Media in the Asian Century

Mar 12, 2021

They come at it from different angles but Chinese deputy ambassador Wang Xining and Peta Credlin, former prime ministerial staffer of Tony Abbott and current Sky News After Dark presenter, are agreed on one thing: the Australian media have gone to the dogs.

Reap what you sow

The Lowy Institute issued an embarrassing survey at the start of the month: 37 per cent of Australian residents of Chinese descent said they had been treated differently or less favourably over the past year; 31 per cent said they had been called offensive names; 18 per cent they had been physically threatened or attacked because of their Chinese appearance.

Guardian Australia also reported that a community group called Asian Australian Alliance found that 499 people had self-reported a racist incident – with the vast majority being women – since it started tracking anti-Chinese and anti-Asian incidents last April, as the Covid-19 pandemic set in.

The annual Scanlon Report into social cohesion and attitudes to migrants and multiculturalism found “heightened negative sentiment towards Chinese nationals over 2020. While 84 per cent of respondents in November 2020 said multiculturalism generally was good for Australia, 44 per cent said they had “very negative” or “somewhat negative” feelings towards Chinese Australians – a nearly three-fold increase from 13% in 2013.

The Guardian’s reporter Naaman Zhou found the Chinese-Australian community blaming allegations about the source and spread of the coronavirus, fanned by former US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, but also a political and media atmosphere that encourages a “creeping distrust” of Australians of Chinese heritage. Lowy’s representatives said much the same thing: China’s perceived role in spreading COVID-19 and Australian-Chinese diplomatic tensions.

The findings have not generated much self-examination in the Australian media.

Senator Eric Abetz and his demand of three Chinese-Australians that they “unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship” got raised in the only editorial we could find about the Lowy Report, in The Sydney Morning Herald. “A McCarthyite witch-hunt treating Chinese Australians as a fifth column in our midst is an injustice to them and it also offers a propaganda gift to the Chinese government,” it intoned.

As for blaming China or Chinese people for Covid, the SMH stressed some little-known remarks by Scott Morrison praising the responsible behaviour of people returning from China, rather than his “weapons-inspector” demand for a Covid investigation. The Australian and its tabloid stable-mate the Daily Telegraph did not run editorials on the subject.

The spate of ‘Gotcha’ coverage linking Chinese-Australians to the CCP’s United Front Work Department, involving not only the Nine-Fairfax and News Corp newspapers but also the ABC and other TV networks surely deserves some of the blame.

Osmond Chiu, of the Per Capita research group, was one of the three subjected to the Abetz test last October. He told the Guardian that discussion of China as a foreign threat used to be mostly confined to foreign policy wonks. “Whereas, as a result of two things, firstly China’s actions in Hong Kong, as well as Covid, it has now seeped into the mainstream,” he said. In media, politics and on the street, “people who were traditionally not that interested in China, are now talking about it as a threat.”

The suspicion was partly due to the “shadowy” ways in which the CCP operated, but it had resulted in an “inversion” of the burden of proof. “If you are of Chinese heritage, or have any potential links to China, however tenuous they might be, you have to prove you do not have links,” he said. “And even expressing that you don’t support [the CCP] is not enough. You almost need to show an evangelical zeal. There are plenty of examples where someone has been accused of having links … All you need to do is be in a photo with someone. Be in an organisation with someone.”

TV confessions

But for SBS, foreign news coverage outside the US and Britain would be sporadic and sometimes non-existent on Australian broadcast television. On slender budgets and a bit of advertising, it puts together good bulletins with its locally-based reporters voicing over and explaining footage from international channels.

Its language broadcasting for recent migrant communities comes in for periodic accusations of bias, either that certain staff are secretly working for a foreign government or alternatively, members of exiled dissident groups.

One slot-filler much appreciated by nostalgic migrants or language students are the news feeds from foreign broadcasters early in the day. The SBS has now suddenly suspended its re-broadcast of feeds from two Chinese state broadcasters, China Central Television (CCTV) and China Global Television Network (CGTN).

The cases raised go beyond the well-known one of British journalist and private investigator Peter Humphrey arrested along with his wife for allegedly trading the personal information of Chinese citizens.

The UK media watchdog Ofcom last month revoked the broadcast licence of CGTN as its ostensible owner did not control its editorial output and was ultimately controlled by the CCP. Last year, Ofcom ruled that CGTN had been “unjust” to air footage in 2013 of Peter Humphrey “appearing to confess to a criminal offence”.

According to SBS, Safeguard Defenders said in a letter that CCTV had broadcast the forced confessions of some 56 people between 2013 and 2020. “These broadcasts involved the extraction, packaging and airing of forced and false confessions of prisoners held under conditions of duress and torture,” the letter said. “These offences involved the airing of ‘confessions’ extracted from suspects long before any indictment, trial or conviction, and in many instances while the victim was detained incommunicado, with no access to legal counsel, at secret locations. A significant number of these ‘confessions’ are broadcast not only in China but internationally via CCTV-4 and CGTN.

SBS has told the media that to the best of its knowledge, it had not aired the forced confessions and the complaint letter did not allege that it had, but given the seriousness and complexity of the complaint, it was suspending the CGTN and CCTV bulletins while it was assessed.

Morrison the freedom fighter

When the CCP revealed the extent of its crackdown on Hong Kong’s political autonomy last year – now all but extinguished with subversion charges filed this month against 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists, and the rubber stamp by the National People’s Congress on a new loyalty vetting system for their replacements – Scott Morrison and his government saw a silver lining.

Immigration channels were opened for entrepreneurial Hong Kong types to bring their businesses, knowledge and capital to Australia. Some may indeed be arriving, if they don’t head to more familiar territory in Taiwan or Singapore, or take up Boris Johnson’s offer of residency in Britain.

But the intake is beginning to include some who will bring trouble that Morrison presumably didn’t have in mind. One who landed in Darwin this week was former Hong Kong legislative council member Ted Hui, noted for various protest stunts against Beijing and on the run from national security and money-laundering charges framed against him.

He intends to settle here with his family. “It is time to move on to a different battleground,” Hui told Eryk Bagshaw, offshore China correspondent of the SMH. “I am very grateful for the Australian government’s assistance. Diplomatically, I believe it is also a signal to Beijing that the Australian government will be more engaged with freedom fighters internationally.”

Hui and other fleeing activists should be accommodated, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will be cost-free. The Chinese embassy has already called his welcome an act of interference.

The costs of the political chill mount up. This month, two Chinese investors sold their 5.1 per cent stake in gas-producer Santos. The National People’s Congress passed a law explicitly banning cross-border gambling promotion, which will hit Australian casinos relying on junkets of Chinese high-rollers.

Student visa applications from China fell 46 per cent in the second half of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. This may just be the effect of travel restrictions (applications from India fell 48 per cent as well) but signs are emerging of active discouragement of study in Australia by some Chinese authorities.

Former foreign secretary Peter Varghese, now chancellor of the University of Queensland, told the SMH’s Lisa Visentin it was “quite likely” local authorities had spoken to some recruitment agents about not encouraging students to study at Australian universities. “These seem to be locally initiated messages that have gone out to some agents rather than a centralised message from China’s Ministry of Education,” Varghese said. “That is not unusual in China.”

Legion of merit

Who can forget one of the last grand gestures of Donald Trump’s presidency – the awarding of the Legion of Merit, normally a military decoration, to our own Scott Morrison, along with India’s Narendra Modi and Japan’s Shinzo Abe?

Morrison for one is probably hoping that we do. But later tonight, two of Trump’s warriors will be on screen in the first leaders’ hook-up of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Trump has been replaced by Joe Biden and Abe by Yoshihide Suga, but Morrison and Modi remain in their corners of the Quad.

The participants are all agreed it’s a significant move, but can more easily say what the Quad won’t be (a Nato-type military alliance). Discussions surrounding sea-lanes, Covid and climate change will come up, as well as the importance of Southeast Asia. Not to mention the Myanmar coup, still facing mass opposition after six weeks.

Jakarta, Jakarta

Meanwhile, the best print coverage here of Myanmar and Southeast Asia continues to come from Amanda Hodge of The Australian. She noted that Asean’s four democracies – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines – led by Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi have called for ­a reversal of the coup, an end to the violence and release of all detained political leaders.

Somewhat stronger than the consensus statement of the entire Asean group, calling for all parties in Myanmar to “exercise utmost ­restraint as well as flexibility … and to seek a peaceful solution.”

Hodge also reported last weekend’s unusual capture of the opposition Democratic Party, founded by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, by current president Joko Widodo’s chief of staff, former army general Moeldoko.

Together with other former opponents taken into the government camp, this gives President Widodo support of 84 per cent of the legislature, a rare achievement in post-Suharto Indonesia where the once-supreme presidency has had its powers counter-balanced in the parliament. Hodge did not take this scenario further, unlike Jakarta veteran correspondent John McBeth, who writes in the Asia Times website that Widodo could now, if it all held together, amend the constitution to let him run for a third term. You need to be there to capture the full wildness of Jakarta politics.

Great minds

They come at it from different angles but Chinese deputy ambassador Wang Xining and Peta Credlin, former prime ministerial staffer of Tony Abbott and current Sky News After Dark presenter, are agreed on one thing: the Australian media have gone to the dogs.

Credlin joined the throng of conservatives this week hailing the 25th anniversary of John Howard’s election win in 1996, opening “a time of significant achievement: tax reform with the GST; welfare reform with work for the dole; border security; a government that lived within its means; above all else, senior politicians who seemed to stand for things apart from their own ambition.”

“Even with an heir-apparent in Peter Costello waiting in the wings, despite an occasional skirmish, the ruthless internal campaigns to undermine elected leaders that define the recent decade were non-existent,” Credlin went on:

“It was a time when MPs who wanted to speak did so on the record; none of the weak ‘Liberal sources’ rubbish that masquerades as journalism. The Canberra press gallery, which likes to write about the decline of our polity, shares the blame. Back in the Howard years, the media class were alive to policy detail and debates about reform; they focused on the competing political ideologies that drove the agenda rather than the lazy route of gossip. Today, those gallery giants have been replaced by minnows who can’t read a budget paper, let alone comprehend serious policy. And we’re the poorer for it.”

For his part, Wang said much of the bad sentiment here towards China was the media’s fault, telling a Chinese new year gathering: “If these people are immersed by those negative portraits of China by the major media outlets and brainwashed by the vulgarised and simplified political slogans, how would they understand China and agree with your assessment and impression of China?”

Guardian of the Flame

According to Ellen Whinnett in the Murdoch Sunday tabloids, Tony Abbott is “mooted” to take over the chair of the Australian War Memorial council when the term of Kerry Stokes expires at the end of July. Whinnett is the one who got the leak about the Morrison government’s defunding of the China Matters institute last year.

Stokes took over the role from former Liberal defence minister and leader Brendan Nelson and continued with his ambitious $500 million expansion of the memorial to accommodate sundry large bits of war machinery – a deeply controversial measure widely condemned as a desecration of the AWM’s sombre origins as a memorial to the war dead and turning it into a “theme park” of war.

Abbott has been a member of the AWM council since 2019 and has shown no sign of dissent to the plans. According to Whinnett, the position of Stokes has become “complicated” as he is paying the legal expenses of Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith, who is under investigation for an alleged war crime in Afghanistan and suing Nine Entertainment for its reporting on the allegations. Roberts-Smith is a manager in Queensland for Seven Network, controlled by Stokes.

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