JOCELYN CHEY. Chung Kuo, Cina: Déjà Vu.

Sep 6, 2018

The ABC has been off-line in China since 22 August and press reports speculate that the Chinese ban is retaliation for Canberra’s decision on foreign investment in the telecommunication industry, which effectively bars China’s telecom giant Huawei from participating in the roll-out of our 5G network.  Chinese media did indeed call Canberra’s move (announced during the Liberal Party leadership crisis) an unfriendly action.  There is, however, a back story that indicates a wider problem – China’s creaking cyberspace interface with the outside world.  This is something Xi Jinping’s government must fix if the country is truly to take its place in the developed world.

Over the last 45 years, there have been many occasions when China expressed its unhappiness with Australia, causing temporary setbacks in the relationship.  It started in 1972 when Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary film, Chung Kuo, Cina, gave audiences worldwide their first view of the lives of ordinary Chinese people in the tail years of the Cultural Revolution decade.  (The title belongs to the days before the adoption of pinyin spelling of Chinese proper names; the current spelling is Zhongguo; Cina is the Italian name of the country China.)  It captured in realistic detail the poverty and deprivation that characterised most of the Chinese population.  One sequence filmed secretly from the window of a taxi showed a handcart being hauled along the street by human power.  This was not the picture of happy lives under socialism that Chinese propaganda chiefs wished to show the world and an international campaign was launched to suppress the film.  It was also not the image they wanted to promote to inspire their own citizens and encourage them to make greater efforts to build the nation.

When Antonioni’s film launched worldwide it became the subject of heated public discussion in Australia and there were widespread demands for it to be screened.  In June the ABC decided to go ahead.  The Information Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately retaliated, cutting off communication with the Australian embassy and denying travel visas to the ABC’s first correspondent Paul Raffaele as well as to Sydney Morning Herald correspondent Margaret Jones.  The Ministry certainly believed that the ABC was a government organisation and was subject to government direction so concluded that the decision to air Chung Kuo, Cina must have been endorsed by Canberra.  Such a view of the ABC still prevails in China in spite of repeated explanations and protestations from the Australian side. This is why last year’s Four Corners program on Chinese interference in Australian internal affairs provoked such a backlash in Chinese government circles.

The present ban on the ABC is not just an expression of disapproval.  It is also concerned with keeping certain information and views out of China.  The ABC has never had a large audience in China.  A straw poll of my contacts in China revealed no one who looked to it for information or entertainment and a strong preference for the BBC.  In the days when short-wave radio was popular, Radio Australia did appeal to Chinese listeners.  It was not uncommon for people in provincial towns and cities to look to it, even for information about their own country.  Over the years RA and the ABC have covered many China censored news stories such as corruption of senior officials and anniversaries of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.  However, short-wave long ago went the way of cassette tapes and DVDs and the audience dried up.  The ABC gave up its short-wave service and its Chinese language service (Putonghua) was closed in 2014.  (China took over several frequencies and now broadcasts on them to the Pacific.)  In place of Radio Australia, the ABC commenced a new site, inside the Chinese cyber zone and licensed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and last year ABC News also launched a Chinese language Service. The website states that it provides “trusted news, features and multimedia content.”  This latter site presumably mainly targets the Chinese diaspora.

Beijing is always more concerned with Chinese language content than with English or other languages, so now the ABC is subject to greater scrutiny than before.  Censors would not have liked ABC Chinese post last Friday regarding the UN’s call for China to release one million Uighurs from so-called re-education centres.  Once readers had been attracted to this site, they might well find their way to English language content, and particularly to Radio National’s series “China In Focus” with its variety of opinions and views not available to Chinese audiences through their domestic news services.

Censorship in China has always had this double focus – to keep dirty washing in house and to maintain purity of thought among the hoi poloi by blocking noxious information and heterodox views.  According to a report on the ABC website on 3 August, China’s Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission elaborated on their reasons for the ban – “China’s internet is fully open. We welcome internet enterprises from all over the world to provide good information to the netizens of China.”

This article is also available in Chinese

Fully open?  Absolutely not!  Open fractionally and even then only occasionally.  China’s scientific and academic progress is severely limited by its so-called Great Firewall.  Research institutes and universities do have some limited access to the outside world but Google, Facebook and other services are inaccessible and scholars are constantly frustrated in their attempts to access certain sites and news services.  Here in Australia I constantly hear complaints from Chinese visiting academics.  One must hope that President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party weigh the advantages and disadvantages of their oppressive censorship and allow their citizens to join the world community, to share ideas and views.  And to un-ban the ABC.

Jocelyn Chey’s last diplomatic posting was as Australian Consul General to Hong Kong 1992-95.  She was the founding Director of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University 2016-17.

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