Coronavirus: Beijing unleashes gunslingers
An independent international inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic would help the world in general, and China in particular. Beijing feels besieged and humiliated, its prestige tarnished. But a mature nation faces its responsibilities, seeks solutions and avoids practices that have caused death, misery and disruption on a vast scale. The world is watching how China responds and expects nothing less than truth and openness, as novel as those things are to an authoritarian command. Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne have led calls for an inquiry. The intention is not to humble China or apportion blame but to learn. As the great Confucius advised, there are three paths to wisdom: reflection, which is the noblest; imitation, which is the easiest; and experience, which is the bitterest.
Wuhan has given us a bitter harvest, but Beijing’s envoys are poisoning relations between nations that depend on each other. Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye has overstepped his role by threatening economic retaliation. He said Beijing could stop tourists and students coming here while consumers would boycott beef and wine products. This is trolling, not diplomacy. Like Senator Payne, we are appalled by “economic coercion” as espoused by Beijing’s loathsome cowboy.
Let’s be clear: trade benefits both countries. Invoking a Scottish philosopher, it is not from the benevolence of the Chinese state that we expect our cheap imports but from its regard to its own self-interest. China buys iron ore, coal and gas from us because we are reliable and ship it at the right price. Chinese mothers seek Australian-made infant formula, food, pharmaceuticals and toiletries because experience tells them they are well made and won’t kill you.
Mr Cheng has often unwisely stuck his nose into domestic politics, such as the decision to ban Huawei from the 5G network. Canberra introduced bans on travel from China on February 1. This decisive early move, and subsequent sensible quarantine measures, is a key reason we suppressed the spread of COVID-19. Yet Beijing’s lackey blasted this as “out of proportion”. He and his shotgun-riding deputy, Wang Xining, have junked useful dialogue and relish roles as enforcers, citing reports of abuse of Uighur Muslims in “training camps” as “fake news” and skating over the expulsion of journalists from China. Last November Mr Wang provided our readers with friendly advice: If Aussies really cared about mother nature or cherished human rights, “to start with, study Mandarin”. The freedom these gunslingers have is not open to foreign envoys, in fact anyone, in China.
Yet such indulgences by officials are not confined to Australia. In Paris, the foreign office summoned the Chinese ambassador to express disapproval about his diplomats’ claims France had simply left its older citizens to die. Beijing’s envoys have inflamed Twitter disputes in Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran and Singapore. During the pandemic they have sparred with Brazil’s education minister and trolled officials in Cyprus and Britain. It’s a departure from the nonintervention in the affairs of other states it once prided itself on. We have watched aghast as Beijing has launched a gauche aid and propaganda offensive in nations hit hard by COVID-19, while so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats spread lies about the source of the outbreak. Last year President Xi Jinping demanded his diplomats show a new “fighting spirit”.
That’s one way of seeing the grubby campaign of the fierce cowboys, who interpret every move we make in the global sphere as done at the direction of Washington. It’s pathetic and a malign distraction from fundamental issues, such as Beijing’s rampant militarisation and brazen moves in the South China Sea. Myriad forces unleashed by the pandemic will reshape supply chains, trade and strategic policy. Of course, China will feature prominently in our future and the Indo-Pacific. But our best minds are set on reducing China dependency, exploring new frontiers and making the economy more robust and dynamic. Beijing’s secrecy and duplicity on COVID-19, however, leaves the world vulnerable, confused and suspicious — and China in cold, stark isolation. While Mr Cheng shoots from the hip, Beijing is forfeiting a chance to work with partners to restore the trust, order and co-operation that have enabled its epic economic rise.