China-Australia relations looked bad enough when they were sparring over wine, beef and Huawei Technologies Co.’s 5G technology. Now the detention of a high-profile television journalist risks leading to a dangerous new phase.
Australia said it hasn’t been told why Chinese-born Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen who worked for eight years as an anchor at a government-run English-language news channel, was taken in two weeks ago. China also hasn’t revealed details about the case: Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday she had no information while also poking Australia.
“We value China-Australia relations, but development of bilateral ties needs both sides to work together,” Hua said. “China always abides by law. We’ll not behave like some other country — under pressure of its ally — to conduct illegal activities under the guise of law.”
More than anything, the episode shows how there is no clear off-ramp to a relationship that has only worsened since Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government called in April for independent investigators be allowed into Wuhan’s wet markets to probe for the source of the pandemic. Things could get worse in the coming weeks, as Australia introduces a bill that would stop states from participating in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
For Australia, the leadership appears willing to further jeopardize some aspects of its crucial trading relationship with China. As the developed world’s most China-dependent economy, it potentially has a lot to lose but is betting key exports such as iron ore and coal won’t be targeted.
Still, Australia’s commodities industry is nervous after China’s announcement on Tuesday that it was suspending shipments from CBH Grain Pty in Western Australia because harmful weeds were found in the cargoes.
“As long as Australia refuses to comply with Beijing’s directives and be compliant, it can expect its citizens in China to be detained without charges, due process or speedy resolution,” said John Blaxland, a former intelligence officer and a professor at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University. “But it now seems to be aware that it needs to stare it down because a lot of it is probably just political posturing aimed at appeasing a domestic audience.”
China has been clear in linking Australia’s call for a virus investigation to actions by the Trump administration, which has hit Beijing on everything from data security regarding popular apps TikTok and WeChat to human-rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. As recently as last week, a top Chinese diplomat based in Canberra said his nation had felt “singled out” by Australia’s push for a virus probe, adding “we don’t think it is fair.”
Gao Zhikai, a former diplomat and translator for late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, called Australia a “loudspeaker for interests in Washington” while saying relations will only get worse if it doesn’t “exercise its own independence of mind.” He said China could withdraw its ambassador from Australia or even completely cut off all trade. China in recent months has placed tariffs on Australian barley, banned some meat products and launched an anti-dumping probe on its wine exports. Late Tuesday, it halted barley imports from Australia’s biggest grain shipping company.
“If Australia keeps its abrasive approach to China, China can completely cold shoulder Australia,” Gao said. “The Australian economy will tank if there is complete disengagement between China and Australia.”
The current tensions are a far cry from the heights the relationship reached during and after Xi’s state visit in November 2014. That trip sealed a comprehensive free-trade agreement that pushed their two-way trade relationship to record levels that remain intact, despite their spiraling diplomatic grievances.
But things turned south in 2017 when Australia rejected China’s call for an extradition treaty. The next year Australia accused Beijing of “meddling” in its affairs, leading to anti-foreign interference laws. That year also saw the government ban Huawei from building its 5G network, a decision that was later mirrored by other western nations.
Morrison is increasingly describing his nation’s relationship with China in transactional terms, saying its “mutually beneficial” because of their booming two-way trade. He appears to be waiting for China to lower the temperature so a new equilibrium point in the relationship can be found, and views the threat of trade retaliation as China following its playbook against other nations like South Korea and Japan.
Cheng’s case could throw a wrench in those plans, even as Australia warned citizens in July they risked “arbitrary” detention while in China. Australia has also criticized China for charging Chinese-Australian spy novelist Yang Hengjun with espionage in March after he was detained since January last year.
Still, some analysts deny there’s a political link to their detention. The director of Australian Studies Centre at Shanghai-based East China Normal University, Chen Hong, rejected the notion of hostage diplomacy as “immature conjecture” and said China was not politicizing or weaponizing trade and anti-dumping investigations. China gets no benefit from detaining Cheng, he added.
Risk to Foreigners
The lack of transparency around the case underscores growing concerns about the legal risk of foreigners in Beijing, already shaken by the prosecution of two Canadians including former diplomat Michael Kovrig on spying allegations. China has repeatedly linked those cases to Canada’s cooperation with U.S. efforts to extradite Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Cheng’s profile page on the broadcaster’s website has since been removed, and videos from her previous stories have disappeared. Still online are a series of Facebook posts Cheng, who is well known among Beijing’s small circle of diplomats and journalists, issued in February and March. They contain vivid anecdotes detailing some of the stresses China’s health system was encountering in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
“Cheng Lei has been in a very special position,” said Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China who describes himself as a good friend of the journalist. “She’s on the national government-owned broadcaster that plays a key role in government propaganda. So levels of sensitivity for anyone working there are higher than for any other institutional body in China.”
(Updates with CBH shipment ban in 6th paragraph)
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