In the ever deteriorating relationship with China, the mainstream media have a lot to answer for

Aug 17, 2022
Pelosi And Tsai Wave Hands
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Wang

Australia’s mainstream media seem determined to scuttle a reset of Australia-China relations.

Chinese Ambassador’s Xiao Qian’s address to the National Press Club (NPC) on 10 August was friendly in tone and, I thought, suave and diplomatic in style. Yet in their questions the journalists in the audience seemed to me to go out of their way to emphasise that they just don’t trust anything the Chinese say and want to show them up as insincere, the word “chilling” prominent in their coverage. Of course, press freedom is a good thing. Does that imply a determination to embarrass Chinese representatives? I don’t think so. For failure so far of any reset in Australia-China relations, the mainstream media have a lot to answer for.

On Xiao Qian’s NPC address I happen to agree with Jocelyn Chey (P&I, 13 August) that “It was apparent that they [members of the Press] had come with prepared questions and were trying to engineer a quote for a headline news item” and she might have added that if the headline was hostile, so much the better. Xiao Qian went out of his way to say that he was making proposals, not demands, and to remind the audience that during the Wong-Wang meeting in Bali on 9 July, the Chinese version had used the term xiwang (hopes), not demands, as many in the Australian press described them, with even Prime Minister Albanese commenting coldly (on 11 July) that “Australia doesn’t respond to demands”.

Chris Uhlmann, currently of Nine News, made no attempt to hide his hostility, framing his question within statements designed to demonise China and embarrass the Ambassador. What struck me was that Xiao Qian was so composed and polite in his response. Uhlmann was one of the main journalists behind the June 2017 Four Corners programme that had spurred on the current wave of Sinophobia by targeting Chinese students as too compliant to Chinese government directives and stirring up trouble in Australian universities. His hatred of things Chinese appears to have grown since then.

Xiao Qian commented on media bias in Australia. He was very low-key in his manner and obviously trying to put forward the idea that Australian mainstream media emphasised the negative much more than necessary. I think he’s right. He did not frame change of this negativity as a “condition” for improvement of relations, or a “demand”. He spent most of his speech trying to emphasise the positive in Australia-China relations, the fifty years of comparative friendship, the trade record, the Chinese students and tourists coming to Australia. And it seems to me that it is indeed a good record and the Ambassador’s style was friendly.

But we know China’s approach to Taiwan, which is to regard it as a province of China and to include it in the very high priority adopted on national unity and sovereignty. That has been the case for many decades now and is not new.

Yet it still becomes the stick to beat China with. A particularly egregious example was on Sky News on 12 August, when Lawyer and pro-democracy activist Kevin Lam described the comments made by Chinese Ambassador at the National Press Club as “very mafia-like”. “It’s all delivering a chilling message with a smile on his face,” Mr Lam told Sky News Australia. “I think all of that is classic thug tactics.”

I regard that as a very unfair judgement. It seems as though whatever the Ambassador does or says will get him into hot water.

On 11 August, Senator Jim Molan, along with James Paterson noted for his unrelenting hostility to China, issued a statement, saying: “Following yesterday’s disgraceful address by the Chinese ambassador, I have today written to the @PressClubAust requesting that they refrain in the future from providing the CCP with a platform to spread its lies and misinformation, and to prosecute its evil agenda.” So for Senator Molan, the Chinese state is so horrible its ambassador should not even be allowed to put forward its point of view.

The ABC should be better than others. But even its representatives have been less than balanced.

On the Q&A programme the day after the Ambassador’s speech, there was quite a bit about China. But the line-up of panelists definitely had an anti-China bias. For instance, James Paterson, one of the members of the federal parliament most hostile to China, used his position on the panel to condemn China as a threat to Australia, but there were no panelists taking a directly opposite position.

The ABC’s Insiders Programme on Sunday 14 August included the virulently anti-China Peter Hartcher. Xiao Qian’s appearance was discussed, with words like “chilling” occurring frequently. Although Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was criticised as provocative, the main target for condemnation was China and I was left with the impression of a very dangerous and aggressive country with very threatening intentions.

Most Australian journalists have made no attempt to learn Chinese language or understand the Chinese culture or attitudes to life. They say it’s the Chinese Communist Party they oppose rather than the Chinese people. However, what’s striking to me now is how Chinese in general have swung behind their government against the West in general and the U.S. in particular. It is very clear that the push to understand China in the education system needs a big overhaul and, as a country, we need far more China-literate journalists and far better education in Chinese language, culture and history.

Probably the crucial issue in the present crisis is whether it is the United States that has changed the status quo over the last couple of weeks or China. Did Nancy Pelosi change the status quo through her visit to Taiwan early in August and through the speech she made there or was it China that changed the status quo through its reaction, which included military drills and practice for a blockade, as well as the rupture of certain links with the United States such as cooperation over climate change? My view is that it was the United States that sparked the crisis through allowing Pelosi to heap scorn, approaching mockery, on Chinese territorial integrity.

On 3 August, Pelosi accepted a major award from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Referring to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, passed by the United States Congress, Pelosi said: “Forty-two years ago, America made a bedrock promise to always stand with Taiwan”. She continued, “On this strong foundation, we have built a thriving partnership grounded in our shared values of self-government and self-determination.” She also referred to Taiwan as a nation. It seems to me that this clearly implies a recognition of, and support for, Taiwan independence, which most certainly crosses China’s “red line” that insists on Taiwan as a province of China.

What irritated China most is that the United States and its partners, including Australia, many in Europe and Japan, heaped condemnation on China for its response, but barely noticed, and certainly did nothing to condemn, Pelosi’s action. I just don’t know how far it is legitimate to go in poking China in the eye for its insistence on its sovereignty, while defending Taiwan’s “values of self-determination”.

I believe the United States and, under its influence, the West and a few other countries, have been moving irrevocably towards supporting Taiwan independence. Some people frame it as democracy versus autocracy. But the Americans no longer care about or support China’s sovereignty. After all, a split country is less of a challenge to American hegemony, and that’s the issue that matters most to them. Of course, the Chinese still care very much indeed about Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. With this clash of views, Chinese reunification is made that much more difficult and violence that much more likely. The mainstream press has been a more than willing partner in this change of opinion.

As Stephen FitzGerald said in his P&I article of 12 August with specific reference to Xiao Qian’s speech, but in my view more widely applicable: “We should be alarmed, if not ashamed, at how some of these journalists behaved and reported.” Meanwhile, the political situation in the United States is becoming increasingly divided, and even deteriorating in the direction of fascism. One wonders more and more whether it is safe for Australia to be an ally of such a country. We are entering a very dangerous world situation indeed. Politicians and media should be extremely careful how they tread.

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