The latest China drama, made in Australia

No news is good news, a trusted truism that is now apt in the Australian media coverage of China. The recent media frenzy over the Chinese Ambassador’s comments is a case in point. When the largely cathartic benefits of the show recede, the most likely future dividend of the compounded mutual distrust is yet another China drama. 

Australia’s Chinese whispers

In a recent interview with Australian Financial Review, Ambassador Cheng Jingye described Canberra’s earlier call for a global inquiry into the genesis of the coronavirus as ‘politically motivated’. Interestingly, it is not Cheng’s denunciation of Australia’s political manoeuvring, which he mentioned no fewer than 17 times, that has drawn the ire of Australia, but his alleged “threat of economic coercion”.

“China’s man in Canberra has unmasked the regime’s true face”, reads one op-ed headline in the Sydney Morning Herald. Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman labelled his remarks “downright despicable and menacing”. Equally scathing, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that not since the Cold War had an ambassador behaved as ‘recklessly’ as China’s ambassador to Australia did. With still some course to run, the latest episode of the China drama will almost certainly be added to the long list of examples of China’s “bullying”.

Except that this time it is not quite true. The more closely we look at it, the more it resembles a largely self-scripted and self-directed Australian drama being played primarily for an Australian, and possibly American, audience.

According to the full interview transcript, the ambassador initially refused, not once, but twice, to be drawn to the question of whether there could be economic consequences if Australia insisted on a probe. Cheng could have stuck to the good old political playbook of not answering hypothetical questions to the end, but with the journalist doggedly angling for a preconceived answer, he let his guard down.

To the interviewer’s push-polling hypothetical question, Cheng gave a hypothetical response:

… if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think why we should go to such a country while it’s not so friendly to China. The tourists may have second thoughts. Maybe the parents of the students would also think whether this place, which they find is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to. So it’s up to the public, the people to decide. And also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef.

“So a boycott of Australia?”, the journalist pushed on. The ambassador replied, “I don’t know. I hope not”. Later he added further clarification: “I didn’t say or imply anything”. But by then the horse had bolted. Although a few commentators have pointed out that Cheng’s words were ‘simply a statement of the obvious’, and ‘did not amount to a threat of retaliation’, the unfolding drama script had already been written.

Let me be clear here that some form of investigation into this pandemic is necessary, and it shouldn’t be purely scientific, unlike the ambassador’s assertion. Hinting, however circumspectly, at a possible economic boycott from Chinese consumers is tone-deaf and poor judgment. The ambassador should have known that for all the noises that urge Australia to diversify trade ties to reduce its reliance on China, anyone — least of all the ambassador — suggesting that China might grant that wish is sure to make it Australia’s public enemy number one.

In any case, a spontaneous consumer backlash would be more likely out of concerns about anti-Chinese racism than because Australia has stuck its neck out in the inquiry push. The fact of the matter is that ordinary Chinese are mostly indifferent to Australian politics. Even as the current China debate reached fever pitch here, the news didn’t even register a mention in the few Chinese international relations WeChat groups I’m following, faring very poorly compared to the recent gossip over North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Still, the Chinese ambassador’s remarks, whether we agree with them or not, should be given the quintessentially Australian “fair go”. His comment that the inquiry call has political motivations does reflect general opinion back home. One doesn’t have to be a genius to figure out that Australia’s sudden interest in an inquiry followed closely after the US government ratcheted up its attack on China. The New York Times reported, on the eve of Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s China inquiry call, that the US strategy of “pinning the blame on China” “could not be clearer”. The revelation that the US Senate Republican campaign arm distributed a 57-page ‘Don’t defend Trump, attack China’ strategy document to candidates only further added to China’s suspicion of the timing of Australia’s intervention.

So amidst the outrage at the ambassador’s largely misrepresented economic backlash message, Australia has not succeeded in quelling China’s disquiet about its perceived role as “a US lapdog”. Having been praised by Marise Payne for its openness and transparency in sharing information in January, Beijing might be especially puzzled by Canberra’s about-face, which also curiously mirrors Donald Trump’s U-turn.

Even if China does agree to an inquiry, it is unlikely to be willing to take lectures from Australia now. “We are a transparent, open nation”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claims, and yet so far there is no record indicating that Australia enthusiastically embraced Mohamed ElBaradei’s proposal of an international inquiry into the legality of the disastrous Iraq War and a possible war crimes trial. One can also bet that Peter Dutton won’t have a change of heart upon hearing the Chinese, echoing his own logic in saying that they “don’t understand why [Australia] can’t answer the questions [about the war] if there’s nothing to hide”.

So Australia’s call for an inquiry, however sensible in its own right, is almost a non-starter. Its labelling of the Chinese Ambassador’s economic boycott threat is no more true than a counter-accusation of Australia’s economic discrimination against Chinese investment in its recent tightening of foreign investment rules.

The show will go on…

What, then, is the fuss all about? For one thing, this diplomatic spectacle in Canberra is useful for distracting the Australian public from other issues that would cast the government in a negative light, like the Ruby Princess debacle. It might also be played for some receptive ears in Washington too, with reports emerging about how Scott Morrison supported an overhaul of the WHO just one day after his phone call with Trump.

Either way, it is a worrying sign of how low the relationship between Australia and its largest trading partner has sunk, and how easily it can be trashed for quick, opportunistic political gains. When even the slightest friction between Canberra and Beijing, if twisted with a sufficiently sensationalist tone of alarm and paranoia, can guarantee wide public attention, it is little wonder that the media are all too happy to play along.

Buckle up and get ready for the next Groundhog Day drama. It is bound to be just around the corner.