The Un-Australian Activities Committee and Eric Abetz. Media in the Asian Century

Oct 23, 2020

Is Senator Eric Abetz working for the Chinese Communist Party’s United Work Front Department?…Not one Australian newspaper has editorialised about his conduct.

Not consciously, but he’s certainly doing its cadres’ job for them at the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee’s inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities in Australia.

The Liberal senator from Tasmania asked three witnesses of Chinese background, appearing voluntarily to follow up written submissions, to tell him “whether they are willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.”

All demurred somewhat, just saying they were not CCP supporters. Abetz upbraided them: “There’s a difference between not supporting something and actively condemning a regime that engages in forced organ harvesting and having a million Uighurs in concentration camps — the list goes on, and all we have is this limp statement that we don’t support it.”

As Natasha Kassam and Darren Lim wrote in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter website yesterday: “The line of questioning on display at the parliamentary inquiry plays right into Beijing’s narrative that individuals the world over are liable to do Beijing’s bidding based on the mere fact of their background.” It also undid the work of ASIO and other agencies in getting the quiet help of ethnic communities about foreign interference.

As the three witnesses – Australian-born Osmond Chiu, Hong Kong-born Wesa Chau, and mainland China-born Yun Jiang – pointed out in oped pieces later, people of other ethnicity were not asked similar questions. Kassam and Lim said Scott Morrison and Marise Payne would not be expected to condemn the CCP either. Indeed Payne disassociated us from Mike Pompeo’s recent tirades against the CCP. Opeds and letters to the editor have been supportive of Abetz’s targets. But not one Australian newspaper has editorialised about his conduct.

On the fringe

The audiences are small, but the niche programs of ABC’s Radio National have been introducing some sensible commentary on the foreign interference front.

In “Background Briefing” on October 11, Hagar Cohen took up the case of Chen Hong and Li Jianjun, the two professors of Australian studies at Chinese universities who suddenly had their long-standing access to Australia withdrawn by the Home Affairs octopus in the wake of the Shaoquet Moselmane exercise. She asked whether these two scholars, introducing Chinese studies to Patrick White and exponents of our culture, were really a national security threat. As many of their academic counterparts here testified in interviews, it was all baffling. Is Chen in particular being published for criticising Australia’s recent anti-foreign interference furore in the pages of Beijing’s Global Times?

And on October 9 the ABC Science Program’s Ariel Bogle and Iris Zhao broke the extraordinary story of how the New Federal State of China movement, an anti-CCP group sponsored by former Trump associate Steve Bannon and fugitive Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, was operating in Australia. Bannon was recently arrested aboard Guo’s luxury yacht for skimming crowd-funded donations intended for Trump’s Mexican border wall.

Under the name Himalaya Australia the outfit has been active online and leafletting in Melbourne and elsewhere its pet theories, notably that Covid-19 was a genetically-engineered virus deliberately made and spread by Beijing to cause chaos in the outside world. It also solicits investment in Guo’s company GTV Media.

Off the diplomatic leash

The Australian’s temporarily stranded China correspondent Will Glasgow had the good idea earlier this month to get the thoughts of Singapore’s former foreign ministry head Bilahari Kausikan on Australia’s approach to China.

Not one to mince his words, Kausikan said it has swung from “extreme complacency” to “over-reaction.” Part of the complacency had been allowing foreign donations to political parties. “You went from that extreme to the other extreme now, where almost everybody who looks vaguely Chinese may be suspect,” he said. “Have a bit more confidence in yourselves.”

Glasgow tapped Kausikan as Marise Payne made a little-publicised call in Singapore on her way back from the high-profile meeting of “Quad” foreign ministers in Tokyo, where she again stressed the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in any regional security arrangement.

Kausikan approved that. “If I look at all of ASEAN’s dialogue partners, I think we can work most closely with Japan and Australia because their idea of the Indo-Pacific is most similar,” he said. “Both of you are in the region — you’re not the offshore balancer. You can’t take that ­detached, hardline view towards China that the Trump administration has been taking. But at the same time, both of you have concerns about China. Serious concerns.”

Not that Kausikan is all that happy with the non-aligned, bend-with-the-wind collective posture of Singapore’s neighbours. He is wont to exhort them to “take some calcium pills, grow a backbone!”

As for lining up the Quad with Mike Pompeo’s crusade against the CCP:
“If you talk about hard containment like Pompeo does, no one will join — not even Japan and Australia,” he told Glasgow.

Columns at war over Trump

 Nearly two weeks ago, The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan threw out a challenging thesis: “Despite his personal failings, the US President has been one of the best friends we have had. A Donald Trump victory would be better for Australia than a Joe Biden presidency.

Rather alarmingly, he then added: “This counter­intuitive view is widely, if semi-­secretly, held in Australian national security circles, and it is ­almost certainly right.”

Be that as it may – and the notion is not entirely unbelievable – the thesis was too much for two of the few sane voices in the newspaper’s oped pages.

Three days later, political correspondent Troy Bramston wrote:

In assessing the consequences of the US presidential election, senior ministers, public servants and staff members in the Morrison government are entirely relaxed about, and even welcoming of, a victory by Joe Biden. Indeed, several Coalition MPs contacted for this column are secretly hoping there is a Democrat in the White House in January.

“After almost four years of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, treating alliance partners with contempt and undermining the post-war liberal order, there is an understandable wish for a more normal, conventional and predictable presidency. Biden, for Australian policymakers, is seen as a safe, reliable choice…

“If Trump is defeated, Australia’s foreign policy, defence and security establishment would breathe a sigh of relief. It would no longer live in fear about an unhinged, unpredictable, unreliable president who makes decisions overnight via Twitter. A senior government figure told this column that they worry Trump could junk the US-Australia alliance at any moment.”

In another shot last Saturday, Peter van Onselen, Perth political science professor and media commentator who has dual US citizenship, expressed his hope for a Biden victory:

“It has been one thing for Trump to fail to elevate himself beyond the crassness he wears as a badge of honour throughout his presidency. That can be put down to the limitations of his character. Trump has never been about anything other than his own aggrandisement. But the way so-called conservative commenta­tors and politicians have abided Trump, even spruiked for him, is much harder to forgive. Doing so exposed how shallow their collective beliefs and ideological understanding really is.”

Still, Sheridan is not alone in disregarding the Republican foreign policy stalwarts he’s normally fond of quoting – including Colin Powell, Chuck Hagel, John Negroponte, Richard Armitage and Robert Zoellick – who have come out for Biden, and instead placing his faith in US populism.

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