China’s war with the West takes another ugly turn

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Rowan Callick, Griffith University

The forced departure from China of leading Australian journalists Bill Birtles of the ABC and Mike Smith of the Australian Financial Review robs Australia of direct coverage of events in the vast nation for the first time since the Mao Zedong era.

They left behind Australian journalist Cheng Lei, a celebrated business presenter on China’s own CGTN global news channel, who for a month has been held for unknown reasons in an unknown location where she will remain for an unknown period of time.

In coordinated moves, security agents visited the homes of Birtles in Beijing and Smith in Shanghai at midnight last Wednesday, told them they were banned from leaving China and ordered them to come in for questioning over a national security case, possibly in connection with Cheng’s detention.

The journalists then shifted immediately to Australia’s Beijing embassy and Shanghai consulate, respectively, where they remained while Australian diplomats negotiated with Chinese government officials.

This led to a brief interview between Birtles (accompanied by Ambassador Graham Fletcher) and officials in Beijing before he flew to Shanghai (also accompanied by Australian diplomats). Both journalists were then able to board a flight back to Sydney.

 

Long line of expelled journalists
The Australian’s China correspondent, Will Glasgow, has been working for a short time in Sydney, having returned for family reasons. And Eryk Bagshaw, appointed as China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has been unable to take up his post due to COVID restraints, and remains in Canberra.

Australian journalist Phil Wen, with The Wall Street Journal, and the doyen of Australians covering China, New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley, were required to leave China earlier this year as the authorities declined to extend their visas.

Foreign journalists lined up to attend a National People’s Congress held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Ng Han Guan/AP

This was in part due to a “tit-for-tat” exchange with the Trump administration, which had limited the numbers of visas to Chinese journalists working for state media.

Five other reporters for US news organisations – the Journal, CNN, Bloomberg and Getty Images – have also been told in recent days their press credentials will not be renewed. A growing number of foreign journalists have had their visa periods reduced to two or even a single month.

The much-depleted Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China has issued a rare statement saying it is “very alarmed” about such moves.

These coercive practices have again turned accredited foreign journalists in China into pawns in a wider diplomatic conflict.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in March that more than a dozen journalists from the US would be expelled from the country. Andy Wong/AP

How will the Australian government respond?
The task of covering China has become increasingly challenging, with journalists provided access to only a tiny number of government set-piece events every year. Very few people in public life – including academics – are prepared to risk speaking to media.

But Australian journalists covering China have gained a generally high reputation, both within the profession and among Chinese people – including some officials – for even-handed and empathetic coverage, despite the daily obstacles.

Some will seek to blame the Australian government and opposition for the plight of the Australian journalists, pointing to their increasing firmness in responding to Beijing’s efforts to expand and deepen its global influence, including in Australia.

Unlike Washington, however, Canberra is unlikely to respond to China’s moves to banish and detain Australian journalists by imposing reciprocal restraints – for instance, withdrawing visas from Xinhua or CCTV reporters working in Australia.

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and former correspondent in Beijing for The Australian and the Financial Times, told ABC Radio such a response would be “a really unproductive exercise”.

Canberra has declined to pursue tit-for-tat measures as Beijing has imposed tariffs and duties on Australian goods in recent months.

The Australian government was notified of Cheng Lei’s detention earlier this month. Ng Han Guan/AP

Risk of more arbitrary detentions
Meanwhile, the unknowns in China-Australia relations remain immense.

China’s politicians have increasingly become difficult to reach and interpret, while its diplomatic corps – which formerly helped provide guidance to foreign counterparts and others about underlying issues, concerns and narratives – have been transformed into far less communicative “wolf warriors”.

Before this week’s dramatic events, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had upgraded its travel advisory to warn that Australian citizens faced “arbitrary detention” in China. Business people, among others, will now be weighing their safety if they visit.

Several Australian journalists are still working in Beijing for international media, such as the BBC correspondent and former ABC correspondent Stephen McDonell. There are also Australians working for China’s state and party media – as Cheng Lei did.

It is a perilous and challenging time for all those attempting to interpret events in China. As Birtles said on arriving in Sydney, it was good to be home, but also

very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances, and it is a relief to be back in a country with a genuine rule of law.The Conversation

Rowan Callick, Industry Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Written by The Conversation

13 Comments

Total Comments: 13
  1. 0
    0

    Very very scared for future generations. The Chinese are slowy positioning themselves all over the South pacifc. And Australia is smack bang in the middle of it. Australia had better stay friendly with the US, as I reckon we might need them to help defend us in the future. We could never defend our great lands on our own.

    • 0
      0

      It’s because we are friendly with the US (i.e. Morrison is sucking up to Trump) that we are being targeted by China. Morrison is putting Australia in danger. And do you really think Trump would help defend Australia? He doesn’t even know where Australia is.

    • 0
      0

      Has nothing to do with Trump you either get it or don’t get it and you don’t get it…

  2. 0
    0

    I wonder if this has anything to do with Hong Kong? The less foreign journalists around, the less coverage of anything planned there.

  3. 0
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    The less foreign reporters there are in China the more damage they can do to the rest of the world without accountability

  4. 0
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    Trump of US is making China his punching bag, but we are being made Into China’s punching bag… let’s make Australia a solid steel punching bag .. How soon!

  5. 0
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    I am afraid that China is fast becoming a threat – broken promises to Hong Kong and underhanded tactics whenever faced with something they don’t want do not look well for the future of any relations with a country that cannot be trusted. Their gradual influence through “loans” to countries that cannot be repaid and property (land, water, businesses & infrastructure)now owned by them in our country make for very unstable and unsure dealings with a regime seemingly determined to take over in any way possible and are capable of doing anything in order to they get what they want.

    • 0
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      Jaz, what you say about China is true, but it also applies to the US under Trump. If he wins the next election, the US will be as big a danger to the world as China is.

  6. 0
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    Don’t forget China’s aims for Taiwan as well as Hong Kong. Less well known is something reportedly seen by Australian visitors some 40 years ago – maps which included Australia as a province of China. Then there is the Sino-Indian border situation…. Well has history said: “Beware the yellow peril”!

  7. 0
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    I dont think it is a simple as a “baddy” vs a “goody”. It is possible they considered Lei Feng as a spy or simply giving confidential info. We do the same. There is always a reason. Are we saints?. There are spies in all international interactions

  8. 0
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    Also do not forget if the opposition in Taiwan gets into power they aim for unification. They were the first anti Communists. Current anti Communist China fought on the Japan’s side in the second world war. They even speak different languages Mandarin vs Fukien. I know people as friends on both sides.

  9. 0
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    Most people posting do not know what is true. THEY HAVE NO IDEA. I am not saying that Taiwan wants to be unite but there is a strong opposition to unite. Do not believe what the media tells you.

  10. 0
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    Aussies, open your bl**dy eyes to what china is up to. We shouldn’t use a capital “C” when referring to china, they haven’t earned the respect of it as far as I am concerned.
    They own or control most of our infrastructure already, they infiltrated our schools and began to indoctrinate our students with their “learn about chinese ideals” rubbish.
    They have blackmailed south pacific islands and have locked them into financial contracts they cannot repay, then they take over the place.
    They have built a large wharf and docking installations on one island in particular that can accommodate the largest aircraft carrier that the chinese government has. The cruise ships use this dock for the time being but watch out, the costs will rise soon and the shipping companies will not be able to afford it.
    As a matter of fact they don’t have to raise prices because the only ship to use it will be their navy now that they have spread the virus so it is easier to take over the south pacific and Australia.
    Stealth by health.
    We should tell them to pull their heads in, don’t send any Iron ore and grain and other exports to them for 3 to 4 months and see them come crawling.
    Trouble is we cant buy Australian anymore because china own us.


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