia signing up to Xi’s vaunted Belt and Road Initiative; that its founder, the Finnish sinologist Linda Jakobson, had urged “caution” with the Federal Government’s legislation on foreign influence; and politicians taken on its trips to China had met with Communist Party agencies.

Mugshots of all the China Matters board and advisory panel were shown as part of this operation portrayed as selling out Australia: former Macquarie Group chairman Kevin McCann, former Liberal MP Peter Hendy, former Office of National Assessments chief Alan Gyngell, former ambassadors to China Stephen FitzGerald and Geoff Raby, current ambassador Graham Fletcher, mining entrepreneur Andrew Michelmore, PwC’s Andrew Parker, Star casino chief John O’Neill, former federal industry department head Heather Smith, and academics Michael Wesley and Hugh White.

Not surprisingly, they are incandescent. McCann, as board chairman, has issued a letter to New Corp complaining about “demonstrable falsehoods and defamatory insinuations about the work of China Matters, and the supporter circle of the organisation.”

“China Matters does not, has not, and will not lobby against Australia or the Australian national interest,” McCann said. “Advocacy of ongoing engagement with the PRC does not make one a stooge of the Communist Party of China or an agent of influence. One can call out the government in Beijing and at the same time strongly support – in the national interest – engagement with the PRC. What is detrimental to Australia’s national interest is the labelling of such people as pro-Beijing.”

Belt and Road is a particular thing with News Corp’s phalanx of columnists, who were barraging Daniel Andrews for signing Victoria up to it until they felt the need to divert to sledging the Black Lives Matter protests. Now Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has admitted that Australia might be joining China in third country BRI projects under a deal signed by his predecessor Steve Ciobo. What to think at Holt St?

Rival Camps

The above list includes many of the prominent Australians who think engagement with China a continuing necessity, despite Xi throwing all levers back to control. There are many notable others, chiefly business figures and university vice-chancellors earning the export dollars that finance our life-styles and our defence purchases.

But who in the other camp are urging us to call out China whatever the cost, and who are their media friends? A handy guide has come the way of Pearls & Irritations from a well-placed observer in Canberra. There are few surprises. Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, is one pillar, supported by staff like Alex Joske, who spent part of his childhood in Beijing and later helped Australia Institute founder Clive Hamilton write his contentious book Silent Invasion about Chinese infiltration.

Morrison’s cabinet secretary Andrew Shearer is another, along with Payne’s chief of staff, Justin Bassi. Then there are the self-styled “wolverines” in parliament, like Andrew Hastie and James Paterson, both refused visas to join a China Matters delegation last year. The strongest China expertise in this circle comes from former Beijing correspondent John Garnaut and academic John Fitzgerald, both ASPI fellows. The outer circle a number of hawkish journalists like Hartcher, Nine’s Chris Ulhman and Nick McKenzie, and the ABC’s defence reporter Andrew Greene. Now the tabloids are joining in.

As Jenny Gordon, senior economist with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade pointed out to a conference last November, they tend to think differently from economists. “We’re about trade-offs, and the difference on the geopolitics side is they’re less able to think about trade-offs,” she said. “We live in this trade-off world, and they [national security officials] tend to live in this more absolute world.”

Even in this absolute world, some trading off seems required by John Bolton’s revelations about our great and powerful ally’s leader, a Russian asset who has begged Xi for trade favours and approved his Uighur concentration camps. Still, the US alliance is an article of faith, as The Australian’s columnist Graham Richardson assured us today.” Were it not for our relationship with the US, Australia would be exposed,” Richo opined.

Foreign Minister Payne seems to be shielded from this sort of expertise in her own department, judging by her speech to the ANU’s National Security College (another hawkish abode) on Tuesday. As well as berating China, along with Russia and Turkey, over fake news about Covid-19 spread on Twitter and other social media, she excused Morrison and herself for losing trade worth several hundred million dollars, so far, by what ANU trade expert Peter Drysdale and his colleagues close to where she was speaking called “boofhead diplomacy.”

For an excellent, deep exploration about what aggrieves China most on the economic front, see an op-ed in The Australian on Thursday by journalist David Uren, now at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre. It’s about investment access, what Beijing saw as its main gain from the Free Trade Agreement signed with Tony Abbott’s government. That access is now being squeezed on national security fears. Meanwhile, Australia’s exports to China outside the big items of coal, iron ore and LNG have risen 72 per cent since the FTA as against 13 per cent elsewhere. So much for the airy exhortations from the security camp to diversify away from China. If only it were that easy.

Local angle

Strangely the federal press gallery hasn’t made much of the role of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre in outing the malicious Twitter accounts and bots denounced by Payne. The centre did most of the work identifying them, as reported early on by CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other US outlets. It now has 30 specialists employed, up from just two only three years ago, including about eight Chinese speakers.

It’s not just about China. Directors Fergus Hanson and Danielle Cave told us the next report in this social media manipulation/disinformation series concerns Covid-19, online conspiracy theories, vaccines and Bill Gates. A previous exercise was with the BBC which “analysed a well-funded and co-ordinated information campaign aimed at distorting the truth about events in Indonesia’s West Papua province, and has identified those responsible for its operation.” A resource our own media could employ.

Out of Asia

Time was when diplomats and correspondents out in Asia had to take their quinine or, er, hydrochloroquine and hope for the best. This pandemic has seen the withdrawal of some ambassadors and consuls by DFAT and correspondents by the Australian media from some postings in Asia and Papua New Guinea. Some have stuck it out, like the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith in Shanghai and the ABC’s James Oaten in New Delhi and Bill Birtles in Beijing. Others have so far failed to get to their new postings at all, like the new SMH-Age man in Beijing, Eryk Bagshaw, and the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson, because China stopped issuing visas. It’s all a bit perplexing, and neither the ABC nor Nine will explain the rationale. Both DFAT and the media have left their people in the US and UK, two of the countries worst hit by Covid-19. Surely high commissioner George Brandis and London-based journalists were at more risk from proximity to Prince Charles and Boris Johnson than was Jakarta ambassador Gary Quinlan in his fortress-like embassy?

This is the first of a fortnightly column on how the Australian media covers, or ignores, Asia. Suggestions and examples are welcome to:

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