What lies behind last week’s sharp increase in Australia-China tensions? ABC’s Bill Birtles was NOT “expelled” from China

The latest deterioration in Australia-China relations appears to have been provoked by Australian national security agencies and their supporters, in a strategy aimed at souring Chinese-Australian media relations.

David Speers noted in an ABC commentary on 13 September that there is something particularly troubling about the latest regression in the Australia–China relationship:

‘It has brought the activities of the two nations’ powerful security agencies out into the open, seen journalists in both countries targeted, and resulted in the Australian media no longer having any dedicated representatives on the ground in China.’

Reading between the lines of public access reporting, I believe this latest worsening in relations was provoked by heavy-handed Australian security agencies’ enforcement in June-July of the 2018 foreign influence laws.

Australian journalists Michael Smith (Australian Financial Review) and Bill Birtles (ABC) were not ‘expelled’ from China, contrary to the false narrative now gaining currency. They were advised by our embassy in Beijing to leave quickly, after signs of growing Chinese police interest in them, possibly connected to the much publicised arrest a few days ago of the popular Australian Chinese journalist Cheng Lei, who was working in China for China Global Television Network as a news anchor. She is under official investigation for criminal activity endangering China’s national security and faces up to six months in prison if convicted.

In the course of Birtles’ and Smith’s preparations to leave – during their farewell party – they were requested to come in for Chinese police questioning. Our ambassador Graham Fletcher in response took them under his personal diplomatic protection for several days. Journalists, unlike diplomats, have no diplomatic immunity, and the prudent course when they fall foul of local authorities in a Cold War environment is to leave the country quickly. After agreement on a face-saving official interview with Chinese police authorities they were allowed to leave China. It was not an expulsion.

Only after Birtles’ and Smith’s safe return to Australia last week did it emerge sensationally in ABC reporting that on 26 June, on the same day as the highly publicized ASIO-AFP interrogation and shaming of NSW MP Shaoquett Moselmane under Australia’s 2018 foreign influence laws, there had been simultaneous ASIO-AFP harassment of four senior Chinese journalists and media academics, including intrusive and scary searches of their family homes and instructions to keep quiet about these raids.

They were the Australia bureau chief of China News Service, Tao Shelan; China Radio International’s Sydney bureau chief Li Dayong; prominent Chinese scholar and media commentator Professor Chen Hong; and another leading Australian studies scholar, Li Jianjun. A month later, two members of the group – Professor Chen and Mr Li – were advised that their Australian visas were being cancelled due to advice from ASIO of alleged risks to national security. None of this became public until recent days though, undoubtedly, all four would have privately briefed the Chinese embassy here about the ASIO actions, and this would have been reported to Beijing.

We now know that the cause of the ASIO interest in those Chinese journalists and media academics was their participation with Mr Moselmane and his former staffer, Chinese Australian John Zhang, in a WeChat chat group, which discussed Australia-China relations in what participants say was a friendly, social way. This seemingly innocuous chat group was apparently seen by ASIO as coming under the scope of the 2018 foreign influence laws, which had not so far been tested.

While the search and disgrace of Mr Moselmane was made very public by ASIO-AFP presumed leaks to media at the time, we learned nothing at all about these other cases of harassment until after the safe return of Birtles and Smith from China.

If there is a tit for tat element here, it would be in the harassment of Chinese journalists in Australia begun by ASIO-AFP two and a half months ago. It is not clear which side has made the ASIO actions of 26 June public now, or why.

But the public record suggests Australian security authorities may have leaked the story to the ABC, which then enquired of the Chinese Embassy in Canberra as to the truth of it, resulting in detailed published denunciations of Australian actions by Chinese state media organisations the next day. All this was predictable and, I would argue, intended.

Significantly, as the ‘expulsion’ false narrative takes hold, I have seen demands by some Australian MPs and in social media for Australia to expel Chinese journalists here in retaliation for the alleged expulsion of Smith and Birtles and the arrest of Cheng Lei.

Whose interests does this serve? The answer is obvious – the interests of those in Australia who are seeking to decouple Australia from China in every way, including journalism. In other words, the pro-US elements here represented by the intelligence and national security agencies, whose public voice is politicians like Christian Porter and Andrew Hastie, think-tankers like Peter Jennings and his ASPI colleagues, and anti-Chinese journalists like Peter Hartcher and most mainstream newspaper editors.

Such voices now dominate Australian policy towards China, DFAT having no more than an implementing and consular protection role these days. Only increasingly rarely does one see or hear reasoned arguments in support of maintaining political detente and respectful diplomatic relations with China, from such people as Ross Garnaut, Peter Drysdale, Geoff Raby, John McCarthy and Bob Carr.

There is a cynical game being played now to break down and discredit Australian-Chinese cultural and journalistic contacts, and the impetus as I see it is coming from Australian national security agencies and certain politicians. It was thus in the McCarthy era against Soviet Russia and people in America who spoke up for good relations with that nation. An anti-Soviet spy hysteria was deliberately generated in America. Careers and lives were destroyed. We may fear worse to come in Australia for those who dare to speak up for good relations with China.

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Tony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, an Emeritus Fellow at Australian  National University, Canberra, and the author of ‘Return to Moscow’ (2017)

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