Xi Jinping and Scott Morrison (Images: AAP)

Australia’s business engagement with China — for decades the object of encouragement and enthusiasm by successive governments eager to take advantage of a massive economic opportunity — is now a potential source of vulnerability after three Australian journalists were targeted.

After facilitating the flight of journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith in the face of pressure from Chinese police — ostensibly related to the arrest and detention of Australian-Chinese TV anchor Cheng Lei — the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed its advice that Australians should not travel there given “authorities have detained foreigners because they’re ‘endangering national security’. Australians may also be at risk of arbitrary detention.”

The advice is slightly more guarded for Australians already there: “If you’re already in China and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne declined to clarify that further yesterday, saying that Australians no matter where they were should heed the advice, but seemed to extend that to the approximately 100,000 Australians in Hong Kong.

“They should certainly be paying very close attention to the Smartraveller advice,” she said.

The number of Australian citizens living and working in mainland China is believed to be in the tens of thousands. China has shown it is willing to use the arbitrary arrest and detention of business people for diplomatic purposes: Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been imprisoned in China since 2018 in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

It’s unclear whether the Chinese regime’s actions toward Birtles and Smith were part of its fight with the United States over journalists in each other’s countries, its ongoing hostility toward Australia or purely about Western journalism.

Swinburne University Business School Professor John Fitzgerald says China could be specifically targeting journalists, and the reasons why may become clear in time. In the meantime, however, there’s no certainty about what the risk is to other Australians in China.

“The level of risk to business people compared to journalists has been pretty low,” he says. “But we don’t know why Australian journalists have been targeted. The Chinese government may have sent a signal it didn’t [mean] to other Australians in China that they aren’t safe.”

This creates a serious dilemma for Australian companies with Australian staff on the ground in China, Australian business people there, and potentially even Australia’s large diaspora in Hong Kong.

Even if the risk of arbitrary detention is low, the outcome is catastrophic: years in jail in China’s brutal criminal justice system.

Given the government has made it clear that Australians face real risks going to China, any company sending employees there or keeping Australian staff there would be behaving negligently and in defiance of clear advice — opening the way to massive compensation claims.

This is a complete reversal of decades of Australian governments urging Australian businesses to engage with China, to forge local connections there and develop the kind of direct links necessary to succeed in the world’s biggest market.

The Australia in the Asian Century white paper in 2012 devoted an entire chapter to the importance of expanding direct links with Asian countries,  especially China, including “the substantial flows of people and ideas between institutions, such as parliaments, educational institutions, business and community groups and the public service”.

That drive continued well into the current government. In a 2014 trade delegation hyped by News Corp stenographers as the biggest to ever visit China, Tony Abbott lauded Australia’s engagement with China and declared: “Team Australia is here in China to help build the Asian century.”

Later that year, Abbott stood next to Xi Jinping and lauded Australia’s “people-to-people links” as he described the Chinese autocrat as “truly, no Chinese leader has ever been anything like such a good friend to Australia”.

What’s left of “team Australia” in China is now, potentially, team hostage for a regime seemingly determined to punish Australia.