Hook, line and sinker: China threw the cast and Scott Morrison fell for it

Dec 4, 2020

As someone who has been associated with the Sydney Morning Herald  for more than 50 years as a cadet, reporter, correspondent, leader writer, foreign editor and still occasional contributor, I can’t think of a lower level of commentary ever run in the newspaper.

Caught with trousers down?

When Scott Morrison learned about the now notorious Tweet of the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, he wasted little time, just 45 minutes, in assembling Canberra’s media pack to vent his outrage at this slur on the reputation of every Australian who’d ever put on the uniform.

As Morrison was still in quarantine from his Japan visit, his press conference had to be done by video link. The camera did not reveal if Morrison had put on his suit pants for the occasion. Carefully curated photos had earlier shown him getting around the Lodge in Zoom dress – shirt and coat on top, boxers and thongs below. But it was a case of a lie getting half way round the world before truth has time to put on its trousers.

The image posted by Zhao was clearly a graphic artist’s Photoshop montage, the kind not unknown in our media, meant to shock, but not the “fake” that Morrison and many reporters took it to be. And the Prime Minister was overlooking the uncomfortable fact the Brereton report had found credible evidence that some of our soldiers had cut the throats of Afghan 14-year-old boys, if not a small girl cuddling a pet lamb.

But it immediately sucked airtime from the previous news in China relations, that last Saturday the $1.4 billion wine export trade had been scuppered by tariffs up to 212 per cent, coal ships were idle outside Chinese ports, and China’s punishment of Australia on Morrison’s watch was now getting up past $21 billion a year. Maybe that was Morrison’s snap calculation, as federal parliament convened for its last session of the year. Morrison’s attempt to rectify the fiasco on China’s WeChat online forum was of course blocked.

Rising to the bait

Well down in the coverage was any discussion whether Morrison had been wise to play it the way he did. The Lowy Institute’s Hervé Lemahieu was not the lead in the story by Eryk Bagshaw and Anthony Galloway in the Sydney Morning Herald with his comment that Morrison should not have been the one to respond.

“We shouldn’t deploy our top asset – head of government – to respond to a propaganda post from some junior level official in the Chinese Foreign Ministry,” Lemahieu said. “These guys seek attention and we have given it to them,” Mr Lemahieu said. “That [the tariffs] is the big story, and to me it looks like they are trying to switch the subjects and make Australia look like the villain. We shouldn’t have fallen for it.”

Damien Spry, an expert on social media in Asia at the University of South Australia, wrote on Lowy’s The Interpreter website that Australia had now joined a list of those China’s “wolf warrior” diplomat in chief Zhao had deliberately provoked. “By reacting with fury we’ve done what a troll would hope,” Spry said. “Internet trolling referred originally not to beasts under bridges but to a fishing term – to cast a line and entice prey to hook themselves. By demanding an apology from the Chinese government and saying they should be ashamed, we’ve taken the bait.”

If it’s not “secret” it’s not news

Canberra’s intelligence community has meanwhile discovered that much of the Chinese-language media in Australia has been taken over by Beijing-aligned interests, and pushes the line of the Chinese Communist Party. As reporter Kate Wong noted in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age yesterday, these outlets have poured scorn on Morrison over his response to the tweet.

The Office of National Intelligence, recently handed over from Nick Warner to Andrew Shearer, had “confidentially briefed” the government about this, the Sydney Morning HeraldAge journalist Nick McKenzie and colleagues report, citing “official sources who could not be identified because they were not authorised to speak”.

These sound like the same kind of sources who tipped McKenzie off to the impending raid on NSW state upper house member Shaoquet Mouselmane, allowing McKenzie to be outside the MP’s house with a camera crew when ASIO and the Federal Police arrived.

All hush-hush. But hang on, this report on Chinese language media was compiled by the ONI’s Open Source Centre, which “collects, interprets and disseminates” non-classified material “of political, strategic or economic significance to Australia”, has analysed 20 months of content from 14 online Chinese-language news sites and 10 popular WeChat sites. It has also checked ownership structures and Communist Party links.

So all based on open sources and public records, with findings that seem to repeat and corroborate the findings of academics like UTS communications specialist Wanning Sun. Why the secrecy, except perhaps to make it more newsworthy for those getting the leak?

And as for answering academic John Fitzgerald’s question at the end of the news report – what do we do about it – it seems Morrison’s government is leaving it to the US State Department and Falun Gong to set up a counter Chinese-language campaign, as we have noted previously.

We should also keep in mind that the CCP’s efforts to control the diaspora’s information flow is not primarily aimed at interfering in Australia, but preventing the diaspora becoming a base for subversion of the Chinese system. Former ambassador Geoff Raby, spruiking his new book China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s Future in the New Global Order, reminds us that Qing dynasty was undermined by Sun Yat-sen and other exiles in Japan.

Winners and grinners

In these difficult moments, Morrison has gained vocal support from various Tory backbenchers in Britain and US Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio, and strangely New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, but very few from Asian friends. Amanda Hodge for The Australian did the rounds of Southeast Asian foreign ministries to find a few words of support for Morrison. No response, except for Taiwan and the Philippines. The region had been “scared into silence by Beijing’s aggression” said the headline.

Anthony Albanese and Labor colleagues were meanwhile slapped down by The Australian for suggesting Morrison’s handling of China had worsened the trade picture. “As countries across the region that are threatened by Chinese bullying closely watch Australia’s standoff with Beijing, it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of our own leaders not saying or doing anything that plays into China’s hands,” it editorialised yesterday. “Anything that suggests we are divided as a nation in our response to Beijing would do just that. Bipartisanship, not party political point-scoring and ill-timed criticism, is vital if Beijing’s destructive belligerence is to be successfully confronted.”

The paper’s Canberra correspondents Simon Benson and Ben Packham weighed in with comment pieces condemning Albo for breaking ranks. Columnist Niki Savva started out playing with the Gareth Evans analysis ran on this website that Morrison had been too strident, but veered back to safe News Corp territory by quoting ASPI’s Peter Jennings: such criticism was just another version of “shut up and take the money”. Business could wean itself off China in five years if it wanted to diversify, Jenning said, not mentioning that would be about the time it would take China to diversify out of Australian iron ore by opening up Guinea’s Simandou deposit.

Schlock and awe from Hartcher

In the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, international editor Peter Hartcher  said that if Zhao was supposed to be a Wolf Warrior diplomat he was “obviously no diplomat. And as for wolf warrior, it’s more like schlock monger.”

“Did Zhao or his masters stop to think of the effect that this might have?” Hartcher asked. “Is this really going to pressure Australia into yielding? It won’t, of course. It’s entirely counterproductive to Beijing’s cause. It only exposes Xi’s regime as thugs and grubs, rallies Australians around their government and hardens Australia’s resolve. It’s the clearest sign yet of desperation in Beijing.”

Taking it lower

A week earlier, Nine News political editor Chris Uhlmann had also put Zhao Lijian in his place over his list of grievances against Australia, later expanded to 14 by the Chinese embassy and handed to a Canberra reporter.

“What China is demanding of Australia is that it give up its sovereignty and shut up forever,” Uhlmann thundered in his regular oped, reluctantly published by the SMH and The Age by mandate of their new management.

“While some university chiefs and some business executives might be taking this list and checking it twice for potential moments of self-enriching obeisance, no Australian government can seriously consider any of it. If we swallowed this set of demands, do you imagine it would be the last? What do you want your children and grandchildren to concede?

“When Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian laid all blame for the poor relationship at Australia’s door, he intoned: ‘Whoever hung the bell [on the tiger’s neck] must untie it.’ This invites Australia to mine its own vast cultural heritage and respond in kind. Given I don’t have to worry about trying to reboot a relationship with a country that has the temperament of a toddler, let’s go with: ‘Take your list and stick it where the sun don’t shine.’”

As someone who has been associated with the Sydney Morning Herald for more than 50 years as a cadet, reporter, correspondent, leader writer, foreign editor and still occasional contributor, I can’t think of a lower level of commentary ever run in the newspaper.

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