Beijing lists grievances against Australia, giving warning to other countries with tense China relations

Foreign Affairs

After months of vague accusations that Australia had broken “mutual trust” with China, Beijing has made explicit a list of grievances with the country.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 attends a news conference in Beijing, China September 10, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In the past three years, China’s nationalistic Global Times tabloid has twice compared Australia to gum trodden underfoot.

  • Once, in December 2017, as China denounced Australia’s alarm over foreign influence operations, a Global Times editorial (in Chinese) said that Australia was like “gum stuck on the soles of China’s feet” (粘在中国脚底的口香糖了 zhān zài zhōngguó jiǎodǐ de kǒuxiāngtáng le).
  • Then, in April 2020, after Australia called for an independent international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, the Global Times’ mouth-frothing editor Hú Xījìn 胡锡进 made a post on Weibo (in Chinese) in which he likened the land down under to “chewed gum on the bottom of a shoe” (鞋底上的嚼过的口香糖 xiédǐ shàng de jiáoguò de kǒuxiāngtáng).
  • Hu predicted that Australia-China relations were likely to plunge just like U.S.-China relations have in recent years — but if anything, that ended up being an understatement, as by the beginning of November, Beijing had targeted Australian imports of beef, barley, cotton, coal, and wine worth up to $19 billion a year.

As obvious as Beijing’s irritation was — often expressed in its most unrestrained, albeit unofficial form via the Global Times — the full spectrum of reasons for the extreme punishment of Australia by China were never made explicit. The Chinese Foreign Ministry typically said things like, “We hope Australia can do more things conducive to mutual trust,” and left it to Australians to figure it out.

Now the grievances are explicit: In today’s Foreign Ministry press briefing (English, Chinese), spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 said that over the “past few years,” Australia had made a “series of wrong moves” that Beijing blames entirely for bilateral tensions. These are:

  • Criticizing China’s policies on “core interests like Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan,” including attempts to “initiate or participate in joint actions against China on Xinjiang-related issues,” allegedly meddling in Hong Kong, and endorsing Taiwan’s bid to participate in the World Health Assembly.
  • Accusing China of “infiltration,” and banning Chinese 5G, restricting Chinese investment, and conducting “arbitrary searches of Chinese media reporters in Australia.”
  • Advocating for a “so-called ‘independent international inquiry’” of COVID-19.

It’s worth noting that Zhao’s statements were in answer to a question from the Global Times, as that would have been approved by the Foreign Ministry in advance.

This is a message for more than just Australia

Zhao is, in effect, telling other countries that these are requirements for having smooth relations with Beijing: Don’t criticize policies on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan; don’t ban Chinese 5G; don’t accuse China of spying on you; don’t criticize China’s record on COVID-19.