Media in the Asian Century: Defamation payout has Nine urging law reform

Feb 12, 2021

And Senator Eric Abetz does not back away from his much-criticised call at a hearing last October for three Chinese-Australian witnesses to publicly and unconditionally condemn “the Chinese Communist party dictatorship”.

Goodbye to Year of the Rat

Kung hei fat choy! But before we move on to the Year of the Ox tonight, let’s look back at the closing days of the Year of the Rat and some decidedly rodent-like behaviour on many sides.

On February 2 the Cantonese-origin developer and Australian citizen for more than 20 years Chau Chak-wing won a Federal Court defamation case against the ABC and Nine Entertainment over a joint Four Corners program in 2017, being awarded $590,000 in damages with costs to follow. Justice Steven Rares found the program contained four defamatory imputations, including that Chau had paid a US$200,000 bribe to a former UN General Assembly president, John Ashe of Antigua, and had been an agent of the Chinese Communist Party.

Not to be abashed, two of the authors of the Four Corners program, Nick McKenzie and Chris Uhlmann, found Liberal MP Tim Wilson on his feet in federal parliament a few hours after the judgment, tabling what was said to be a US Federal Bureau of Investigation report on Chau. The two immediately pumped out a report on this development for Nine’s newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, not mentioning their personal involvement in the Four Corners program or indeed that McKenzie was named as a co-defendant in Chau’s action.

“The tabling of the FBI case file by Liberal MP Tim Wilson with the backing of Labor MP Julian Hill is the second time Australian politicians have used parliamentary privilege to accuse Mr Chau of involvement in a bribery scandal and the Chinese Communist Party’s overseas influence activities,” they declared.

They referred back to Liberal MP Andrew Hastie naming Chau in parliament in 2018 as the source of “the alleged bribe” to Ashe. Wilson said in parliament that Chau’s role in providing funds [to Mr Ashe] had “been obscured by defamation cases” and he also repeated Hastie’s allegation that security agencies regarded Mr Chau to be part of Beijing’s efforts to influence overseas governments.

But did the FBI get these accusations to stick? Well, no. It never charged Chau with bribery, because the payment was quite plausibly a speaking fee or quid-pro-quo donation for Ashe turning up as celebrity guest when Chau opened his Silver Springs resort and convention centre in Guangdong in 2013.

Lavish, perhaps, but not out of line with the fees demanded by many statesmen on the speaking circuit these days, and a big Caribbean diplomat with a one-year turn in the UNGA chair might have impressed a small-town audience in southern China.

The FBI charged Ashe over alleged bribery by a different southern China property developer but died before the trial started. That the CCP-linked Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries was a co-host of the 2013 opening hardly makes Chau a CCP agent. Including it, if Chau had the choice, would have been routine political cover for his project.

Following the court ruling, the ABC and Nine issued a joint statement urging governments to enact defamation law reform and “balance the playing field” to support public interest journalism. They indicated they were reviewing their avenues of appeal. This must have been a quick process, if Uhlmann and McKenzie were cleared by lawyers in reporting Wilson’s intervention. Justice Rares took a dim view of this kind of use of parliamentary privilege during the Chau trial.

Aiding and Abetzing

The Senate committee looking into intimidation of diaspora communities in Australia by foreign powers handed down its findings on February 4, noting that many witness had insisted on giving evident in-camera for fear of retaliation.

“I don’t think we can avoid naming the country where witnesses felt threatened and had to give evidence in-camera,” said the committee chair, Labor senator Kimberley Kitching. “The regime is the Chinese Communist party.”

Despite this now-acknowledged fear, deputy chair Eric Abetz was not backing away from his much-criticised call at a hearing last October for three Chinese-Australian witnesses to publicly and unconditionally condemn “the Chinese Communist party dictatorship”.

“During the hearings, some inappropriate allegations were made suggesting that witnesses appearing as experts and thought leaders and thinktank contributors on China and its impact on the Chinese diaspora shouldn’t be asked if they condemned the CCP dictatorship which is brutalising its citizens,” the Liberal senator from Tasmania said. “Let’s be clear: one million of its own people [are] in concentration camps … To not condemn such a heinous regime is in itself heinous.”

This was noted in a report by Guardian Australia’s Daniel Hurst, the only mention we spotted in the main media. Which is surprising, since, as China scholar John Fitzgerald put it in Crikey, Beijing would be rubbing its hands at Abetz’s “war” on Chinese-Australians. Abetz had “doubled down on his personal attacks against the three respected Chinese-Australians” who appeared last October.

“Speaking at the tabling of the committee’s report, he called them ‘apologists’ and described their actions as ‘heinous’. What had they done to earn this latest rebuke? Nothing in the opening statements of the three witnesses back in October suggested they were apologists for Beijing. No, it was their response to Abetz’s gotcha demand to ‘unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship’ that put them in his sights.”

To try to restore the frayed feelings among Chinese-Australians and other Asian diasporas copping Covid blame from the ignorant, Scott Morrison has urged MPs to get out and attend Lunar New Year festivities. No doubt Abetz, Kitching, Hastie, and Wilson will be out among the lion-dances and dodging fire-crackers this weekend.

When just being communist isn’t bad enough

Pumping out two columns a week must be hard going, and normally The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher provides a stimulating read, but on February 2 he had many readers wondering what he’d had for breakfast.

He laid into Australia’s foreign policy establishment for always worrying they might make China angry.

“This is unique among Australia’s international relationships,” he wrote. “No other country’s dealings with Australia are assessed consistently through the prism of anger, anticipated or actual. Australians are not told that they should live in fear of any other nation.”

This somewhat ignores all the times Canberra tip-toed around to avoid upsetting the Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans, and the times a fence-mending grovel was required when they were.

What got Harcher’s goat was a piece by former DFAT and ONA head Philip Flood who noted that the “current low point” in relations in China was caused by both countries and that Australia needed to approach China with “more nuance”.

“What sort of nuance would Flood suggest we use against a fascist power that is crushing human liberty at home – including a program of genocide in Xinjiang – and using brute force to make illegal territorial grabs abroad?” he fumed.

So far, Australia was holding firm against Xi Jinping’s campaign of coercion. “It’s possible, however, that Xi could end up breaking Australia; we might end up yielding our independence to a rising fascist power,” Hartcher said. “The least we can do is to stop making excuses for our oppressor in the meantime.”

Gerard Henderson noted Hartcher had also referred three days earlier on the ABC Insiders program to “the determined rise of a fascist great power, China”. This pained the Sydney Institute doyen, schooled at the feet of B.A.Santamaria in spotting a communist.

“What a load of absolute tosh,” Henderson wrote in his weekly Media Watch Dog blog. “China is not a ‘fascist great power.”  It is what China’s leaders say it is – namely a substantial communist power in which the Chinese Communist Party is in control. Unless Comrade Hartcher uses the term “fascist” to mean some people or organisation which you do not like – the term is meaningless with respect to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule of China. Italy, under Mussolini, was fascist.  Germany, under Hitler, was Nazi.  And China under Xi Jinping is communist – as was the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin.  And Nine Newspapers’ international specialist does not understand this. Can You Bear It?”

Despite Hartcher’s blast, some leading Australians are still saying we could handle China relations with more care. Former Treasury and Prime Minister’s Department head Martin Parkinson for one, as reported in the SMH and the Australian Financial Review.

“Other countries in our region manage to have differences with China but keep open communication channels with China,” he told a superannuation industry conference this week. It mattered how even the right government decisions were communicated. He instanced the call for an independent investigation into the Covid-19 origins with “weapons inspector” powers: “What whizz kid who dreamed up those talking points, what did they think they were going to achieve with that?”

Getting a bite

Meanwhile, Canberra’s security establishment has been stirred by Chinese approaches to Papua New Guinea to invest in Daru Island, the mudflat with a small settlement in the Torres Strait. One by a Fujian fishing company was for a fish processing factory, costing about $200 million, the other by a little-known Hong Kong developer for a massive new city, costing $39 billion.

Getting front-page alarm in several newspapers, the latter project was later dismissed as a fantasy, and PNG prime minister James Marape said he’d not been approached about it. But the fishing project has prompted more concern. Not so much about its environmental impact and sustainability, but about the risk of fishing fleets being a cover for transnational crime.

Guardian Australia’s Joshua McDonald found a range of expert agreement on this. “There are criminal entrepreneurs looking at this and saying ‘OK, there’s an opportunity here’,” ASPI’s John Coyne said. Henry Ivarature at the ANU’s new Australia Pacific Security College (It’s a growth area for unis) said the risk extended far beyond the Torres Strait: “It could become the ‘Fly River’ triangle of illegal activities between the three countries.”

In The Australian, ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge said it made no sense economically, and was just a vehicle for paying off PNG politicians and sucking up to Xi Jinping as a Belt and Road Initiative project. “Big money proposals like this can work the seams between PNG’s central and provincial governments, just as Beijing is doing with Victoria and Canberra on the BRI,” Shoebridge wrote.

Meanwhile the Pacific region is falling apart on its own without Chinese help. The five Micronesian states are walking out of the Pacific Islands Forum because they felt it their turn to provide its secretary-general, and narrowly lost out to a Samoan. Fiji’s climb back to political respectability from its last military coup has been derailed by the Bainimarama government’s midnight arrest and expulsion of the University of the South Pacific’s vice-chancellor, Pal Ahluwalia, an Australian citizen, after he uncovered corruption in the university’s administration.

Speaking up for Cheng Lei

Businessmen active in China are almost routinely called sell-outs of Australian values by the China hawks in the media and in politics.

Thanks to The Australian’s Will Glasgow, we have learned that two of them have stuck their necks out for Cheng Lei, the Australian citizen and long-time business program anchor for Chinese state television who mystifyingly was arrested in Beijing by Chinese security agencies last August. This week it was revealed she was formally “arrested” on suspicion of passing “state secrets” to a foreign power, as being kept in a grim cell for six months, allowed only a monthly consular visit, and so far denied access to a lawyer doesn’t constitute arrest.

Warwick Smith, the former Howard government minister and current advisor to Kerry Stokes, heads the Business Council of Australia’s China Leadership Group. He visited China’s ambassador in Canberra, Cheng Jingye, before Christmas to convey the widespread concern about her case. David Guppy, a board member of the Australia China Business Council, also spoke out for Cheng.

Elena Collinson, a researcher at the UTS Australia-China Relations Institute (started with Bob Carr as first director, and partly financed by expelled businessman Huang Xiangmo, two other bugbears of the hawks) also wrote this week calling for humane treatment of Cheng:

“However, the timing of Cheng’s arrest and the seeming parallels of her case with those of fellow Australian citizen Yang Hengjun and Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, seem to point to an alarming trend of Beijing using individuals to communicate political dissatisfaction,” Collinson wrote in The Conversation. “Even allowing for circumstances in which there may be substantive merit to the case brought against Cheng, it is evident Beijing has secured another card in its political game with Australia.”

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