Mike Smith was talking to the Irish Times China correspondent Peter Goff on their way back from Xinjiang, north-west China in 2019.
The Australian Financial Review’s China correspondent and Goff had been invited by China’s State Council to view for themselves what conditions were like in the detention centres that had been built by the dozen across the region.
A mother and child run through the Forbidden City in Beijing. Credit:Getty Images
Instead of perimeter walls, armed guards and torture cells, there were “airy classrooms, cookie-making classes, dancing performances and courtyards filled with daffodils”.
“The seven-day trip was an elaborate propaganda exercise on a scale that was impressive even for China. It often bordered on the surreal,” Smith wrote.
“There was a fashion parade by Uighur women set to pumping dance music in a village laneway; horses on treadmills at a special-effects-laden ‘ethnic singing and dancing show’; and a team of young Uighur girls in hot-pink dresses and earpieces assigned to guide us around Kashgar’s Old City.”
The Muslim minority Uighurs interned in the facilities voluntarily offered their history of extremism, how they had an obligation to kill pagans and their search for self-made bombs.
In the re-education centres, they nervously told Smith they could play basketball after learning Mandarin and purging their extremist thoughts. It reminded Goff of an incident a decade earlier.
Thousands of children had been killed after shoddy schools had collapsed in the Chengdu earthquake in 2008. Devastated parents had rejected offers of government compensation and were preparing to march on Beijing in anguish.
One parent told Goff that she had lost her eight-year-old daughter. A local party official sat at her kitchen table and took out an A4 sheet of paper.
“In the middle of the blank sheet, he wrote her name. Then in a circle, on the points of a clock, he wrote 12 other names around hers – the names he listed were a mix of her closest relatives and friends who had survived the tragedy. ”
One by one he described how local officials would systematically destroy their lives if they continued with their plans to march on Beijing.
ABC correspondent Bill Birtles and Australian Financial Review reporter Michael Smith leaving China.Credit:Courtesy of Bill Birtles
Neither Smith nor Goff is in China any more. An already fraught media environment is now littered with correspondents in exile. No Australians working for Australian media outlets remain inside our most important trading partner as it becomes the largest economy in the world.
“A lot of the reporting on China is from outside China, and obviously that has a certain slant. Some of the best stories we did were out on the road, talking to ordinary people in China and getting those nuances,” said Smith. “I think that’s one of the big tragedies out of this.”
Smith and Bill Birtles, the ABC’s correspondent, fled last year after being caught in a diplomatic stoush that erroneously linked them with Cheng Lei, the Chinese-Australian state TV anchor currently being held on national security charges.
Most recently, the BBC’s John Sudworth was forced to move to Taiwan after pressure and threats from the Chinese authorities over his reporting on Xinjiang.
The parents angry about China’s construction standards have a dwindling number of international outlets to get their message out to the world beyond Chinese state media networks or its social media forums. So do those who want to praise China’s response to the coronavirus or run junkets to Xinjiang.
The consequences of this are now becoming apparent.
Media monitoring service Streem looked at 12 months of coverage across The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, The Australian Financial Review, News Corp metropolitan newspapers including The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun, The Australian, all the major television networks and their online platforms.
In a year when China has never been more prominent across the Australian media landscape, the figures show the impact of having fewer correspondents on the ground and the effectiveness of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda units.
A single inflammatory tweet from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accusing Australia of war crimes received more prominent coverage in two weeks than Xinjiang received in six months.
China’s international propaganda news tabloid, The Global Times, has been quoted more frequently across Australian media than Xi Jinping or any member of the Chinese embassy.
And trade received three times more coverage than national security concerns or 12 times more than human rights issues.
The coverage is macro, full of diplomatic vitriol and parochial. The Streem data shows Global Times, with its almost daily editorial attacks on Australia, threats of retaliation and provocative cartoons has become the loudest Chinese voice in sensationalist coverage of the Australia-China debate.
It notched up 1163 quotes in Australian media outlets over the past year, three hundred more than Zhao, the most high-profile wolf warrior Foreign Ministry spokesman at the top of the list. Xi had 769.
The figures also show news outlets are reporting more on how Australian business interests are being affected than the death of democracy in Hong Kong or the crimes against humanity that are occurring in Xinjiang.
The impact of wine tariffs on Australian producers has received almost three times more prominent placement on Australian news websites than Hong Kong over the past 12 months and six times more than Xinjiang.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published more on human rights in China than any other news outlet. But even this is a fraction of the 620 on trade in the past year.
There were other stories that were missed too. In The China Story yearbook released by the Australian National University in April, researcher Pan Wang tells the story of the pandemic’s role in heightening gender inequalities in China, amid rising domestic violence and divorce rates.
There’s another piece on how China’s rural poor defeated COVID-19 and an essay on how 1.5 million Chinese students have started at international universities from their bedrooms.
Deputy ambassador Wang Xining told the National Press Club in April that the collection of stories presented a multi-dimensional image of China.
“Rather than from other sources preventing a monolithic image of China and also using the outdated political cliche to describe China which what we call oversimplified conceptualisation and political grandstanding,” he said.
“It’s amazing to see how the Western journalists love to see more trouble, more unrest, social unrest in China, where my party, my government, my people, look forward to a peaceful affluence in society.”
Journalists were welcome to report from his country said Wang, as long as the stories conformed to what the Chinese government viewed as its image of China.
“Unfortunately you mentioned certain cases related to BBC journalists who failed to present a truthful image or a truthful happening in some part of China,” he said. “We never discriminate against any journalists, but we hope foreign journalists in China will present the true image of China.”
The data tells us despite Wang’s desire for a more granular view of China, limiting access to the country is having its intended effect.
Chinese propaganda voices are being elevated beyond their actual diplomatic worth, the weight of coverage has shifted to the economic consequences of Australia’s policy decisions and there is limited visibility and prominence given to the profound changes being executed by the Chinese government inside China.
That is just the way China’s Foreign Ministry would like it to be.
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