It’s taken days for anything resembling a response from China about the extraction of two Australia journalists from the country earlier this week. Now a comment has been made but, not unsurprisingly, Chinese media has instead taken aim at Australia accusing it of “disgusting double standards” and of conducting a “witch hunt”.
The comments in Chinese state media come as diplomatic relations between Beijing and Canberra continue to plummet even as many trade links remain solid.
On Tuesday, the China correspondents for the ABC and The Australian Financial Review, Bill Birtles and Mike Smith, arrived back in Sydney after police came to there respective homes in China in the middle of the night and demanded they present themselves for questioning.
The pair sought shelter in Australian missions due to fears they would be arbitrarily detained and were later allowed to depart the country.
The journos were already planning to leave following the arrest of Australian Cheng Lei who worked for a Chinese state broadcaster and who local authorities have said “endangered national security”.
It has since emerged that Australia has now cancelled the visas of two Chinese academics, Chen Hong and Li Jianjun, who can now not re-enter the country.
It’s also believed four Chinese journalists left Australia earlier this year after being questioned by ASIO. Police and security services have been investigating alleged attempts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to influence proceedings at the New South Wales state parliament.
Since Birtles’ and Smith’s departure, Chinese officials and media have focused instead on the four Chinese journalists who left Australia reportedly after their homes were raided as part of the ASIO investigation.
That’s despite barely a peep from Chinese media when the raids occurred in June.
A piece from the CCP aligned Global Times from late yesterday said Australia was engaged in an “extreme anti-China witch-hunt” which was a “McCarthyism-style horrific persecution of Chinese journalists and scholars”.
The article does not have a byline and is listed as a “viewpoint” but no articles in the Global Times go against Beijing’s wishes. Indeed, many of the sentences used the same phrasing as China’s foreign affairs spokesman when he piled into Australia on the same day.
The article was illustrated with a picture of a benign looking panda staring at an angry kangaroo.
“The witch hunt campaign under the excuse of investigating the so-called Chinese infiltration, promoted by Australian security departments, is getting infuriating,” the piece stated.
“The raid was a horrendous violation of the basic rights and freedom of the press of the Chinese journalists.”
That line might come as a surprise to countless Western journalists who claim they have been harassed in China by authorities, with many now expelled, not allowed into the country or, like Cheng, in detention.
“It is unbelievable that such barbaric behaviour actually happened in broad daylight in a country that claims to be a free and democratic country,” it said of the raids in Australia.
“Australia‘s so-called freedom of the press and freedom of speech have become a complete joke.”
As in most Global Times’ pieces, the author accused Australia of being subservient to the US. Although it said that Australia was carrying out the policies of Washington D.C. in a more “ruthless way”.
“The intent of Australian authorities is clear – they want to hype the anti-China sentiment to the largest extent possible so that political figures who hold somewhat neutral views fear voicing their opinion which in turn has led to anti-China Australian public opinion to become one-sided.”
The piece was one of the first from inside China to reference the departure of the two Australian journalists. It attempted to compare the treatment of Birtles and Smith with the four Chinese journalists.
“Chinese authorities did not search their residences or electronic devices. However, Australian media has spared no efforts in discrediting China‘s actions, deliberately fabricating a scene in which China suppresses journalists from Western countries.
“Such double standard is disgusting. To be honest, the bizarre logic of Australian journalists leaves us speechless,” the piece frothed.
On Wednesday, China‘s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian also attacked the June raids.
“The Australian Government‘s behaviour severely interrupts the normal reporting of Chinese media outlets in Australia, blatantly violates the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese journalists there and caused severe harm to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families.”
Mr Zhao said China had asked Australia to “immediately stop such blatant irrational behaviours, stop harassing and oppressing Chinese personnel in Australia”.
Former ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson told The Australian on Thursday that the treatment of Birtles and Smith was incomparable to the raids of Chinese journalists.
“Foreign journalists in China are being systematically harassed and … those that have left China have done so out of concern for their own safety, or they have been expelled by the Chinese.”
Investigating Chinese journalists in Australia in the context of an investigation into foreign interference was “legitimate,” Mr Richardson said.
Last week, a Global Times editorial called Australians “poor white trash” and darkly warned there will be “consequences” if we don’t play nice with China.
Australia, it claimed, was “provoking China” and was on a “lose-lose path” that would “undoubtedly cause huge damage to its already severely injured economy”.
“The momentum of trade liberalisation, investment facilitation, economic complementarity and normalisation of cultural exchanges has come to an abrupt end,” it said.
The publication recalled an infamous 1980 quote about Australia from then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
“If Australia doesn’t open up its economy and reduce unemployment, it risks becoming the ‘poor white trash of Asia’, the Global Times editorial stated.