Inside Story

Beijing blackout

The departure of Australia’s last correspondents from Beijing has made a volatile situation worse

Mark Baker Books 21 May 2021 2324 words

The Beijing Bureau: 25 Australian Correspondents Reporting China’s Rise
Edited by Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts | Hardie Grant | $32.99 | 320 pages

Just before midnight on the evening of 5 July 1971, a convoy of vehicles converged at the steps of the Great Hall of the People in the centre of the Chinese capital, Beijing. A bewildered crew of Australian politicians, academics and journalists — kept waiting for hours at the state guesthouse until this meeting was confirmed at the last moment — were about to participate in an event that would shake the foundations of Australian politics.

The towering figure of Labor leader Gough Whitlam led the way through echoing corridors flanked by Red Guards. When the visitors were finally ushered into the austere grandeur of the East Room, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai stepped forward and greeted each member of the delegation in English. To their astonishment, Zhou then invited the twenty Australian journalists and their Chinese counterparts to remain throughout the almost two hours of official talks “to bear witness to the fact that the people of China want to be friends with the people of Australia.”

Whitlam’s bold decision to embrace China while Australian troops were still fighting in Vietnam was widely regarded as a reckless adventure. Even allies of the opposition leader feared it would endanger the big gains Whitlam had made at the 1969 election towards ending two decades of conservative rule in Australia.

Prime minister William McMahon ridiculed the China visit as “instant coffee diplomacy” and denounced Whitlam for disloyalty to Australia’s alliance with the United States. “In no time at all,” he declared, “Zhou Enlai had Mr Whitlam on a hook and he played him as a fisherman plays a trout.”

Days later, it was McMahon who was beached and gasping for air when it was revealed that US presidential envoy Henry Kissinger had secretly visited Beijing on 9 July — four days after Whitlam’s meeting with Zhou Enlai — to pave the way for Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972. As Whitlam’s successor, Bill Hayden, would remark, that news transformed “a disaster in the making” into “a stroke of genius.”

The presence of the big media contingent in Whitlam’s entourage would be important in turning public opinion. As historian Billy Griffiths wrote in his book The China Breakthrough: Whitlam in the Middle Kingdom, 1971, “The journalists shared his sense of adventure and their presence proved crucial to the success of the visit. Importantly, the stories that filtered back to Australia gave the public rare insights into a forbidden and unknown land.”

After his landslide election victory in December 1972, one of Whitlam’s first foreign policy acts — as well as ending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war — would be to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Along with the first Australian diplomats to arrive in Beijing in 1973 were three Australian correspondents establishing permanent bureaus — Margaret Jones of the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Raffaele of the ABC and Lachie Shaw of Australian Associated Press. It would be another five years before the first American journalists were accredited in China.

The importance of the Australian media’s engagement with China over the subsequent half century has been underscored by the publication this month of The Beijing Bureau, edited by former China correspondents Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts. The book carries firsthand accounts by them and twenty-one other Australian journalists of a half century of tumultuous events: the final years of the Cultural Revolution, the economic liberalisation through the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, the crushing of the democracy movement at Tiananmen and, most recently, the ascendancy of president Xi Jinping, the persecution of the Uighurs and the upheaval in Hong Kong.

While the book includes a surfeit of old ABC China hands, it reminds us of the high calibre of Australian journalists who have reported from Beijing through the decades for both domestic and international media outlets, particularly the likes of Richard McGregor (the Australian and the Financial Times), Stephen McDonell (ABC and BBC), and Jane Perlez and Chris Buckley of the New York Times.

Conspicuously absent from a line-up that boasts “Australia’s most acclaimed journalists” are Tony Walker of Fairfax and the Financial Times, who served longer — from 1978 to 1983 and from 1993 to 1998 — than any other newspaper correspondent; the Age’s Peter Ellingsen, the only one to win the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year award, for his outstanding coverage of the Tiananmen massacre; and Robert Thomson, initially posted to Beijing by the Sydney Morning Herald before becoming the first staff correspondent in China for the Financial Times. Thomson went on to edit the London Times and the Wall Street Journal before being appointed chief of Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire.

But perhaps the most striking feature of the book is the contribution of Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review. The expulsion of Smith and ABC correspondent Bill Birtles from China in September last year marked the first time since 1973 that no staff correspondents of mainstream Australian media organisations are reporting from China, a telling sign of the depth of the deterioration in the bilateral relationship over the past few years. As Smith writes in his own book-length account of those events, The Last Correspondent (published this month by Ultimo Press), describing his thoughts as he sheltered in the Australian consul-general’s residence in Shanghai before flying home to Sydney: “There was only one conclusion. Relations between Australia and China had become so bad that journalists were now political pawns in a wider diplomatic game.”

Just as the Australian media played a key role in Gough Whitlam’s reconciliation with China in the early 1970s, journalists have been reduced to bargaining chips in the alarming unravelling of that accord. And while the crisis in the relationship owes much to the increasingly assertive, if not aggressive, leadership of Xi Jinping, it has been brought to breaking point by the missteps of the Morrison government.

Scott Morrison is the bull in our China shop. His reckless mismanagement has driven Australia’s vital relationship with Beijing into a state of cold war, done nothing to advance the issues at the heart of the crisis, and along the way wiped out billions of dollars of export revenues via punitive retaliation by the Chinese.

How has it come to this? The government’s increasingly hardline approach towards Beijing has been driven by growing alarm at Xi Jinping’s actions at home and abroad, and emboldened by a souring of perceptions of China in the Australian community. But there is nothing new in much of China’s disturbing conduct. China’s minorities have been abused, patronised and politically sidelined since the People’s Republic enshrined Han Chinese chauvinism. Mainland China has remained in a state of restrained hostility towards Taiwan — and insisted on its return to the motherland, if necessary by force — since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled there in 1949. And Beijing’s ambitious claims over the waters and resources of the South China Sea have always challenged those of its neighbours. The only difference now is that a richer, more militarily powerful and more determined China under Xi has far greater ability to silence dissent at home and deliver on its threats abroad.

So what has changed in fifty years? Australia’s diplomatic recognition of China was forged at the height of the Cultural Revolution, during which millions of Chinese perished. The relationship endured the Tiananmen massacre and its brutal aftermath. Save perhaps for the brief interlude between those events in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping opened the country to the world and embraced economic liberalism, China has been synonymous with repression: a communist state that embraced capitalist economics but never democracy.

The appalling treatment of the Uighurs is essentially a sequel to the religious, cultural and economic subjugation of the Tibetans that gathered unstoppable momentum in the early 1980s. And while nothing can excuse the abuses committed in both Tibet and Xinjiang, they are partially explained by Chinese paranoia about security on its western frontiers. Tibet straddles the long-troubled frontier with rival India, and Xinjiang with its predominantly Muslim population is perceived as a potential gateway for separatist Islamic extremism.

And however shocking the trampling of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong has been over the past two years, it is not surprising that Beijing has torn up its agreement to respect the autonomy of its Special Administrative Region under the “one country, two systems” formula. The only real surprise is that it took so long to do so — and then only after sustained protests in the territory posed a fundamental challenge to its sovereignty.

When British prime minister Margaret Thatcher flew to Beijing in 1984 to toast with Deng Xiaoping the signing of Britain’s agreement to hand back control of its colony to the communist regime, it was window dressing for what at heart was a Faustian pact with illusory benefits for the bedevilled Iron Lady. The bottom line was that Hong Kong was real estate stolen from imperial China by the opium-peddling Victorian British, and the expiry of Britain’s ninety-nine-year lease over the New Territories in 1997 made its continued rule of the entrepot untenable beyond that date.

The West’s anguish and indignation over Beijing’s ruthless suppression of democracy in Hong Kong ignores or is ignorant of the inconvenient truth that the enclave was snatched by rapacious imperialists who governed by decree for most of their reign and showed racist disdain for the rights of their Cantonese subjects. The rule of British law might have enabled Hong Kong to flourish, but the prosperity of the colonial masters was always paramount.

The exhaustive Hong Kong negotiations in the early 1980s were essentially a game in which the Chinese held an unbeatable hand and the British knew they must ultimately fold. The Sino-British agreement that emerged was a fig leaf for Britain that was destined to wilt unless democracy took root on the Chinese mainland — a possibility crushed when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

In the face of the deteriorating security outlook in North Asia, the challenges for Australian diplomacy today are the same as they have always been: to stand up for our principles while recognising the limits of our ability to exert diplomatic pressure, to respond proportionately to perceived challenges, and to act in concert with our allies to maintain regional peace and stability. Above all, we need to understand that while the actions of the Chinese regime make it difficult, if not impossible, to be close friends, it is sheer folly to turn it into an enemy.

At a time when deft diplomacy is needed more than ever, though, the skills that have enabled Australia to navigate the tricky relationship with our most important trading partner appear largely to have deserted us. The Morrison government’s reckless decision early last year to jump ahead of its allies in demanding an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 — with Morrison advocating that the World Health Organization have “weapons inspector powers” to investigate future outbreaks — infuriated Beijing with the still-unproven implication that it was covering up its culpability in the pandemic, or worse. The retaliation against Australian coal, barley and other exports was swift and devastating — and largely avoidable, had we taken the prudent step of acting in concert with our allies in reasonably seeking answers to the genesis of the pandemic.

Since that turning point, things have gone from bad to worse. The expulsion seven months ago of the last Australian journalists in China was at first interpreted as yet another heavy-handed provocation by Beijing, but it is now clear that it was in fact a tit-for-tat response to another apparent overreaction by Australian authorities.

In late June last year, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation officers conducted simultaneous early morning raids on the homes of four Chinese journalists based in Australia, as part of an investigation of alleged Chinese political interference. One of the journalists, believed to be Yang Jingzhong, the Australian bureau chief of the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, said his daughter had been traumatised during the seven-hour dawn raid by ten ASIO agents, during which his mobile phone, computer, iPad and work documents were seized. The four journalists, who have since left Australia, insisted they had done nothing wrong and, almost a year after the raids, no specific allegations against them have been made public.

At almost every turn, Scott Morrison’s interventions on China-related issues have been clumsy, uninformed and counterproductive. His recent pronouncements about Taiwan (confusing its status with that of Hong Kong and then doubling down on the blunder when called out) have revealed a man out of his depth in managing a relationship that requires diplomatic finesse. And recent public speculation by Morrison’s new defence minister, Peter Dutton, and others in the government about the possibility of armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait has broken a fundamental diplomatic taboo and reportedly raised alarm in Washington, Tokyo and Taipei itself. As former prime minister Kevin Rudd has rightly, if self-servingly, observed, “This government lacks the temperament to manage the profoundly complex national security challenges that lie ahead.”

The loss of experienced Australian journalists reporting from China — and the loss of Chinese journalists reporting from Australia — has made a volatile situation even more dangerous. Those Australian journalists, and the many other foreign journalists evicted from China in recent years, were the ones best equipped to report with expertise and balance, the ones who often spoke the language, the ones with Chinese contacts and friendships who understood that China is a far more complex, sophisticated and diverse society than its monolithic leadership implies.

In this vacuum of informed reporting and analysis it is harder to temper the fearmongering, and sometimes warmongering, of lightweight partisan journalists peddling conspiracy theories in the mainstream Australian media. We risk a situation in which the media — and its social media echo chamber — serves to worsen the bilateral crisis. The journalism that drove us closer to China could become the journalism that drives us further apart. •