China-Australia relations, where words now speak louder than actions

Some uniquely Australian mental gymnastics are needed to be outraged at China’s SAS tweet but to ignore the rest of its years of aggressions.

Zhao Lijian
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (Image: AP)

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

Tweets are another thing.

It seems rather ridiculous that it was an offensive and juvenile post on Twitter that caused more public outrage at China from Australia than any of its actual harmful and ultimately dangerous actions over the years.

Sure the Chinese — unlike the Russians who also took a shot over the Brereton report this week — haven’t shot down a passenger liner which killed 39 Australians. But Australian defence forces are engaged in tense naval exercises against China in the South China Sea because, let’s not forget, it invaded and militarised the Spratly Islands.

Obviously the tweet was the final straw because there has been a litany of atrocities — from imprisoning Australians in China without due process, trying to corrupt or recruit our elected officials, ongoing cyber attacks on our public and private institutions, and even stealing the plans to our new ASIO office.

Remember it was only in June this year that Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared in a dramatic press conference to announce we were under attack, although he declined to actually name the culprit adopting the usual euphemism “sophisticated state-based actor”.

Our PM was not so shy when it came to the Twitter post this week, going into full-on war mode with urgent video in front of the flag demanding an apology from China.

(This from the man who never once criticised his close mate of 2019 Donald Trump who was responsible for weaponising Twitter with his countless undiplomatic tweets and his retweeting fake offensive posts.)

It should also be noted that the doctored Chinese photo in the “repugnant” tweet referred to our real and damaging Brereton report into special forces’ alleged atrocities. (It should not be confused with today’s absolutely vile real photo in The Guardian showing an Australian soldier drinking out of the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban fighter.)

If the Chinese had waited two days they might have been able to make a more valid comparison with America’s shameful Abu Ghraib photos. They probably still will. Cue more outrage.

In no way am I trivialising the tweet which symbolises everything that is offensive about China and its contemptuous attitude to a too-compliant Australia over too many years.

For decades I have been called out for my fierce criticism of China from the left, from the right (who I often had to remind were defending “communists”), to the craven business community which claimed I was naive and even unAustralian for daring to question “our biggest trading partner”.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m delighted the mask is now off and most Australians, including politicians, have been vindicated in their recent moves to push back against China on everything from Huawei bans to foreign interference laws.

If only the business sycophants would follow suit — but of course they are either strangely silent while privately blaming their own government for everything or else publicly calling for calm, by which they mean continue to kowtow to China.

They never acknowledge their complicity in the financial pain they’re feeling by becoming too beholden to one customer. They now find themselves collateral damage even before the great Twitter war.

The overnight global campaign of support for our wine industry is to be welcomed, and exactly what was needed.

The same global outrage over the tweet is also welcome and diplomacy will hopefully be the solution. But will words speak louder than actions?

I was more concerned that the Chinese landed on the moon this morning and plans to take a few scientific samples. On past form let’s hope that’s all they do with a rocky outpost in the middle of nowhere.

Peter Fray

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