China is closing itself off to criticism

This op-ed was co-authored by Senator James Paterson and Andrew Hastie MP. First Published in The Daily Telegraph.

Our first duty as Commonwealth parliamentarians is to defend the sovereignty, values and national interest of the Australian ­people. Any self-respecting politician in the free world also feels an obligation to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

We would be failing in these duties if we bowed to pressure to be silent.

Although we have been critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the past, that does not diminish our respect for the Chinese people, their culture and the achievements of their civilisation. There is much to admire about China.

But there are also significant areas of disagreement. A healthy relationship starts from the premise that we celebrate what is good, but retain the right to disagree as well.

It was in this spirit of openness that we accepted an invitation from the think tank China Matters to be their guests on a study tour to Beijing in December.

We planned to use that opportunity to respectfully discuss our genuine concerns about the policies of the CCP, particularly those that ­impact upon Australians.

But we also would have listened and hoped to better understand the perspective of our Chinese counterparts in a good-faith exchange of ideas. So, it was surprising and disappointing to be told that we are not welcome in China at this time.

Some people initially suggested that this ban was not political and was simply due to the media scrutiny of the visit.

This view now looks hollow given the embassy apparently raised no concerns about the third invited member of parliament, Labor MP Matt Keogh, whose participation was also canvassed in the media. Indeed, those claims were flatly contradicted by the statement from the embassy on Saturday afternoon, which accused us of a colonial mindset, disrespect, and demanded we repent for our criticism of the CCP.

The lost opportunity for dialogue is disappointing.However, it is more concerning that these events signal an apparent attempt to influence Australia’s ­domestic political debate about our relationship with China by punishing members of parliament based on their views.

It would be worrying if the lesson drawn from this episode among political, civic and business leaders is that silence is the safest course of action when it comes to China.

Fortunately, there are many from across the political spectrum who have stood with us in the wake of this decision by the Chinese government. We are thankful for their support and solidarity.

Australians expect their parliamentarians to be forthright, direct and honest about our values. Australian governments have rightly been vocal about the conduct of the CCP in recent years in a number of areas.

An Australian citizen, Dr Yang Hengjun, remains incarcerated on charges of espionage.

During his detention he has been denied family visits, access to a ­lawyer, and was held for months without charge.

In July, China’s Brisbane Consul-General praised nationalist Chinese students for their attempt to shut down pro-Hong Kong protesters on the campus of the University of Queensland.

The graphically violent scenes in Hong Kong this week, particularly at the Polytechnic University, will alarm many Australians given ­approximately 100,000 of their fellow citizens reside there.

Sunday’s New York Times revelations about the sophisticated, pre-planned crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and, more disturbingly, the internal justifications for doing so were just the latest confirmation of a profound human rights crisis in Western China.

This persecution is devastating for the thousands of Uyghur Australians who have family and friends trapped in Xinjiang. It is eerily reminiscent of the concerns many Australians have held for decades about Tibet.

Many Chinese Christians worship in fear.

Churches have been closed, pastors have been arrested, and sales and distribution of the Bible is tightly controlled.

The Chinese government has used its weight to exclude Taiwan from international forums, including the World Health Organisation, limiting the island’s ability to control the spread of infectious diseases.

China continues to militarise the South China Sea, through which a significant proportion of Australian trade passes. This is despite China’s claims of sovereignty being rejected by international law.

Raising these issues might not make us popular with the CCP. But we would be failing in our moral duty if we ignored or glossed over them.

We remain interested in learning more from China.

But we can never accept the precondition that we compromise our beliefs and self-censor.

Repenting and being born again into CCP thinking will get us nowhere. Doing so would only encourage further demands that we forgo our values in order to get along.  

Any relationship which is based on the premise that we cannot freely share our sincere concerns is built on a shaky foundation.

Australia can only build a healthy relationship with China through ­mutual respect and self-confidence, not acquiescence.


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