I WROTE SCATHING CRITICISMS OF WILL GLASGOW'S REPORTING FROM BEIJING OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS. NOW... HE HAS CHANGED HIS MIND!!
A coronavirus cover-up, an imprisoned friend, a vindictive campaign of coercion against Australia and, now, PLA missiles flying over my apartment — here’s why my views on China have changed profoundly.
By WILL GLASGOW
I listened to the address in Canberra by Xi Jinping’s top Australian envoy from my apartment in Taiwan. Where you live undoubtedly colours your perspective. My views have changed profoundly as I have moved from Sydney to Beijing and, after an intermission back in Sydney, to Taipei.
Six days before ambassador Xiao Qian took the podium at the National Press Club, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army fired 11 ballistic missiles over and around Taiwan. One flew directly over Taipei, where I am writing this. They were blasted as the PLA conducted four days of blockade manoeuvres in six locations around Taiwan’s main island, another disturbing first.
“Allow me to be frank,” ambassador Xiao said on Wednesday, keeping an impressively straight face, “here in this country, the media coverage of China (is) mostly not positive.”
In January 2020, when I moved to Beijing to be The Australian’s China correspondent, I would have partially agreed with him that China gets an unfair run in the Australian media.
Events have changed my mind: a coronavirus cover-up, an imprisoned friend, a vindictive campaign of coercion against Australia and now PLA missiles flying over my apartment.
I was in Beijing during the terrifying early stages of the pandemic. It was a masterclass in the Chinese Communist Party at its worst. Doctors were punished for being medical professionals rather than loyal comrades. The propaganda machine first denied anything was happening, before telling us everything was going terrifically. It was indelible.
By August 2020, a friend of mine had been imprisoned. I last saw Cheng Lei over drinks at a rooftop bar in Beijing, just over a month before she was nabbed – without charge – by China’s Ministry of State Security. The Australian citizen, a mother of two, is still in prison.
“It’s just wrong,” Warwick Smith, a businessman with decades of experience in China and before that a Howard government minister, told me before her one-day closed trial.
I am now based in Taiwan because of Australian government security concerns that sprang from Cheng’s arrest. For a while, in mid to late 2020, I thought Canberra’s anxiety was overdone. Not any more.
The insecurity of General Secretary Xi’s new China has to be experienced to be believed.
Back when I was in Beijing, the Chinese police state would not let me enter Tiananmen Square or even its surrounds, which included a park I was keen to visit to see the site of a Ming Dynasty altar to the god of the land and the god of grain. Unfortunately, the CCP’s discomfort with its own history – in this case, the massacre in 1989 of student protesters – got in the way.
“It will be really difficult for the officers to tell the difference between professional media behaviour and private sightseeing,” the police officer told me.
I’ve never had a problem with police in Taiwan, a self-governed liberal democracy. Most days I go jogging across Taipei’s Liberty Square, Taiwan’s equivalent to Tiananmen.
Chairman Mao Zedong ordered Beijing’s square to be built in formidable proportions in the Soviet-style. Swarming with layers of the Chinese security state, it is meant to make visitors feel insignificant in the face of the Leninist state’s power. It succeeds magnificently.
By contrast, Taipei’s Liberty Square reveals a vibrant society much more at ease with itself. I run past teenagers practising dance routines, remarkably fit older citizens doing their daily exercise regimes and, since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war after attending Xi’s Winter Olympics, groups supporting Ukraine.
This week, CCP scripture intruded on my life again. This time the problem was Beijing’s refusal to accept the agency of Taiwan’s 23 million people. “The future of Taiwan will be decided by 1.4 billion Chinese people,” ambassador Xiao explained at the National Press Club.
It’s a cruel policy but not a new one. Not enough people understand that Taiwan is not universally recognised as an independent country only because for decades Beijing has threatened to go to war with it if it declares itself independent. This is the ugly fine print of the status quo.
“We are ready to use all necessary means. As to what (is meant) by all necessary means? You can use your imagination,” said Xiao.
And what of the views of the people in Taiwan, who almost to a person do not want to be ruled by the CCP? “My personal understanding is that once … Taiwan is reunited … there might be a process for the people in Taiwan to have a correct understanding of China,” explained the ambassador. That was a chilling assertion for an Australian audience. Imagine how the CCP’s might-is-right, assimilationist world view goes down in Taiwan.
It is a good thing that China’s ambassador in Canberra is at least talking to the Australian public. Let me return his commendable frankness.
China needs to look in the mirror. In 2022, Australia is not the bad actor in the Taiwan Strait, nor are the Taiwanese people. Nor is US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has an admirable record criticising the CCP’s barbaric treatment of its citizens in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong was entirely right to condemn Beijing’s military aggression. The PLA, following Commander-in-Chief Xi’s orders, has behaved horrendously.
For far too long, Australia has allowed its conversation about Taiwan to be stifled. For decades, Beijing has told Canberra what its Taiwan policy is. At this fraught moment, we need to decide for ourselves. What is the best Taiwan policy for Australia in 2022 and in the years ahead?
Ambassador Xiao has had his say. Now it’s time for the Australian public, in conversation with the Australian government, to have theirs.
Will Glasgow is The Australian’s North Asia correspondent.