Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit: the sounds of silence
Wang Yi

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit was managed on Beijing's terms, with stage management and silence familiar to journalists and citizens in mainland China.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The most striking thing about the Chinese foreign minister’s visit to Australia is how empty the official events around it have been.

Australian government statements about it have been content free, apart from expressing the government’s delight about having the visit and meetings as evidence of a ‘stable’ relationship.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s public words have been carefully chosen to convey an impression that there have been stern words from her in private, but to do nothing that could cause a ripple of discomfort to Wang Yi or his Beijing boss Xi Jinping.

Modest public mentions of human rights, Hong Kong, our ‘shock’ at the death penalty given to Yang Henjun and volatility in the nickel trade in her press conference are meant to convey the success of frank dialogue behind closed doors.

So, you wouldn’t know that in recent days the Chinese state has further tightened its grip on the people of Hong Kong and made its national security laws apply to anyone anywhere in the world who criticises its governing of Hong Kong.  That should matter to an Australian government that has given sanctuary to Hong Kongers who already have bounties on their heads from the Chinese state. Beyond this, Australian critics of the regime in Beijing now face risk of arrest and extradition to China if they are in countries subject to China’s reach.  Was any of this raised with Penny Wong’s counterpart and if so, to what effect? We can’t and won’t know.

You also wouldn’t know that the Chinese state’s campaigns of mass abuse against Uyghgurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners and anyone who dares speak the truth about CCP control of China’s people are continuing to cause mass suffering.  This dark truth also hasn’t bothered Australia’s Federal Police, who just celebrated 25 years of cooperation with the police apparatus the Chinese state uses to commit these abuses – the Ministry of Public Security – during a visit by AFP Commissioner Kershaw to China in a further example of our stable relationship with the regime of Xi Jinping.

Penny Wong mentioned “our concern – our serious concern – about unsafe conduct at sea, our desire for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in our region.’ Just who might be engaging in this unsafe conduct remained a mystery, though, as it did during Australia’s hosting of the recent ASEAN meetings. It must be impolite to mention that China’s military, coastguard and fishing fleets are acting violently against other nations in parts of the South China Sea that Xi Jinping’s China is trying to seize from countries from the Philippines to Vietnam right down to Indonesia.

But if the Australian Government can’t mention that it is Xi’s China that is engaging in this unsafe behaviour, how on earth do we expect our ‘concern’, even our ‘serious concern’ to be taken seriously? 

Instead, Penny Wong talked about Australia and China’s ‘respective roles in upholding a region that is peaceful, stable and secure’.

That is more than an odd form of words given that the role China is actually playing is one that is destabilising the region and creating risks of war. 

Australia’s role is to work with allies and partners to deter China from such aggression and from thinking that a path to war over Taiwan or the South China Sea makes any sense.

That’s why Australia is spending billions of dollars to strengthen our military – buying more frigates, getting nuclear submarines, and why we are strengthening our military alliance with the US and our partnership with the UK through AUKUS. But that central fact is not able to be gleaned from anything our Government has had the courage to mention during Wang Yi’s triumphal visit.

The calculation seems to be that Penny Wong’s vague and carefully scripted words at her stage-managed press conference are enough to placate the Australian domestic audience, while also being understood by Wang Yi and his accompanying entourage as simply formulaic utterances without expectations they be taken seriously or acted upon.

Accommodating Wang Yi’s preferences to have no engagement with the open press in Australia has enabled this surreal situation to occur and the visit to be yet another signpost on the path to a yet more triumphant visit by a Chinese Communist Party luminary to Australia in the form of Premier Li later this year. 

Like Wang Yi, Premier Li can now be assured that no uncomfortable realities will mar the visit. Instead, his loan of pandas to Adelaide Zoo may dominate the reporting.

But the oddest aspect of Wang Yi’s visit comes from his meeting with Paul Keating. That meeting, like the entire visit, is shrouded in secrecy as Beijing’s terms dictated. 

Beijing’s purpose with that very publicly announced but very privately held meeting was not about any transparent discussions for Australians to see. It was to create the ridiculous perception that Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong’s approach to the relationship with China is too hardline and edgy and needs to become more uncritically pro-Beijing, in accordance with Mr Keating’s various mutterings in recent years. 

Simply having the meeting with Mr Keating lets Wang Yi achieve this perception, even if the truth is that the former prime minister has had limited to no influence on government policy for some years.

So, Beijing continues to get a lot out of the Albanese government – they have bought Australia’s silence and have yet to buy a single bottle of wine as the price.