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Did Scott Morrison and Marise Payne drag Australia into a Chinese Communist Party power struggle that has seen senior security officials jailed, turning Beijing’s wrath from diplomatic chill to active trade sanctions and worse? By Hamish McDonald.

Australia’s role in CCP power struggle

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne.
Credit: Reuters / Sandra Sanders

It was an unusually outspoken interview for Marise Payne, the reticent minister for Foreign Affairs. Appearing on the ABC TV Insiders program on April 19, 2020, Payne came prepared for an escalation in our relationship with China.

By this time, the Covid-19 pandemic was already spreading from its first announced detection in Wuhan, central China. Payne called for an “independent review” that would find the detail “about the genesis of the virus, about the approaches to dealing with it, and addressing the openness with which information was shared”. She implied the World Health Organization was too deferential to Beijing for the task: “That strikes me as a bit poacher and gamekeeper.”

Three days later, after Chinese foreign ministry and media protests, Canberra journalists were briefed that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had been on the telephone to leaders in the United States, France, Germany and New Zealand promoting a Canberra initiative to overhaul the WHO, giving it “weapons inspector” powers to send in investigators, whether or not the host country agreed, to find the source of diseases.

Australia’s political relations with Beijing were already in a chill. It had started in 2017 when the Sam Dastyari affair got Malcolm Turnbull to enact new laws aimed at foreign influence operations, with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work activities clearly in mind. This most tech-minded prime minister then barred China’s telecom flagship Huawei from Australia’s 5G mobile network, after exploring with his electronic intelligence experts ways it might safely be accommodated and concluding it could not.

But the Covid-19 inquiry initiative was the last straw for Beijing.

The then Chinese ambassador in Canberra, Cheng Jingye, talked of economic repercussions. Chinese people would be saying: “Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?”

Within a month, China imposed a massive new tariff on Australian barley. For the rest of 2020, it escalated. Penalties and bans blocked imports of thermal coal, beef, lobster, copper, timber and wine from Australia, totalling some $20 billion in lost sales.

Why was Beijing so sensitive to remarks from a relatively new and inexperienced government in a middle-sized power, and an idea from Morrison that was wildly impracticable in diplomatic reality and not even declared on the record?

Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, would have been acutely sensitive anyway to the coronavirus outbreak, the kind of out-of-the-blue disaster that, badly handled, might derail his advance to a third five-year term being endorsed at the CCP congress due in October this year – having already got the previous two-term limit scrapped, effectively allowing indefinite rule.

“It was definitely a white-knuckle moment,” says Richard McGregor, Lowy Institute senior fellow and author of an acclaimed book on the CCP’s inner workings. “The only thing that could tip Xi off balance, or diminish his power or standing, is a genuine crisis, and this could have been a genuine crisis.”

Then, intersecting with China’s emergency measures to contain the virus, came criticisms and manoeuvres that raised Xi’s antennae about a possible internal regime challenge to his indefinite grip on power.

Like all rulers in Leninist party states, Xi would be most worried about opposition within his own security services.

On becoming party secretary at the end of 2012, among his first targets in a purge disguised within an anti-corruption campaign was Zhou Yongkang, the political supremo in charge of police, intelligence and the judiciary. Arrested the following year, Zhou got life imprisonment in the first conviction for corruption of a member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s peak body, since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The purge hit other security officials deemed close to him, notably Meng Hongwei, the Interpol chief recalled in 2018 and jailed for bribery in January 2020.

Was it just a coincidence that on the afternoon of April 19, 2020, several hours after Payne spoke on Insiders, the CCP’s top anti-corruption commission announced the formal arrest of a vice-minister of public security, Sun Lijun, then 51, for alleged “severe violations of party discipline and law”?

One reading that is circulating is that communist party watchdogs had concluded Payne was drawing on intelligence about Sun’s “severe violations” and that these related to the Wuhan outbreak.

Payne’s taunting call for an independent international inquiry might have signalled to Beijing that Sun had managed, somehow, to get out information on the Chinese handling of Covid-19, and that Canberra was working with the Trump administration to use it. The trade sanction the next month would have required Xi’s order.

McGregor notes that Payne’s Covid-19 inquiry call came soon after Morrison had spoken with then US president Donald Trump, who, along with his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was starting to air the theory Covid-19 had originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The Australian government did not go along with that theory, but may have felt it should make its own proposal. McGregor says that to China it “might have looked like we were doing this in concert with the Americans – it’s not an unreasonable assumption, and this got great applause in the US”.

Sun Lijun had been under questioning since March 2020. Around then, Xi Jinping had launched a wide purge of China’s courts, prosecutors’ offices, prisons, police and national security organs. During 2020-21 this “rectification” campaign saw nearly 180,000 officials investigated, with a total of 1985, including several senior figures of similar rank to Sun Lijun, charged with various crimes, and the others rebuked.

Sun was a big arrest: he was a high-flyer in the Chinese police, in charge of the Ministry of Public Security’s First Bureau, responsible for domestic security. This followed early spells in charge of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan matters and overseeing the “610 Office” suppressing the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

His case disappeared from view until September 30, 2020, when the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission announced his expulsion from the party and charges that included accusations of “extremely bloated political ambition, vile political quality” – as well as the usual massive bribe-taking and sexual misbehaviour familiar to Chinese corruption scandals.

To fulfil his personal political goals, the charge sheet said, Sun had groomed rebels within the Chinese Communist Party, spent much effort forming interest groups to control key government departments, and seriously undermined the unity and political security of the party. He was also accused of “arbitrary discussion” of key policies, “abandoning his post on the front line of pandemic fighting”, and “secretly hiding a large amount of classified materials”.

All this was tantamount to accusing him of fomenting rebellion within the party against Xi Jinping. The Chinese rumour mill, at home and in the diaspora, went wild with speculation that Sun and others in the police were hidden loyalists of the Shanghai faction beholden to retired leader Jiang Zemin, and that he was gathering and circulation damaging material on the pandemic.

Sun’s previous appearance in the news before his arrest had been his assignment to Wuhan in January 2020 to oversee the city’s lockdown against the spread of Covid-19. He was shown on TV at the side of Xi Jinping during his inspection of the city.

Sun appears to have made it known he was not impressed by delayed action and suppressed information as the virus emerged.

When they started looking at him, investigators may have noticed an Australian connection. After completing a degree in English at the Shanghai International Studies University, he came to UNSW Sydney in the early 1990s to complete a master’s degree in public health and urban development. His wife and young adult son are said to have settled in Australia and gained Australian citizenship.

Reports in media outlets of Falun Gong, not the most dispassionate source on China, claim Sun sent critical notes about the handling of the pandemic to his wife on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, and that these would have been intercepted and read by Australian intelligence. The coincidental arrest in April 2020 of Zhang Feng, an executive of Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, for failure to protect data security is seen as supporting this conjecture.

A second, possibly interwoven Australian strand could be followed back by suspicious investigators – one that has led to an Australian journalist and mother of two spending the past 18 months in a Chinese interrogation centre and facing an espionage charge.

Cheng Lei, the Chinese-born Australian business journalist who presented the upbeat “China Story” program on China Global Television Network to an international audience from Beijing, had also been making her feelings about the pandemic known.

On her personal Facebook page, presumably accessed by a VPN link to avoid China’s “great firewall” around this and other global social media, Cheng posted a bitingly critical pandemic “diary” from January–March 2020.

About one Communist Party cadre who said citizens should be grateful for the harsh lockdown, she wrote: “Even in China, where the pool of material for satire never runs low, this is too rich … In China, the belief ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ runs deep in public office. ‘Serve the people,’ goes the slogans. Reality is the opposite. The horrors of realising how this tragedy is made by man are very uneasy to swallow. If we all doubted and probed more. If we weren’t like the proverbial monkeys scared by the killing of the chicken.”

In another posting, Cheng said she had read the 6000 words of the “Dear Leader’s” latest speech to the politburo standing committee, implicitly comparing Xi Jinping to the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. “The words ‘warm tone’ and ‘positive energy’ gave me the chills,” she wrote.

By March 10, she was mocking the government’s narrative of the crisis: “The big story today, Dear Leader’s visit, triggered titters in the newsroom – waving to a big TV screen showing the coronavirus hospital in Wuhan apparently equals a visit.” The diary entries ended soon after.

In mid-August 2020 Cheng suddenly disappeared, her presence wiped from the CGTN screens, websites and publicity. The next month, officials announced she was suspected of “endangering China’s national security”. In early February last year, her formal arrest was announced, but the only detail of the charge came from Marise Payne: “Chinese authorities have advised that Ms Cheng was arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas.”

As her Facebook diary had ended in March, was it more than coincidental with the investigation of police vice-minister Sun?  Had she also been in Sun’s circle of contacts, getting unofficial reports from Wuhan? Is the highly secret Ministry of State Security investigation of her case trying to build a link to Sun?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, the stakes are very high for Cheng Lei. Even without her involvement, Sun’s links to Australia might have caused alarm in Beijing when Marise Payne and Scott Morrison started hinting there were dark secrets China was trying to conceal in Wuhan. What did they know and where had it come from?

Feng Chongyi, emeritus professor of Chinese politics at the University of Technology Sydney, thinks it unlikely that Sun would have put any criticism out on social media. “He would know he was under surveillance,” Feng said. “There is no trust in China at all.”

It was also unlikely Sun’s family lived here: in 2015 Xi Jinping had set an example to senior officials by calling back his own daughter from studies in the US.

But Sun could have kept aside documents on the Covid-19 outbreak, as the charges alleged. As the senior police official charged with preventing “social unrest” in Wuhan, the party’s main concern would be, Feng said, “he would know everything”.

But how considered was Payne’s initiative? According to Morrison’s Mission – a new book by The Australian’s veteran commentator Paul Kelly, based on extensive access to Morrison, senior ministers and officials – neither federal cabinet nor its national security committee had approved the decision to go after China through an international inquiry. “It came as a surprise to most ministers,” Kelly writes. “Frances Adamson, as head of DFAT, had no prior knowledge of her minister’s statement.”

Adamson, who retired last June and is now governor of South Australia, was a career China specialist who had been ambassador in Beijing before becoming department head in 2016. That she was not in the loop is astonishing. Possibly Payne knew she would advise against Australia getting out in front on this one, and certainly not by accusing China of anything before the facts were known. Hinting at secret Chinese inside knowledge would make it even more fraught. The leaders Morrison contacted said as much to him. Eventually a much less provocative plan for an inquiry got wide approval by WHO members, including China.

Last month, Sun Lijun appeared in the first episode of a five-part series on Chinese state television, confessing to taking bribes totalling millions of dollars, manipulating the sharemarket, illegally possessing firearms and paying for sex – but not, so far, to conspiring against Xi Jinping or sending state secrets to Australia or anywhere else. “Sometimes it’s more important what they don’t say,” said Feng, the retired UTS professor.

Cheng Lei remains in detention, with a trial date unknown. Feng says it is quite possible she might have known Sun as an Australian alumnus and possible career help. But it was highly unlikely he would have used her as a channel for any secrets: that would have to be a very close associate or family member prepared to share his fate. Her Facebook diary was not so unusual among an outpouring of cynical social media comments from January to March 2020, Feng said.

As for Australian exports, they remain blocked with the US and other suppliers moving to fill the gap in Chinese markets. Australia is now almost alone among Western and Asian nations in having no political dialogue with China.

“Given China’s role as the dominant power in East Asia and Australia’s major trading partner as far as the eye can see, Australia must look to re-establish functioning relations,” Paul Kelly writes. “There seems no apparent pathway to this goal under Morrison, which suggests this challenge may fall to a future government.”

If elections don’t bring that, neither Cheng nor exporters can expect Canberra to be in a position to offer much help in the near future. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Playing games with China".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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