China and Australia’s diplomatic spat will undermine cross-cultural empathy and understanding

Chinese and Australian flags
Source: David Gray, Reuters

Darcy French

It is midnight in Beijing. ABC Journalist Bill Birtles is preparing for bed when he hears a knock at the door. Opening it, he is shocked to discover seven officers from the Beijing Department of the National Security Bureau. Birtles is told he is a person of interest in a legal investigation and is forbidden from leaving the country. At the same time, 1,500 km further south in Shanghai, Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review is facing an eerily similar experience. Fearing for their safety, both men take shelter in Australian diplomatic missions. Five days later, they are back in Sydney.

What has followed in the week since these dramatic events would have seemed unfathomable only six months ago. In the shadow of a global pandemic, Sino-Australian diplomatic relations have sunk to an all-time low. The departure of Birtles and Smith means that there are no journalists working for Australian media organisations currently operating in China. This is a tragedy for the coverage of China-related topics in the Australian media. Not only will it undermine Australians’ exposure to Chinese culture and society, but it will also jeopardise the nuance of a national debate about our relationship with China that is more important now than at any point in the past 40 years.

Relations between the two countries soured when Australia took the unprecedented step of banning the use of Huawei technology in Australia’s 5G network. However, tensions that had been simmering away beneath the surface boiled over after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to China placing punitive trade barriers on Australian exports, such as barley and beef. More recently, China has threatened to target Australian wine with anti-dumping litigation at the World Trade Organisation.

However, the escalation of the past fortnight represents a new low. Now journalists have become the bargaining chips. Regardless of blame or culpability, both countries will suffer. Without quality reporting, there will be little to tie together the narratives of Chinese and Australian people in the 21st century. Without cultural understanding and shared stories, conflicts are more likely to emerge.

Australian Financial Review editor, Paul Bailey, articulated the importance of an Australian media presence in China during a recent interview for the