JOCELYN CHEY. Who Would Be a Chinese Ambassador?

I write in defence of PRC Ambassador Cheng Jingye, who is accused of threatening a tit-for-tat trade war.

Cheng has been abused for this by commentators in the press, including Skynews Paul Murray on 28 April. If we follow what Cheng actually said in the original interview, we can see that he was cornered by a leading question. A more experienced diplomat might have been able to escape from such an awkward position. He was certainly foolish, but we should look at his entire statement and not take one remark out of context. It seems some people simply wish to ratchet up tensions between Australia and China.

The role of an ambassador is to represent his or her government’s policies and to communicate them to the host country. The German term for ambassador spells it out most clearly. He is the Botschafter – the man who delivers the message. He does not have to be popular. Take the most Trumpian of all US President Donald Trump’s ambassadors, Richard Grenell, ambassador to Germany, who has been called “toxic” by German politicians. A recent article in The Atlantic quoted one former US diplomat, “He is playing to an audience of one…. Trump is what counts. No one else.” What is true of US diplomacy is also true of the PRC.

The role of the Chinese ambassador in Canberra is to relay the policies formulated in Beijing to the Australian government and to the public. Over the last week, these policies have related to the 19 April call by Foreign Minister Marise Payne for an independent inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 virus, insinuating that China was not being “transparent” about this. See my earlier comments on this in Pearls and Irritations.

An official response was made by Geng Shuang, spokesperson for the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at a press conference on 23 April. It is worthwhile to quote the full text. Asked for a comment on Payne’s remarks, Geng Shuang replied,

I have noticed relevant reports. If they are truthful, then I have to say that the so-called independent review proposed by the Australian side is political manoeuvring in essence. It will disrupt international cooperation in fighting the pandemic and goes against people’s shared aspiration. Currently, with the pandemic still spreading across the world, the most pressing task is to put people’s life and health first and work together to defeat the virus. At such a critical juncture, it is highly irresponsible to resort to politically motivated suspicion and accusation. We advise the Australian side to put aside ideological bias and political games, focus on the welfare of the Australian people and global public health security, follow the international community’s collective will for cooperation, and contribute to the global cooperation in fighting the virus, instead of doing things to the contrary.”

This was the line conveyed to the Chinese embassy in Canberra. When Ambassador Cheng Jingye spoke to Andrew Tillett of the Australian Financial Review on 26 April, he knew what he had to say.

“Frankly speaking, the reason why we are opposed to this idea, this proposition from the Australian side, (because) it is politically motivated. It’s a kind of pandering to the assertions that were made by some forces in Washington over a certain period of time. Some guys are attempting to blame China for their own problems and deflect the attention. The proposition is obviously teaming up with those forces in Washington to launch a political campaign against China. Just look at the remarks of some of the politicians and also the inflammatory comments in the media. People with common sense can easily come to the conclusion which country this initiative or this idea is targeting at.

“Secondly, it’s our fear that this idea would disrupt international cooperation which is so urgently needed at the moment. We all know that this pandemic is still rampaging across some parts of the globe. So the most pressing task for the world is to put the life and safety of the people first. That means on the one hand it’s important for every country especially those affected to concentrate, to work and to speed up the efforts in their response. On the other hand, it’s important for countries to work together, to help each other and to support each other. Resorting to suspicion, recrimination or division at such a critical time could only undermine the global efforts to fight against this pandemic. We think it is irresponsible.”

Many in Australia would agree with these remarks. Stephen FitzGerald said much the same, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald this week. No one could categorise the Ambassador’s words as inflammatory. How the interview unfolded next is interesting and I beg the reader’s indulgence for some lengthy extracts.

Tillett moved on to ask about the origin of the Covid-19 virus, and Cheng said that this question should be left to “professionals.” Tillett then asked what would happen if the Australian side pursued the idea of an inquiry and Cheng said, “It won’t bring you respect and it’s detrimental to global efforts.” He proposed that Australia and China should instead deepen cooperation to fight “this terrible disease.” “It’s important to focus on the fight against the epidemic.” Tillett continued to probe.

Tillett: “Could there be economic consequences for Australia if we continue to pursue this?”

Cheng:“I don’t think it would lead to anywhere because so far I don’t think this has got any support.”

Tillett: “But if Australia continues to do it, would China stop buying our iron ore and coal and gas and look elsewhere for it?”

This is a blatant push polling technique, designed to elicit a desired outcome. This is also the point at which the ambassador, in my view, should have refused to answer, or even shut down the interview. Instead, Cheng soldiered bravely on.

“Firstly, I don’t think this will make any substantial progress. Secondly, as I said earlier, the Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what you are doing now. In the long term, for example, I think if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think why we should go to such a country while it’s not so friendly to China. The tourists may have second thoughts. Maybe the parents of the students would also think whether this place, which they find is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to. So it’s up to the public, the people to decide. And also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef. Why couldn’t we do it differently?”

The interview then ranged over other topics. At no point did Cheng threaten a trade war. He did remark, as quoted above, that Chinese people might be prejudiced against visiting Australia or studying here, or buying Australian goods, if they perceived Australia to be unfriendly.

In short, the Ambassador conveyed his government’s message on the proposed independent inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 virus, as any proper diplomat should have done. In my view, he did not go beyond his brief and he certainly did not mention any boycott of Australian products or services. Why then have his comments been exaggerated by the press?


Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and UTS. She formerly held diplomatic posts in China and Hong Kong. She is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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20 Responses to JOCELYN CHEY. Who Would Be a Chinese Ambassador?

  1. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    This is exactly how I see it, too – though with the added proviso that of course Marise Payne is not acting out of her own ideological position – it must be along with Scott Morrison – with the initial “orders” – in one way or another – coming from the Trump mischief of the past few weeks labelling it the Wuhan virus or the China virus. Payne and Morrison – and the current LNP appointee Sinodinos (himself out of years serving as an LNP henchman) to the court of Washington DC taking over from an earlier oaf of the same provenance – doing all they can to show fealty to Donald Trump. It’s a nasty national stance Payne and Morrison are taking…

  2. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    China’s relationship with the West goes up and down. China should be patient, and focus on its long-term development and the Belt & Road Initiative.

    China’s ambassador should simply say: “We appreciate your help and friendship; but if you do not wish to help us, we will achieve our goals anyway, but it will just take us longer”, and leave it at that.

    A time will come when the West will go running after China for help.

  3. Avatar Rosemary Lynch says:

    I heard the Ambassador’s response as inflammatory exerpt. I did not welcome it. I am acutely aware of the generation of sinophobia in Oz, which has not been helped by either the PM’s confrontational tactic the day after Trump’s, nor our Foreign Minister’s.

    As we humble citizens try to fight sinophobia in social media, it would be good to recall that WHO normally arranges an independent review after epidemic outbreaks, to draw from them the lessons of what could be done better next time, as well as what needed not to happen. I imagine China will welcome such an option, as contribution to the development of better epidemiology management, as will the UK, Europe, the USA, Africa, Asia and Australia.

    Thank you for your contextual clarification, Ms Chey. Hopefully it will not be required again.

  4. Jocelyn Chey is wrong. By all means have an inquiry into the Chineses mistakes behind the spread of Covid 9. China still needs wake-up calls about the faults remaining in its society – the malicious power of its petty bureaucrats and officials, especially.

    But there should also be an enquiries into some other topics – the harm from delays caused by blow-hard boasting by Trump and other Western leaders about how their own societies were immune from the ‘Chinese disease’; or the fact that the lacunas of backwardness in Chinese society were mostly caused by past western, including Australian, policies of embargo, isolation, insult and aggression.

    The Chinese remember those years. They tend to react strongly when they see a revival in nations like Japan, US satellites like South Korea and now, it seems, Australia. I assume they are even less impressed by scruffy efforts in Australian media, the SMH especially, to then distort this reaction into yet another bout of anti-China hysteria..

    • Avatar Richard England says:

      There are two contrasting types of inquiry. The first assesses what went wrong and what went right, and decides ways of handling things better next time. The second is a lawyerfest where fingers are pointed and arses (and the truth) covered. Even where officials are found to have been tardy passing on bad news to their seniors, the most effective inquiry concentrates on improving the system so that is less likely to happen in the future, rather than laying blame on individuals. Ultimately it was the system that selected those people and defined their jobs in it. Dismissing them is an option, but that is an admission that the system failed to select suitable people, and needs improvement.

      The evidence indicates that the Chinese government did a far better and quicker job in the circumstances than Western governments. With a few exceptions, the West is doing poorly even with all the critical information openly provided by Chinese scientists, and time on the West’s side. Overall, China has demonstrated both honesty and competence (which tend to go hand-in hand), and the West has demonstrated the opposite.

      The Chinese government is right to reject the kind of inquiry whose real purpose, we all know, is only to blacken it.

  5. Avatar Jim Anthony says:

    In Richard England’s piece in this string, his second paragraph is particularly on point.
    Well said.

  6. Avatar Richard Ure says:

    Do I read anything into the appearance that to the learned ambassador, the word “inquiry” automatically means “blame”?

  7. If Foreign Minister Payne was genuine about a fact-finding inquiry into SARS-CVoV-2, then the ept (opposite of inept) way to do it was to approach the Chines Ambassador to Australia IN PRIVATE and suggest the study.

    In megaphone diplomacy, when you shout, expect to be be shouted at.

  8. Avatar Richard England says:

    The Chinese socialist government’s traditional government policy has always been to raise their own people out of poverty and produce a moderately prosperous society. In embracing science, and opening trade with the world, they have realised that doing the same for all humanity helps them achieve their aims at home.

    I see the actions of the Australian Government and the Australian media as an attack by malicious liars and their greedy paid advocates against people who are as honest and compassionate as one could dare hope of a political class, and whose honesty and compassion has been crowned with success. Australia is brimming with good people, but its flawed political and legal system allows lying, greedy scum to float to the top and poison the hearts of the gullible. It is a political and legal system the Anglosphere shares, and foolishly believes should be thrust on the world.

  9. Avatar Wayne McMillan says:

    Thanks Jocelyn your description of events represents a true and accurate picture. The Australian Murdoch owned media were looking for some sensational sabre rattling response from China. Australian politicians are foolish if they join the Trump inspired holy crusade against China in a time of international turmoil. Trump is obviously looking for a scapegoat to deflect attention away from his appalling incompetence and mismanagement of the COVID -19 pandemic in the USA. Certainly China could have alerted the world sooner about this pandemic and they must take some responsibility for its spread, internationally. Now is not the time for accusations and insinuations, we have an international pandemic to deal with that we should be focusing our attention on first and foremost.

  10. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Prof Chey – the voice of wisdom & sanity. Thank you.
    My response in the SMH:
    Canberra to call Beijing’s bluff over economic boycott threat
    Despite the China bashing since Dec2016, China has remained patient and quite over these years. When Ambassador Cheng made the remarks, the media immediately responded by allegations of assertiveness etc. which should much like US Secretary of States speaking. The international perception is that Australia is too sensitive whilst it can dish out criticism, she can’t take. Asean nations are aware of Australia being partisan with US China containment policy and most of them are wondering how come China still trades with Australia under an unfriendly cloud. I wouldn’t call China’s bluff and if the worst scenario eventually happens (huge trade cuts) then the responsibility of any adverse economic outcomes rest with the politicians and the “mediacracy”.
    Story: Canberra to call Beijing’s bluff over economic boycott threat

    China’s man in Canberra has unmasked the regime’s true face
    If we keep geopolitics bias and polarization away from this discussion and just look at the conversation between 3 traders, C, A and U. Traders U and C had a big quarrel; Trader A sides with Trader U. Trader C’s response to Trader A: Why are you constantly siding with Trader U, bad mouthing me, and expect me to trade with you?” Some may say it is a threat or Trader C is unhappy and disappointed that Trader A did not appreciate his No 1 trading partner, hence he may take his business elsewhere. No big loss for Trader C, he just shop somewhere else. It will be at least 5 years, if Trader A is lucky, to find a new customer to replace Trader C. Simple solution – economic decoupling, and please, no name calling and no hard feeling on both sides. The remarks of Trader C are not unexpected, but has a inbuilt cultural slow release of penned up emotions!
    Story: China’s man in Canberra has unmasked the regime’s true face

  11. Avatar Bob Aikenhead says:

    The Murdoch press has long pursued a ‘get China’ agenda; the former Fairfax publications (now Nine Entertainment) have sporadica6 followed suit over the past year or so. But it’s not just the press. It’s disturbing to find the same trope too often followed on ‘our ABC’.
    Compare the PRC Embassy account of the phone call with Frances Adamson wth RN Drive’s commentary:-
    RN commentary:

  12. What a remarkable cool head in your explanation.
    It is not too late to elevate her as our next Australian Ambassador to China or perhaps personal adviser to our Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs.
    Thank you

  13. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    Prof. Chey,

    I too agree with you that the message from the Chinese government, through its ambassador to Australia, is restrained. I remember watching on local televison two Chinese girl students being beaten up in a shopping mall. If you are Chinese parents who spend hard earned savings to send your children to Australia for an education, wouldn’t you be outraged? When I saw the footage, I was really upset and waited in vain for a response from the Australian government, educational institutions, the press or even the public. There were no subsequent reports that the police were searching for the pepetrators, no statements from the authorities that this was an outrage which runs against the grain of Australian moral values and belief in law and order. These are people’s children sent to Australia for an education because Australia offers its education for sale. They are not uninvited guests like asylum seekers depending upon the largesse of the Australian government. Even asylum seekers do not deserve bad treatment. Moreover, there is a duty of care incumbent upon all educators around the world.

    Let’s reverse the scenario. If you were Australian parents who sent your child to China for an education, what would your response be if your child were beaten up in a mall because a pandemic originated in Australia?

    Compared with the constant barrage of abuse that the Chinese had to bear since the pandemic outbreak, I think ambassador Cheng was almost purring like a kitten when he said that the Chinese might have reservations about buying Australian products.


    Teow Loon Ti

  14. Avatar Jack Douglas says:

    Before the remarks, Minister Simon Birmingham explicitly anticipated that the Ambassador would comment upon the Australian submissions to him.
    After the commentary was provided, Australia was surprised. Naive at best of us.

  15. Avatar Haiqing Yu says:

    Great piece. Thanks Joycelyn! I share the same view with you on the deliberately pulling question by Tillett: “But if Australia continues to do it, would China stop buying our iron ore and coal and gas and look elsewhere for it?” We all know too well how one’s words can be taken out of context and twisted by some journalists to fit in their agenda, and learned to be very diplomatic/careful in such occasions. It’s a shame that the question didn’t raise the red flag for Cheng, who should have deflected it.

  16. Avatar George Wendell says:

    We have a government that loves to use the word (Australian) ‘sovereignty’ even when it comes to our Covid-19 response, but from where they are headed, and have been for some time, it appears that they demonstrate more allegiance to the USA – you can forget Australia. The question must be asked: Are we well and truly the 51st state now? This can only be to our detriment and economic suicide, especially under the current economic disaster that has been cooking up way before the Coronavirus put the final nail in our national wealth coffin.

    Some Australians think that we can rekindle manufacturing, to cover a more than $200 billion trade relationship well in our favour with China, but the facts are if we could do that competitively we’d already be doing it. The simple reality is that the Chinese middle-class workers are paid about a 5th of what Australian workers are, so how could we complete. Are we now to buy (as yet non-existent) Australian goods at vastly higher prices and cause a massive inflation spike pushing interest rates up? Many shops in Australia would have nothing on their shelves if it wasn’t for well-priced Chinese goods. Chinese goods represent 95% of our imports. Then there’s the $150 billion or so of exports, but obviously we can do without that too.

    I wonder if this government is deliberately trying to destroy Australia’s future? it seems as such and I think a valid question. While myths like ‘China is taking Australia over’ continue to be peddled, it appears the USA has well and truly got the country under control with about $1 trillion in foreign investment, while China, ninth on the list, has around $60 billion are invested. I guess Chinese people stand out more, as it was once with Japanese people who copped it in the 1990s.

    The forces behind this anti-Chinese smear campaign appear to be monumental, as I see newspapers well beyond Murdoch’s empire persistently carrying negative and utterly biased stories on China, a country that can never do anything that is right it appears. The SMH (now Nine Entertainment) is another shocking example, to the point that I have often wonder if they are being paid by the US government to “manufacture consent” against China? They don’t seem to care if readers comments on their articles even reflect utter racism to help push the point. Some days there are more than three or four anti-China articles featured on the front page of the online version.

    What I have noticed is that Anti-Chinese rhetoric mainly started in US when China’s economy started to rival the US economy, and this has been especially exacerbated since Trump has been in power. Any mud that can be thrown at the Chinese, and not just the CCP, is the weaponry they use. Suddenly issues like the Chinese annexing of Tibet after more than 70 years, become canon salvos directed at China when no interest has been shown for all that time.

    When China says anything it is demolished, and they are called thin-skinned if they make a reply, but people like Trump have been permanently abusive towards China while he is so sensitive to any criticism in the least. Western news propaganda is often worse than Chinese propaganda. Even Australian newspapers carry biased commentary far worse than anything you’d find in the Global Times.

    I most certainly would not like to be the Chinese ambassador because whoever it may be does not stand a chance to be treated as an equal – they will be judged with utter bias no matter what they say.

    Thank you Jocelyn, China is always judged in terms of Western values and Western righteousness, those that understand Chinese culture, politics and history are greatly needed at the moment to balance the complete bias we read in main stream media.

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