The trap of silence
CCP rent a crowd

Premier Li's visit to Canberra included CCP rent-a-crowds confronting & silencing peaceful protesters.

Written by

Lesley Seebeck

Some head-of-state, and head-of-government, visits are not like others.  Generally, Australians are fairly relaxed when it comes to such matters.  But there are occasions where such a visit will stir differing communities to active protest or generate public debate with and within government. 

The visit of President Turgut Ozal of Turkey many years ago, for example, saw local Greek and Turkish Cypriots face off both in Canberra and Sydney. But by and large, those protests were managed by Federal and NSW police in a restrained manner. 

That, of course, was a different world, before the September 11 attacks. Yet it is striking how the visit of Premier Li Qiang of the People’s Republic of China has been managed. Suppression is too strong a term, but it is clear the government was working hard to ensure the Premier’s peace not be disturbed in any manner (aside from the 19-gun salute).

Barricades were set up around the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra, extending across Commonwealth Avenue and up along the road to Parliament House some days before the Premier’s arrival. CCP supporters were dressed and provided with suitably patriotic paraphernalia to ‘demonstrate’, constructing an alternate reality for Chinese propaganda. Chinese officials sought to block shots of Australian journalist Cheng Lei during a signing ceremony by both leaders.  The leaders’ press ‘conference’ was limited to statements, not open questions from one of our core democratic institutions, the free press.

These should generate more concern in the Australian government than acquiescence.  Yet they are but a match for the Labor government’s reticence on China and its behaviour. 

That behaviour, we should recall, is not simply a matter of banned wine, lobster or meat.  It includes Beijing’s rapid military expansion, increased nuclear arsenal, dangerous activities in the South China Sea, ongoing aggressive cyber campaigns, continued theft of IP, arming and support for Russia in Ukraine, targeting of individuals who protest and contest the policies and actions of the CCP, willingness to flout international laws and norms, and repression of Hong Kong and the Uighurs.

It is true that Australia and China have both benefited immensely from bilateral trade as well as from established international free trade institutions. But by accepting silence as the cost of a ‘stabilised’ bilateral relationship, the Australian government risks falling into an authoritarian trap.

Ministers and officials may argue that, contrary to such claims, much is done behind the scenes.  No doubt: we know that much diplomacy occurs behind closed doors, on golf courses, in restaurants and the corridors of larger meetings. 

But in a democracy, governments owe it to their publics to raise issues—especially those of values—and address hard topics in international relationships, in a timely fashion. After all, foreign policy does not operate in a domestic vacuum nor do pandas, lobsters and wine alone confer domestic legitimacy of a foreign policy. A vision and strategy for how Australia navigates a more challenging world, dominated by authoritarians antithetical to democratic norms, matter. 

But by adopting the standards expected by an authoritarian state—blocking the public from access, limiting speech in the presence of leaders from that state, failing to address issues where that state has over-stepped, shown aggressive behaviour in rules-based international space, and, importantly, limiting the freedom and security of critics—the Australian government has conformed to those same standards.

Acceding to silence is especially pernicious.  The government has succumbed to the self-censorship the Chinese state expects of its own people—bearing in mind that the CCP regards people as essentially tools of the Party. 

And that makes even any willingness to speak out, rather than the context of the issue, the character of the concern, or the quality of the argument a matter that the CCP may decide ‘destabilises’ the relationship.

By allowing the CCP to impose its own standards on Australian civil society, Australian democracy is weakened, and it is harder for Australia, as a democracy, to counter the CCP’s own propaganda.

There is, of course, one way out of this trap.  And that is greater transparency and accountability on the Australian government’s own behalf.

It should be more, not less, articulate in its reporting on the meeting between the Prime Minister and Premier than its counterpart and be more forthcoming on matters of difference.

It should allow open access by journalists to the Premier, and other authoritarian leaders, at Australian press conferences and encourage open debate by holding more press conferences of its own.

It could take a leaf from the United States—which is much more open, transparent and accountable than the Australian government on such matters—and publish an annual compilation and assessment of Chinese action and military activity in the Indo-Pacific, especially the South Pacific, bolstered by independent research. 

It should fund centres for democracy, both in Australia and in the region, focussed on the rights of individuals, democratic institutions and open inquiry.

It should actively protect and support those fleeing persecution under authoritarian regimes, and especially those who have spoken out against oppression.

Silence is dangerous.  It may mislead, lending unwarranted confidence and assumptions to increasingly assertive authoritarian states.  That in turn may led it to tactical misjudgement, which given the rising tensions in the region, could be devastating.

But it also implies consent, acquiescence, even, at a stretch, subservience.  Perceptions matter. Australians, our regional partners and allies, and democracy deserve better.