Sino-Australian media ‘cold war’ on ice

The shock and indignation of the Australian media over the forced departure of two China correspondents has quickly dissipated following revelations that ASIO raided the homes of four Chinese journalists two months earlier

14 September 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith returned to Australia last Monday with virtually every report suggesting they’d first been ‘touched up’ by local authorities before fleeing China’s authoritarian regime.

Birtles had his departure filmed on a camera phone and the footage supplied to the media. It shows a very relaxed Birtles walking through a Chinese airport terminal alone with no police nor any security escorts. He is greeted by a solitary customs officer who checks and stamps his passport before waving him on to the departure gates.

Those images and a later snapshot of Birtles and Smith, smiling with arms around each other in a virtually empty Shanghai airport departure lounge is at odds with the sensational reporting of the desperate plight of two journalists who’d feared for their lives.

Such reporting was not promulgated by Birtles and Smith. Upon his return Smith tweeted an image of a birthday card sent to him by the staff at the state media bureau in Shanghai. He expressed sincere thanks for their gesture.

Kudos to Smith for highlighting that just because somebody is a Chinese government official does not automatically mean they harbour ill will towards Australia or its people.   

Possible Chinese motives emerge

The day after the return of Smith and Birtles came reports on Chinese state media that the Australian homes of four Chinese journalists had been raided by ASIO two months earlier.

It was initially reported by the Beijing-based Global Times in an inflammatory and insulting commentary piece about Australian “double standards”. However, when the official state news bureau Xinhua News Agency ran the story one hour later that gave the claims credibility, albeit in a story which lacked detail.   

It transpires that those ASIO raids took place on 26 June, the same day NSW Labor politician Shaquette Moselmane’s Sydney home was raided by ASIO and AFP officers. Nine Entertainment media had been tipped-off with Melbourne The Age reporter Nick McKenzie waiting out front with a camera crew, even before ASIO knocked on Moselmane’s door.

1.2.3. SMH scoops one ASIO raid, Chinese tabloid scoops the other, SMH then buries the story

It is apparent ASIO did not tip off Nine Newspapers about their simultaneous raids on a number of Chinese journalists.

Moselmane’s raid was splashed across the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald. The confirmation that four Chinese journalists were raided and that constituted a plausible pretext for Beijing’s heavy-handed response was buried on page 16 of the September 11 issue of the Herald.

China’s Global Times appears to have a point on Australian double-standards.

CCP persecution or tit-for-tat?

An excellent summation of this media wrangle was produced by Mike Smith in the Australian Financial Review on Friday.

Smith says he sought an explanation from DFAT officials in China who’d warned him and Birtles their safety had been compromised. They were never told about the ASIO raids on Chinese journalists in Australia. Neither was news of those raids disclosed by Chinese authorities in their midnight visits to the apartments of the Smith and Birtles

He writes, “It begs the question: were we targeted because of what Beijing describes as “harassment” of its journalists here?

“More importantly, was Australian television anchor Cheng Lei targeted for the same reason? Birtles and I are safe in Australia, but the consequences for Cheng are far more dire.”

In relation to Cheng, he draws a timeline between the Australian raids on Chinese journalists and the detention of the former anchor for China’s state-owned CGTN television network.

“It is still unclear what prompted Cheng’s detention on August 14 and the real trigger could be something else entirely. But the timeline of the June 26 ASIO raids makes a tit-for-tat detention plausible, as it would have taken China’s Ministry of State Security some weeks to formulate a case against her.

“One question seasoned China watchers are asking is whether the Australian authorities factored in Beijing’s likely retaliation against Australian journalists.”

Smith is right about Cheng’s dire situation and the unknown reasons for her detention. However, she is an Australian working for a Chinese media outlet which actively recruits English-speaking journalists from the Chinese diaspora in nations that include Australia.

It has been reported the extent of her crimes is taking to Facebook and criticizing Beijing’s leadership.  

That being the case her actions are at worst a sackable offence, in light of last week’s revelations her detention may well be retribution.

No matter the provocation if she is indeed a victim in a tit-for-tat battle between Canberra and Beijing it is totally unacceptable that she be subjected to such treatment.

A potential diplomatic turning point

In what must be a first since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic Sky News host Peta Credlin last week interviewed a conservative politician without making a single disparaging reference to China. Her interview with PM Scott Morrison steered well clear of any China news, nor were there any references to China on the daily update of Credlin’s Sky News webpage.

The government deserves some credit in its handling of the situation of the interrogation of journalists in China and Australia. Traditional diplomacy appears to have been given the kiss of life and key aspects of this argument have seemingly been played out through sensible channels not media sound bites or leaks to the parliament house press gallery.

The episode also casts a light on what many, particularly led by a large chorus of former diplomats, regard as a protracted period of Australian foreign policy own goals.   

It is worth considering if a major reason the diplomats were called in was the fact that the government was uncomfortable with the prospect of the news of ASIO raids on Chinese journalist getting out.

It is also legitimate to ask if the government ever intended to reveal that Cabinet’s National Security Committee had authorized the raids and that Attorney General Christian Porter was required by the ASIO Act to sign the warrants.

What has been reported by mainstream media is that “government sources” cite the fact that the four Chinese journalists belonged to the same WeChat group as Labor MP Shaquette Moselmane and his staffer John Zhang as the pretext for the raids.

Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper allocated space to prominent Sinophobe Professor Clive Hamilton, giving his latest book a plug and quoting him as saying Chinese journalists “were prime targets for foreign interference investigation.”

However, the AFR’s Mike Smith who has a comprehensive understanding of the Chinese wrote of the existence of this local WeChat group: “That information alone does not seem particularly worrying.”  

WeChat is for all intents and purposes a convenient social media and communication application best described as a Chinese mashup of Facebook and Twitter. It is an open platform with more than 800 million users. Group messages can easily be forwarded and published to online noticeboards.

It is hardly a tool of international espionage.

Amidst this media hype about the sinister nature of WeChat one wonders if any mainstream reporters bothered to discover that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a WeChat account. For those interested to look it up his WeChat ID is ScottMorrison2019.

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