It’s easy to see another week of steady decay in the Australia-China relationship as situation normal, but there’s something particularly troubling about the latest regression.
It’s 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.
For decades, some of Australia’s finest journalists have provided a set of independent eyes and ears on the ground in a country re-shaping the global order. The loss of that presence isn’t as easy to measure as a tariff on barley, but the cost is enormous.
So how did it come to this?
The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith were understandably relieved to arrive back on Australian soil on Tuesday morning.
Their stories of escape were alarming; midnight door-knocks, hiding out in Australian diplomatic compounds and negotiated evacuations from the country after agreeing to take the calculated risk of giving formal interviews to Chinese authorities.
Neither correspondent knew at the time of events that had played out in Australia months earlier that may well have contributed to their positions becoming untenable.
A full blaze of publicity
On June 26, the home of NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane was raided as part of a joint ASIO-Australian Federal Police investigation. It was hard to miss this event. Cameras were on hand to capture the dramatic moment.
This was the first use of foreign interference laws passed by the Australian Parliament back in 2018. Some had begun to question the value of these laws and so when they were eventually used, there was a full blaze of publicity.
The Prime Minister even confirmed he had been briefed on the operation and described the allegations as “extremely serious”.
It turns out the operation didn’t end there, but the publicity did.
We now know ASIO also questioned four Chinese journalists in Australia that same day. A month later it also cancelled the visas of two Chinese academics on the grounds they were a “risk to security”.
It’s unclear whether the Department of Foreign Affairs was kept in the loop at the time, but a significant part of this operation was certainly kept from the public.
While the raids on Moselmane and his staffer were all over the news, no one spoke of the Chinese journalists being targeted. Perhaps there were strong grounds to haul them in and good reason to keep the whole thing quiet. We don’t know.
Journalists working for Chinese state-run media, particularly those posted to an increasingly-sensitive foreign post like Australia, are no doubt carefully selected by their masters in the Chinese Communist Party. They are an arm of the Chinese Government in a way that Australian journalists most certainly are not.
And not surprisingly, interrogating these state media representatives deeply angered Beijing, which this week finally went public. It revealed Australia’s actions after complaints over its own treatment of Birtles and Smith.
“The Australian Government’s behaviour … blatantly violates the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese journalists there and caused severe harm to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
“We ask Australia to immediately stop such blatant irrational behaviours, stop harassing and oppressing Chinese personnel in Australia under whatever pretext.”
Growing dangers, crack-downs on dissent
Attorney-General Christian Porter, while not confirming what happened, defended Australia’s system of executing warrants as “world’s best practice”.
We don’t know the precise details of the raids on the Chinese journalists, who have since left the country, but we do know Australia has a far more transparent justice system than that of China.
Bill Birtles and Mike Smith had more to fear from a knock on their door from Chinese authorities. They could have “disappeared” into detention, just as fellow Australian journalist Cheng Lei had only weeks earlier.
Cheng, a respected business journalist and anchor on state-run TV network CGTN, was detained on August 14, nearly two months after the ASIO raids on the Chinese journalists in Sydney.
Whether she was a victim of tit-for-tat targeting is unclear. There may well have been other factors at play. China’s Foreign Ministry only says Cheng has been arrested on “national security” grounds and is being held under “residential surveillance” at an unknown location.
The dangers facing foreign journalists in China have been steadily growing as the government of Xi Jinping cracks down on dissent and scrutiny.
A record 17 journalists were expelled from the country in the first half of the year, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. In such a deteriorating environment, Cheng Lei, Bill Birtles and Mike Smith may have had to leave the country eventually anyway.
Still, they no doubt would have preferred to know about Australia’s security agencies targeting Chinese journalists and the heightened risk this created to their own safety. ASIO operations are by their very nature meant to remain top-secret.
As we saw with Shaoquett Moselmane, however, that’s not always the case.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iview.