Only two weeks ago the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in Beijing issued its strongest ever report condemning deteriorating conditions in China for foreign journalists, and now the Australian government is being tested by Beijing in an unprecedented manner. Its considered response, beyond the initial incident, will be telling.

China’s ruling Communist Party has issued threats against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s estimable China correspondent Stephen McDonell over his Foreign Correspondent report about China’s ethnic minority Uighur people in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. In an unprecedented move, Beijing demanded that the report be pulled from the program, but the ABC did not cave and the report aired last night.

“We were followed by a sometimes farcical number of people during 10 days filming in Xinjiang,” McDonell told Crikey from Hong Kong last night. He was in Xinjiang with cameraman Wayne McAllister, producer Charles Li and a translator, with up to six cars full of plain-clothed and uniformed police tailing their every move.

McDonell says that in recent weeks, the Chinese deputy ambassador in Canberra and the embassy’s communications officer, explicitly representing the Chinese Ambassador, had a 40-minute meeting with ABC communications director Michael Millett demanding the piece be pulled and issuing “veiled threats”.

“This was before I had even written the script or cut the story,” McDonell added.

There is nothing in the piece that hasn’t been written or said elsewhere in recent weeks, after Beijing jailed respected and very moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti for life to near-universal condemnation, amid growing violence in the region.

So will Beijing go ahead with its promises that the program will affect Australia’s relationship with China, or is this just a handy excuse to beat up a government it has little time for, beyond the smooth delivery of trade and investment opportunities?

Whatever the case, it is well past time the Australian government publicly voiced its strong support for Australian journalists and their right to work in China.

“The test for the Abbott government now is what is more important: an FTA the Chinese may or may not agree to and subsequently may or may not honor — or the freedom of the press and safety of Australian citizens.”

The environment for foreign reporters began to truly deteriorate after the riots in Xinjiang in 2009. As The Australian’s China correspondent I experienced police harassment and threats at the Xinjiang city of Kashgar in December 2009; journalists from other nations  have been physically attacked and intimidated by state-sanctioned authorities in increasing numbers. Fairfax journalist John Garnaut experienced serial harassment during his time in China, and Australian citizen Chris Buckley, one of the best China correspondents in the business, has been refused a journalist visa after he moved from Reuters to The New York Times almost two years ago. It’s frankly a disgrace that in all that time there has not been a peep of public support from the Australian embassy or any government. At the same time, dozens of Chinese journalists in Australia, any of whom could be spies, are afforded the same legal protections as anyone else in the country.

McDonell,who speaks excellent Chinese and has lived in Beijing for more than eight years, has been in this territory before. Two years ago he snuck into Tibetan areas of China where disaffected Tibetans were self-immolating, having been subjected to mounting violence by Chinese authorities. Eventually he and his crew were chased out by police, but not before they got the story, which was broadcast on Foreign Correspondent without any comment or pressure from Beijing.

Certainly many things have changed under Xi Jinping, but the unexpected furore over the ABC story is also reflective of a broader problem for the Abbott government. It is as unloved (that’s the nice version) in Beijing as any Australian government has been, and that includes Kevin Rudd and his 2009 annus horribilis,which really began in 2008 when he lectured the Chinese on their home turf in Beijing about Tibet in his fluent Chinese.

In the end, Beijing’s self-interest triumphed and it seized the initiative as Rudd fumbled, unable to make decisions, to begin to reset things with its key non-energy commodities supplier. As Julia Gillard explains in her new book, she worked hard — and it took the foreign policy (and self-described) newbie a couple of goes — to set things on a better track.

But Beijing is easily slighted, and in one fell swoop, Abbott’s very public and warm embrace of Japan — China’s mortal enemy — has taken things to new depths, insiders say. This is reflected in the increasing difficulty for business and government types to get key meetings and messages delivered via Chinese government think tanks, such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

On the surface things are all smiles, but the waters beneath the surface are roiling. The big test looming is Xi Jinping’s visit to Australia as part of the G20 summit in Brisbane in November, and the government is all too well aware of this. Abbott is desperate to get a free trade agreement with China, now almost 10 years in the making, to go with his FTAs with Japan and South Korea. The Chinese play a long game, and Abbott has thumbed his nose at them. Whether the unseemly pressure on the ABC is part of this or simply part of the generally darkening and increasingly disturbing environment for foreign journalists living and working in China is unclear. Most likely, it is opportunistic leverage, one of the dark arts that Beijing practises with skill.

The test for the Abbott government now is what is more important: an FTA the Chinese may or may not agree to and subsequently may or may not honor — or the freedom of the press and safety of Australian citizens. It’s time to stop pussyfooting around and put an end to this creeping bullying from Beijing. Julie Bishop or her Prime Minister must state loudly and clearly that the government stands ready to protect Australian journalists in China and fight for their visas. It’s long overdue.

Peter Fray

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