Beijing is currently experiencing a hectic period, having recently held a significant Belt and Road conference, welcomed foreign leaders, and hosted a security summit this autumn. However, the imminent arrival of the Australian prime minister has sparked a frenzy of planning and conversation.
Anthony Albanese’s three-day tour of Shanghai and Beijing, the first prime ministerial visit to the country in seven years, is being warmly welcomed. He is expected to meet with the premier, Li Qiang – the host of the official visit – and the president, Xi Jinping, with whom Canberra has said Albanese will raise tough issues.
The Chinese government-controlled media has described the upcoming visit as a turning point in the rocky relationship between Australia and China, a warming of the previously strained ties. Multiple reports have praised the increase in trade between the two countries. In a lengthy interview published in the People’s Daily on Thursday, former trade minister Andrew Robb expressed optimism about the economic partnership and its potential for growth.
China Daily, the official source, characterized the visit as a “breakthrough” in both political and economic terms, as communication had ceased in 2016 due to the unfriendly attitude of the previous Australian administration towards China.
According to reports and Chinese officials interviewed by the Guardian, the ban on Huawei in Australia, initial requests for a Covid-19 investigation, and the 2020 Asio raid on Chinese state media journalists were all factors contributing to tension between the two countries. Some also pointed to Australia’s efforts to strengthen regional partnerships, such as Aukus and the Quad, as well as its involvement in the South China Sea, as sources of friction.
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The Chinese government has criticized Australia for blindly aligning with the US, China’s primary competitor. According to a China Daily opinion piece, Australia has a history of hesitating to assert its independence and collaborate with neighboring countries.
Victor Gao, a chair professor at Soochow University, expressed his belief that Australia should not have to select between China and the United States in a video op-ed featured in the Global Times.
China does not see Australia as a rival in terms of military, political, economic, or trade relations.
A senior analyst at a Chinese thinktank in Beijing advised the Guardian that Australia should prioritize independent thinking.
Before the visit, there were a number of compromises made. In exchange for Australia relaxing limitations on Chinese windtowers, tariffs on wine and other imports from Australia have been removed. After nearly three years of being detained on unspecified national security allegations, Australian reporter Cheng Lei was freed, although it was officially stated as the end of legal proceedings.
In the previous month, a limited number of Australian reporters, including myself, were offered an invitation to visit China. The trip was closely monitored and marked the return of a ten-year exchange program between the Australia Pacific Journalism Centre and the All-China Journalists Association, which has ties to the Chinese Communist Party. The program was put on hold due to the pandemic, but its restart was postponed due to worsening relations.
The proposition was made that the seven-day journey served as both a friendly gesture prior to Albanese’s arrival, and also as a form of assessment. None of the Australian press outlets have had reporters stationed in China since the departure of ABC’s Bill Birtles and AFR’s Michael Smith in 2020, following their questioning by security officials.
Due to Xi’s authoritarian leadership, having honest discussions with individuals within China has become more challenging and potentially dangerous if their opinions are critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Reports from those outside of the country suggest that there has been a decrease in critical discussions and a belief that Xi is not receiving all necessary information from his subordinates due to their fear. One source mentioned that meetings between leaders, such as Albanese’s, have become vital in ensuring that Xi is getting a comprehensive message.
During conversations about the deterioration of relations, members of political parties, think tanks, state media journalists, and business leaders all agreed with the state media’s narrative that the Morrison and Turnbull administrations were solely responsible, disregarding the fact that the Albanese government has mostly maintained the same foreign policy stance.
The Australian media’s sensational coverage of the potential threat from China was acknowledged, as well as concerns about foreign investment in Australia’s property market. However, Australian concerns regarding China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang were denied, but there was recognition of the negative impact of their actions in Hong Kong. Criticisms of China’s threats towards Taiwan were disregarded as not being relevant to the rest of the world. Very few individuals were willing to discuss Cheng Lei’s release, either declining to comment or diverting the conversation to an unrelated topic. No one was willing to mention Yang Hengjun, who remains imprisoned.
Further study conducted by Chi Hui Lin