Out of China

For nearly half a century, Australian foreign correspondents have reported from China – a period of change in the country so dramatic it reshaped global geopolitics.

This week, that convention came to an end, as Mike Smith, of The Australian Financial Review, and Bill Birtles, of the ABC, were withdrawn from their posts – in Shanghai and Beijing, respectively – due to fears for their safety.

Both had received late-night doorknocks from Chinese police; both were told they were involved in a national security investigation. Cheng Lei, an Australian-born host on China’s English-language channel CGTN, appears to have been the focus.

It’s been rightly said the arrest of Cheng in August, closely followed by Smith’s and Birtles’ departure, marks a new low in the mercurial relations between China and Australia.

But the tit for tat of diplomatic bickering has also taken on a new quality: the focus on fickle trade tariffs has fallen away; now people have become the bargaining chips.

As the ABC reported this week, the Australian government raided the homes of Chinese journalists in June, and has sought to cancel the visas of two prominent Chinese scholars, Li Jianjun, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, and Chen Hong, an academic who served as Bob Hawke’s translator when the former prime minister visited China in 1994. No details have been given as to why their visas were cancelled.

If Australia wants to exert its moral authority when it comes to issues of press freedom, it must take seriously the criticisms levelled about its treatment of journalists.

The threat of prosecution that still hangs over ABC reporter Dan Oakes for his investigation into alleged war crimes perpetrated by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, the AFP raids on the ABC and News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst – this behaviour undermines the Morrison government’s ability to criticise other countries’ actions, particularly China’s, which will seize upon any hint of hypocrisy. The absence of support for Julian Assange, as he faces extradition from Britain for his role in publishing vital details of American misconduct, is another failure.

China and Australia’s diplomatic woes will not be resolved by further severing of the ties between the two nations. The Morrison government should not capitulate to Beijing but it must uphold the standards it asks China to abide.

Academics whose visas are cancelled should be given adequate explanation and have recourse. Journalists accused of acting as agents of foreign influence must be offered an opportunity to defend their professional reputation.

Anything less would be acting in bad faith.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2020 as "Out of China".

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