Coronavirus crisis brings out China’s goon diplomacy
Only last February China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, in attempting to discourage criticism of his country’s human rights record, arrogantly proclaimed to journalists that his nation was “largely responsible for (Australia’s) federal budget restoring to surplus ahead of schedule”. In addition, he claimed trade between the two nations had “helped create some 640,000 jobs in this country”.
What was predicted to be a $11bn surplus is, thanks to a pandemic which originated in Wuhan, China, now looking like a deficit of $300bn for the next two financial years. The combined state and federal budget deficits in the 2021 financial year are expected to amount to 15 per cent of GDP, a figure not seen since World War II. Experts predict it will be another 24-30 years before a federal Treasurer delivers a surplus.
Unemployment in the June quarter will likely double from 5.1 to 10 per cent, the highest it has been in over three decades. That means 1.4 million Australians will be without work. It is Australia’s and the world’s biggest economic upheaval since the Second World War, and for this we owe our thanks to the Chinese Communist Party, the Inspector Clouseau of coronavirus containment.
No matter how ridiculous or outrageous the claims of China’s ruling party, it can always rely on the likes of Cheng and fellow apparatchiks to dutifully repeat them. Just two months ago the embassy demanded the federal government compensate Chinese university students affected by travel bans. Despite having stuffed the world economy for the next few years as a result of its negligence, lies and cover-ups in responding to the coronavirus outbreak, China’s government will undoubtedly dismiss outright any suggestion it should contribute financially to the recovery effort.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, not unreasonably, intend using the World Health Organisation assembly on May 17 to call for an independent international investigation into the origins and spread of coronavirus. Naturally, we would at the very least expect China to object strongly and use all means to delay, hinder and obfuscate. What most did not anticipate was Cheng’s threats this week of a mass Chinese consumer boycott if Australia continued to press this, a response that can only be described as goon diplomacy. Should we be surprised? Not really. After all, according to the Chinese zodiac it is the Year of the Rat.
That WHO is hopelessly compromised cannot be disputed. It announced in mid-January there was no known case of human-to-human transmission of coronavirus. In February, as official cases of coronavirus reached 20,000, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sided with Chinese objections to trade and travel restrictions on China, claiming these measures would cause “fear and stigma”.
WHO has also supported the reopening of exotic animal wet markets in China, despite these outlets being a playground for pandemics. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister, Taro Aso, has dubbed WHO the “Chinese Health Organisation”. The most damning evidence of WHO’s Sino-sycophancy was a comical declaration last week by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, that WHO “had actively fulfilled its duties with objective, science-based and fair position”.
In one respect Cheng is right: Australia’s push for an inquiry would be “dangerous” – for China’s prestige, that is, not so much Australia’s long-term trade interests. China’s belligerence and fierce nationalism, while admittedly cause for concern, cannot disguise the administration’s fear that it stands to lose much face. The ramifications of a finding by the inquiry that the authoritarian regime failed to protect its citizenry is a totalitarian’s nightmare.
For Australia to secure enough international support for an inquiry into WHO will be difficult. Ideally Morrison and Payne should be able to count on domestic support, but as billionaire miner Andrew Forrest demonstrated yesterday, China is adept at using foreign business operatives against their own government. In a nationally televised press conference yesterday the Fortescue chairman ambushed Health Minister Greg Hunt by inviting Victorian China Consul-General Zhou Long to speak alongside him, the occasion being Forrest’s securing of 10 million coronavirus test kits from China.
Zhou exploited this opportunity for a charm offensive, announcing China was “doing everything possible to help Australia,” declaring his government had responded to the pandemic in an “open, transparent and responsible manner”. To add insult to injury, this gate-crashing occurred at Melbourne’s Commonwealth Parliament Offices. An obliging Forrest called for Australia and international health authorities to delay any inquiry into the virus pending the outcome of the US election in November, saying its focus should not just be on China.
You wonder if Forrest would prefer The People’s Republic of China Friendship Award instead of his Officer of the Order of Australia. Did it ever occur to him what would happen to a Chinese businessman, however rich, who pulled a stunt like that on his own government?
If Australia is to successfully push for an inquiry into WHO, it will also require bipartisan support. Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, senator Penny Wong, has backed such an inquiry. However, the party has shown worrying tendencies in recent years to favour China over national interests for electoral and provincial gain. Witness for example then Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s declaring during the 2019 election campaign “I welcome the rise of China in the world”. Or Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ negotiating a Belt & Road Initiative MOU with China in 2018, an act that bypassed and embarrassed the federal government, thus making it look weak. It is a public humiliation the Chinese Government delights in inflicting.
In an incredible display of naivety, Labor’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles told Sky News last October “I take the Chinese ambassador for what he is saying” when asked about his declaration that China had no intention of seeking hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence. In an interview in 2018, Marles also claimed “China doesn’t have aspirations around what political system should apply in Australia.”
Last September Marles told Beijing’s Foreign Studies University that Australia did not have exclusive rights in the Pacific region. “We need to change the trajectory of development in the Pacific,” he said. “And any country, including China, which is willing to participate and help in that endeavour should enjoy Australia’s support.” Presumably Marles also accepts Cheng’s assertion in 2018 that “China never interferes in the internal affairs of [other] countries, let alone carries out so-called ‘infiltration’ of other countries.”
Then there is former Foreign Minister and NSW Premier Bob Carr, who in 2018, as head of the Australia China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, refused to concede China had attempted to interfere politically in Australia. What of former Labor senator Sam Dastyari, who, having permitted Chinese donors to pay his travel and legal bills, had in 2016 condoned China’s refusal to observe international rulings regarding the South China Sea, telling the country’s media representatives “The Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China”? Carr simply observed “I think it was ill-advised but whether he attempted to push a pro-Chinese orientation is another matter”.
As then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop bluntly observed in 2014, “China doesn’t respect weakness”. Although criticised at the time, she has been vindicated by events in Australia and overseas. Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed diplomats via a memo to show more “fighting spirit”. As the New York Times observed on April 17, officials from Britain, France and nearly two dozen African nations had in the week before rebuked China for either disseminating misinformation about the origin of the coronavirus or bolstering Chinese nationalist sentiment by disparaging Western governments’ response to the pandemic. Last week China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, belittled Swedish journalists, likening the country’s media to a lightweight boxer going up against a heavyweight China.
This diplomatic boorishness was well evident prior to the coronavirus outbreak. In an op-ed for this newspaper last year charge d’affairs Wang Xining derided Australia in language most unbecoming. “The country that contributed Wi-Fi and APEC seems to be losing its charm and recoiling into a cocoon woven by someone else,” he sneered. “A proud deputy-sheriff? Ha ha.”
As to how we should describe China’s new diplomats, let us think of a new word, perhaps a portmanteau, to describe them – one that reflects their origins as well as the CCP’s vulgarity, hostility, and belligerence. Could we please swap the chogans for the diplomats of old?