On 5 June, China’s National Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a travel alert to visitors to Australia warning of ‘a significant increase’ in racial abuse and violence. Four days later, the Ministry of Education issued a similar warning to Chinese students planning to study in Australia. There’s been evidence of racial abuse in Australia during the pandemic, but hardly on a scale warranting international travel warnings. As Trade Minister Simon Birmingham observed, the travel advisory ‘does not stand up to scrutiny’.
Does it matter? Similar warnings in 2018 had little effect on enrolments of Chinese students, and China’s local envoys have strongly denied connections between warnings on tourism and education and import restrictions on beef and barley.
Yet there’s a common thread running through recent threats and warnings that sets them apart from earlier examples, and it has nothing to do with racism or tainted beef or underpriced barley. What draws them together is Beijing’s fury over Canberra’s call for an independent review of the origins and spread of COVID-19. That anger went far beyond any reasonable response because the mere suggestion of an independent inquiry struck at President Xi Jinping’s credibility. As far as China was concerned, this was another Mack Horton moment: a naive second-ranker appeared to be calling out the winner as a liar and a cheat.
Beijing refused to concede that the call for an inquiry was in any sense authentic. Canberra was acting not on its own initiative, but on behalf of Washington, ‘dancing to the tune of a certain country’ in the Foreign Ministry’s cynical turn of phrase. Not surprisingly, the call for an independent review drew a warning from Ambassador Cheng Jingye that education and tourism and trade in general would suffer if Australia persisted. And so they will.
A big shift is underway. Public reprimands from Beijing are hardly new, but before this incident they tended to be spontaneous and inconsistent. In December 2013, Foreign Minister Wang Yi rebuked Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to her face over the South China Sea dispute. It was an awkward moment, but it ended there. Further criticism and name-calling followed the Australian government’s decisions to limit foreign political interference in 2017 and to ban Huawei from tendering for major telecommunication contracts in 2018. On each initiative, Australia acted well ahead of the US and other countries, prompting one of China’s top Australia watchers to accuse Canberra in September 2019 of playing a ‘pioneering role’ in a global anti-China campaign. But there was little sign of coordination among the accusations.
In the wake of the call for an inquiry, however, a decision has been taken at the highest levels in Beijing to consolidate earlier random and inconsistent critiques of Australia into a common communications strategy in support of a unified approach that involves leveraging trade and investment to punish Australia for challenging Xi’s version of events and his vision for the region.
This approach is wrapped in a communications strategy branding Australia an irredeemably racist country in thrall to US hegemony—incapable of thinking independently or pioneering China policy for the world, as critics had indicated earlier, but instead tagging lamely along in the superpower’s lumbering tread. It is being implemented methodically across many arms of government, including five ministerial-level agencies that have taken action so far: Trade, Education, Tourism, Foreign Affairs, and Propaganda (the home of the People’s Daily).
Following Canberra’s call for an inquiry, Beijing notified the world of Australia’s pariah status through a strongly worded editorial in the state-run paper on 28 April under the byline Zhong Sheng, or ‘Voice of the Centre’. This byline is reserved for editorials signalling central party views on important international relations issues. It’s fair to say it is the voice of Xi, one or two steps removed. The target of the rebuke was Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, which the editorial accused of ‘evilly associating’ the pandemic with China by defacing the country’s national emblem with a graphic image of a viral crown.
Why such a fuss over the Tele? Australian media commentary on China and the Chinese Communist Party has been a source of low-grade tension between Australia and China, dating back to the early 1970s, and the Telegraph is hardly a model of civilised behaviour at the best of times. Still, someone near the top of the pyramid in Beijing decided to make an example of the rambunctious Sydney tabloid to signal an important message about Australia to every official, every business and every family in China. The charge that the People’s Daily levelled against Australia was that by associating an infectious disease with a national emblem Australians had engaged in racist behaviour.
Defacing a national symbol may be juvenile and offensive but it’s not generally regarded as racist. China’s communist party-state is not a race. For Beijing’s purpose, the distinction is immaterial as the CCP regards itself as the people of China and interprets mockery of the party-state as an act of racism. So a Foreign Ministry official explained, when justifying the issue of a travel warning on grounds of racism, that ‘some Australian politicians and media called the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” and maliciously tampered with the Chinese national flag and national emblem’. To drive the point home, central party authorities selected a local tabloid with little claim to prudence to signal to everyone in China that Australia is racist.
The American connection wasn’t left out either. China’s own Daily Telegraph, the Global Times, answered Birmingham’s response to the travel warning with a claim that Australian politicians are not to be trusted because they are ‘too easily swayed by US political attitude and too eager to win US favors’. In light of this alleged American connivance, the paper went on to point out that the travel warnings were just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of punishments in store if Australia failed to mend its ways.
Evidence that Canberra is easily swayed by American attitudes is as thin as the claim that poking fun at flags and emblems is racist. Recent polls show that Australian misgivings about US President Donald Trump run even deeper than their concerns about Xi—although Australians continue to favour closer ties with the US than with China—and Canberra has consistently distanced itself from Washington during Trump’s term on issues ranging from multilateral trade to climate change and the role of international institutions such as the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization.
On matters related to China, Australian governments have never endorsed the US-led trade war, and Australia’s national intelligence agencies and Prime Minister Scott Morrison conspicuously declined to endorse claims by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tracing the spread of the coronavirus to an experimental laboratory in Wuhan.
Australia’s record of independent foreign policy thinking makes little impression in China because, if I read Zhong Sheng correctly, a decision has been taken at the highest levels of the party to brand Australia a racist country that takes its orders from the US. This is a game-changing decision that doesn’t require evidence to support it and that can happily contradict earlier claims that Australia is in fact a pioneering leader on China issues globally.
The Zhong Sheng editorial signalled a high-level central party decision concerning Australia to every government ministry and to officials running China’s state-owned enterprises at home and abroad, along with tourism and education agents in China, that people around Xi have adopted a hostile approach towards Australia. All need to fall into line.
While Xi is running things, we can expect to hear much more about Australian racism, about Australian lapdogs dancing to American tunes, and about steering clear of Australia. The latest travel and education warnings over racism don’t stand up to scrutiny because they don’t have to. Our problem is not racism, it is Xi. It’s worth remembering that Mack Horton and his family had to put up with many years of vitriol and bullying before he was eventually vindicated.