JOCELYN CHEY. Who Would Be a Chinese Ambassador?

May 1, 2020

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?

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