Australian journalists in China: Send them back!

Last Updated:2023-04-15

In August, it will be three years since Australia’s China-based correspondents were harried out of China. In an extraordinary over-reaction, the ABC, Fairfax, and News Corp closed their offiffiffices in Beijing and Shanghai.

The ABC opened its Beijing oce in 1973. It was one of a handful of European andCanadian news organisations to have reporters on the ground in China. In 1971,Opposition leader Gough Whitlam said that it would not be if, but a matter of timebefore the ABC had a Beijing Bureau. With the election of the Labor Government inDecember 1972 and its recognition of the People’s Republic of China, an ABC Bureaufollowed soon after.

In those distant days, Australia had been ahead of much of the Western world inunderstanding the singular importance of China for its national interests. An informeddomestic public was essential to this. A media presence in China to convey thecontemporary reality of China was indispensable.

By the 1980s, Fairfax had opened a Beijing bureau. When I arrived in Beijing for my rststint at the Embassy, a young boyish Robert Thomson was the Fairfax correspondent.A former cadet journalist with the Melbourne Age, he is best known now as CEO ofNews Corp. He was a brilliant reporter on the day-to-day changes sweeping Chinaduring that remarkable decade.

He was also, as his predecessors and successors had been, a stringer for the FinancialTimes of London. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the world’s major nancialnewspapers still had not posted a full-time accredited correspondent to China, despitethe extraordinary story of reform and opening that had been unfolding in Chinathroughout the 1980s.

The Financial Times then had a big and expensively staed bureau of expats in HongKong. Its London editors were not convinced that China as a ‘communist’ country couldachieve substantial economic transformation. Once a year, a dozen or so editorialworthies from London and Hong Kong would visit Beijing. For some reason, I would beinvited to a salubrious lunch at Justine’s Restaurant at the Jiang Guo Hotel, one of twowestern four/ve-star restaurants at the time.

The Financial Times believes it monopolises the ‘sensible centre’ of public opinion. Anydeviation from the FT’s world view is nothing short of deranged, be it to the right or left.The FT management could not accept that a notionally communist country couldembrace market determined prices, prot-based business decisions, foreign trade, and much more.

At the end of my brieng lunches where I had given a robust exposition of why and howChina was reforming and trying to help the worthies understand it was for real, thesame question would be asked: should the FT open a bureau in China? My answer wasalways the same. As a newspaper with pretentions to be a serious global businessjournal, how could you not be there? It took the FT until the mid 1990s to be soconfronted by the reality of China that the ideological and incipient racist scales fellfrom the worthies’ eyes.

And now, the world’s media is present in China and reports daily on what is going onexcept for the Australian media. Once among the pioneers of foreign media in China,the Australian media has itself decided not to report on what is still one of the greatestnews stories in the world today.

It is simply not credible for Australia’s news outlets to have ‘China correspondents’based in Tokyo or Taipei. They are entirely dependent on what they can pick up on theweb or by speaking on the phone to ‘contacts’. All these things they could do fromSydney, so why waste money on having them in these places? Their reports have nomore credibility than those from someone in Australia. Value-added by them is zero.

Not surprisingly, these journalists report more on China using their second-handsources, than they do on Japan or Taiwan. It is not that they don’t have great localcontacts where they are based, it is that China is the big story, not Japan or Taiwan. So,we get neither rst-hand authentic reporting from China, nor the full attention of ourjournalists on the important stories from where they are based. It is the worst of allworlds.

The journalist as professionals would all like to be back in China, but their editors andboards won’t agree. DFAT’s travel advisory warns Australians of the threat of ‘arbitraryarrest’ if they visit China. ‘Arbitrary’ is an entirely subjective adjective. The Chinese sidewould certainly dispute this. But what has changed in China from the time Australianmedia had a presence until now? The capriciousness of the Chinese legal system wasever thus, even when we had a strong media presence.

In mid 2020, the Morrison Government embarked on its tit-for-tat retaliation with Chinaafter China imposed trade measures against Australia to express its unhappiness withMorrison’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. China’s trade measures wereunjustied and excessive. Ultimately, they were utterly counterproductive.

In July of 2020, ASIO and the AFP raided Chinese government media representativesin Sydney. Some were detained for hours as their computers, phones and les wereexamined. In August 2020, Australian CGTN business anchor, Cheng Lei, was takeninto detention, ‘disappeared’. DFAT apparently had not been informed of the raids inSydney. Alarmed over the reports of Chen Lei’s disappearance, ASIO and the AFPfessed up to DFAT about what they had been up to.

DFAT in the circumstances panicked and advised the heads of Australia’s mediaorganisations to withdraw their correspondents. It is even doubtful that Cheng Lei’sdetention was related to the parlous state of the bilateral relationship at that time.

Presumably, learning of the recall of the Australian journalists, Chinese securityundertook Keystone Cop like ‘raids’ on the journalists. It is hilarious to think of the ABCjournalist in Beijing being taken for questioning when he was hosting a farewell partywith forty others in the wee hours, including many foreign journalists. If anyone wantsto understand the ruthless eciency of China’s internal security services, they need tolook no further than the ‘disappearance’ of Cheng Lei. That is how the grown-ups do itin China.

It is not as if Australian journalists are not working in China, it is just that they do notrepresent Australian media companies. One of the leading correspondents for the BBCworking in China is Australian. He has not felt under threat, although over his manyyears working there he has led many stories that have upset the Chinese authorities.

Australian media needs to return to China as soon as possible. China is the biggestcommercial and strategic story for Australia in international aairs. China is in aconstant state of ux and so much more is required for informed public debate thansecond-hand stereo-type stories that are run in much of the Australian media. Like it orloathe it, China is with us and it is utterly irresponsible for Australia’s newsorganisations, aided and abetted by nervous nellies in DFAT, to deny the Australianpublic authentic reporting from Australian journalists on the ground in China.