China interrupts minister’s press conference

The Morrison government was blindsided when a Chinese official took the stage at a coronavirus media conference to talk about a "groundbreaking" partnership delivering millions of test kits to Australia as tensions between the nations heightened.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt faced an awkward diplomatic moment when billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest - who had acquired 10 million COVID-19 tests - introduced China's Victorian Consul-General Long Zhou to speak at their press conference.

New Corp Australia understands while Morrison government officials weren't surprised Mr Zhou had been invited to the media event by Mr Forrest, there had been no suggestion he would be invited to speak to media.

After being called to the podium, Mr Zhou said the partnership was "another major step forward" between China and Australia to "jointly fight" the COVID-19 pandemic. "China has attached great importance to international health co-operation," he said.

Mr Zhou thanked Mr Forrest's Minderoo foundation and BGI for their work securing the medical supplies on behalf of China's Ambassador Cheng Jingye, who is in the midst of a public stoush with the government.

A spokesman for Mr Hunt said Minderoo had worked closely with BGI and Chinese officials to deliver the coronavirus testing supply. "Minister Hunt noted and welcomed the positive comments by the Chinese Consul," he said. Mr Forrest said Mr Hunt's comments were proof "the Consul-General was welcome" at the event.

It came as Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent a blunt message to China after it accused his government of "petty tricks" in a worsening war of words. Instead of batting away questions about Australia's souring relationship with its largest trading partner, Mr Morrison repeatedly reminded the Communist state Australia would not be dictated to.

Mr Morrison said China's anger at Australia was a "a matter for them".

"Australia will do what is in our interest, in the global interest, and we will of course continue to support moves to ensure there is a proper independent assessment of what has occurred here."

In response to threats by China's Ambassador of a hit to tourism and education if Australia pursued a "politically motivated" proposal, Mr Morrison reminded China about its dependence on resources.

"The thing about our relationship with China is it is a mutually beneficial one," he said. "It is a comprehensive strategic partnership, and we will continue to pursue that partnership respecting China's sovereignty and independence and its success will continue to depend on that being returned."

Dr Forrest on Wednesday night said he "formally invited" Mr Zhou as a "gesture of appreciation and friendship between our two great countries."

He pointed to a comment at the media conference by Mr Hunt as proof "the Consul-General was welcome" at the event.

The comment by Mr Hunt was that Mr Zhou's remarks were "very welcome and appreciated".

 

The EU is under fire over allegations it “watered down” Chinese disinformation about the coronavirus. Picture: AP
The EU is under fire over allegations it “watered down” Chinese disinformation about the coronavirus. Picture: AP

In a new written statement issued on Wednesday morning, the Chinese Embassy's spokesman said it "had no choice" but to release details of a private phone conversation between Ambassador Cheng Jingye and Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Frances Adamson "to set the record straight" after "content of the conversation was obviously leaked by some Australian officials."

The reporting of the discussion was "inaccurate and misleading," the spokesman said.

"The Embassy of China doesn't play petty tricks, this is not our tradition," the spokesman said. "But if others do, we have to reciprocate."

On Tuesday, the spokesman had claimed Ms Adamson "congratulated" Mr Cheng on "Wuhan's accomplishment that there is no longer any confirmed COVID-19 case".

Scott Morrison said China's anger at his government's campaign for a global coronavirus inquiry won't stop Australia pursuing its "common sense" interest in discovering the origins of the deadly pandemic.

The Prime Minister said Australia would continue to push for an independent review of the international COVID-19 response, even if it was upsetting officials in Beijing.

"That is a matter for them," he said.

"Australia will do what is in our interest, in the global interest, and we will of course continue to support moves to ensure there is a proper independent assessment of what has occurred here.

"It is a fairly common sense position, and one that we don't resile from."

Mr Morrison said Australia's calls for an inquiry were "not targeted" at any country.

"It is said independently," he said.

"So I find Australia's position to be not remarkable at all, but one that is entirely

responsible, and I am sure is broadly seen in that light around the world."

Mr Morrison said the "key" to Australia's relationship with China was "just being consistent".

"We are consistent on all of the measures where there has been some potential tension and frustration," he said.

"We seek to explain it as best we can, as respectfully as we can, and understand that the comprehensive strategic partnership was built on that mutual benefit."

Mr Morrison said both countries would manage the relationship from the perspective of its own national interest.

"That is not extraordinary. That is what you would expect," he said.

"We will put Australia first and all of these arrangements, wherever it may be."

Mr Morrison said an independent assessment of how the COVID-19 pandemic occurred would enable the world to "learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again".

"Australia will of course continue to pursue what is a very reasonable and sensible course of action," he said.

"This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy.

"The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary."

Mr Morrison said Australia was a "supporter and a funder" of the World Health Organisation, but that did not mean it would not seek answers to tough questions about the pandemic.

"It is an organisation like any that can learn lessons from how this began … to understand what was happening, and the transparency around those issues," he said.

"Nothing extraordinary about that."

 

 

The Prime Minister said Australia's "road out" of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus would be lead by private industry and did not foresee a major change in the trade relationship with China.

"Australians will find markets, as we have been now for a long time, all around the world, and for many years now our markets have been diversified," he said.

Mr Morrison said

"The predominance of our trading relationship with China is obviously resources based, and I see no reason why that would alter in the future.

"I mean, the thing about our relationship with China is it is a mutually beneficial one.

"It is a comprehensive strategic partnership, and we will continue to pursue that partnership, respecting China's sovereignty, and their independence, and its success will continue to depend on that being returned."

 

CHINA'S RESPONSE 'INAPPROPRIATE': TRADE MINISTER

It comes after Australia's trade minister said it would be inappropriate for China to boycott local industries in response to the call for an inquiry.

China has threatened a boycott of education, tourism and agriculture in retaliation against Australia's push for a global review into how the coronavirus pandemic began.

"It would be inappropriate," Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told the ABC on Tuesday.

"Australia's position is very clear that we believe it is entirely reasonable … for there to be a genuine inquiry and investigation into the cause of the loss of life of hundreds of thousands of people around the world."

He later told Adelaide radio FIVEaa trade was already due to contract prior to threats of boycotting Australian beef and wine exports.

"I hope that we can rebuild those markets," Senator Birmingham said. 

"Our beef and our policy dispute, if there is one, is not with the people of China or the legitimate businesses of China.

"I hope that the government of China considers this position and that it is just not tenable to go out and surely say that there shouldn't be some inquiry."

Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham.
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne raised the idea of an international inquiry a week ago, calling for greater transparency on how COVID-19 originated and how it was subsequently handled.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton backed the call, telling Sky News on Sunday that it would provide reassurance into the future.

"We want more transparency within the communist party of China in the way they have dealt with this virus issue," Mr Dutton told Sky News.

Labor's Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong told the ABC she supported "an independent inquiry into the origin of the virus."

Ms Wong said Australia needed to rethink its relationship with China as the nation became "much more assertive".

"We need to rethink how it is that we approach the relationship while standing up for our sovereignty, our interests and our values," Ms Wong told the ABC on Monday.

It comes as the EU denied bowing to Chinese pressure to water down a report on coronavirus disinformation to soften criticism of Beijing.

A Chinese woman wears a protective mask in Beijing. Picture: Getty Images
A Chinese woman wears a protective mask in Beijing. Picture: Getty Images

In a report on Monday (local time) The New York Times said that, under pressure from Beijing officials, the EU had delayed publication of a regular report on disinformation trends last week, and toned down the final version.

A spokesman for the EU's diplomatic service, Peter Stano, insisted no changes had been made as a result of outside influence.

"I absolutely refute and dispute any indications or claims that in our reporting we are bowing to any kind of external pressure," he told a regular media briefing in Brussels.

The New York Times said an early version of the report referred to China running "a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image".

In another report, The Financial Times said China complained three times to the EU about the text including to the bloc's ambassador in Beijing, Nicolas Chapuis.

 

The final published version does not refer to a "global disinformation campaign" though it does mention "a co-ordinated push by official Chinese sources" including state media to deflect blame for the pandemic.

It also details evidence of what it calls "covert Chinese operations" on social media.

Stano said that what the New York Times called an "initial" version of the report published on Friday was in fact a separate document intended only for internal use within the EU.

But the incident has triggered alarm in Brussels and the largest political bloc in the European parliament, the European People's Party (EPP), has demanded an explanation from EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell.

 

"We are revolted by the reports revealing that the European External Action Service bowed under Chinese pressure and modified its findings about the Chinese disinformation campaign on COVID-19," the EPP's Sandra Kalniete said.

"It would be totally unacceptable if the EEAS, charged with providing the EU public with full and unbiased information and to defend Europe in this disinformation campaign, proved to be ready to backtrack on its findings and fall victim itself to foreign propaganda."

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang denied any Chinese involvement in disinformation.

"Spreading false information and mutual accusations in the current circumstances won't help with the international co-operation in fighting the COVID-19," Geng said.

Originally published as China interrupts minister's press conference


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