Turnbull says Australia will ‘stand up’ to China as foreign influence row heats up
Beijing said earlier Malcolm Turnbull had poisoned the atmosphere of bilateral relations and undermined mutual trust
The Australian prime minister has hit back at China over the issue of foreign interference, speaking Mandarin and invoking a famous Chinese slogan to declare Australia will “stand up” against meddling in its national affairs.
Beijing issued a stinging rebuke of Turnbull on Friday, saying his allegations of Communist Party interference had poisoned the atmosphere of bilateral relations and undermined mutual trust.
But Turnbull stood his ground on Saturday, using strong language to reject the criticism and maintain there was evidence of foreign interference. Turnbull said Labor senator Sam Dastyari – who has twice stepped down from the Senate over China-related controversies – was a “classic case”.
Switching between Mandarin and English, Turnbull then said: “Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words: ‘The Chinese people have stood up’. It was an assertion of sovereignty, it was an assertion of pride.”
“And we stand up and so we say, the Australian people stand up.”
Beijing has lodged a “serious complaint” with Australia over the allegations of Chinese interference.
During a regular briefing on Friday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang expressed shock at Turnbull’s remarks during the parliamentary debate on Australia’s new foreign interference laws this week.
“We are astounded by the relevant remarks of the Australian leader,” Geng said, according to Associated Press. “Such remarks simply cater to the irresponsible reports by some Australian media that are without principle and full of bias against China.
“It poisons the atmosphere of the China-Australia relationship and undermines the foundation of mutual trust and bilateral cooperation. We express strong dissatisfaction with that and have made a serious complaint with the Australian side.”
Turnbull introduced the foreign interference laws to parliament on Thursday. The laws, among other things, ban foreign donations and require former politicians, executives, and lobbyists who work for foreign interests, to register if they intend to attempt to influence Australian politics.
Under the proposed legislation, it would become a crime for a person to act on behalf of a foreign principal to influence a political or governmental process in a manner that is either covert or involves deception.
Turnbull spoke of China while introducing the legislation to the lower house.
“Media reports have suggested that the Chinese Communist Party has been working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and even the decisions of elected representatives right here in this building,” he said. “We take these reports very seriously.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner and its biggest source of foreign political funds. Australian law has never distinguished between donors from Australia and overseas.
Beijing’s emphatic push-back reflects an increasingly forceful – some say hectoring – posture from China and Chinese state media towards foreign governments or journalists who dare to question its actions or policies.
Foreign leaders, including former British prime minister David Cameron, who have met the Dalai Lama have been punished with lengthy diplomatic freezes. The Norwegian government faced an almost complete suspension of diplomatic relations after the 2010 Nobel Prize was handed to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who recently became the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky died at the hands of the Nazis.
Experts say Chinese efforts to browbeat its international critics have become more aggressive in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012. In October, Xi, now widely seen as China’s most powerful leader since Mao, kicked off his second term in office proclaiming the start of a new era in which China was a “mighty power” at the centre of world affairs.
This week one Communist Party-run tabloid attacked “the superiority and narcissism of the Canadian media” after one Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, referred to the country as an “absolute dictatorship”. Last year Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, expressed “dissatisfaction” with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, after he launched an angry tirade against a Canadian journalist who had challenged him on human rights.
In his comments on Saturday, Turnbull was referring to a slogan often linked to Mao Zedong, who is said to have uttered the words in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949.
Some experts say, however, that Mao never spoke those words.
On Wednesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman urged Australia to “discard prejudice” against China. “China develops its friendly relations with other countries on the basis of mutual respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs,” the spokesman said.