The Australian Government has triggered a big clash with Beijing by questioning the origins of COVID-19 – Prime Minister Scott Morrison and several members of his senior cabinet openly called for an independent investigation into coronavirus.
Although it has been seen by some as an undercover attack on China, there is a lot of support under it. Morrison has ask for Australian allies to reform the World Health Organization and conduct investigations into coronavirus sources.
Australia is already facing a bleak future in its economic relations with China as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The closure of the trip in early March was the initial cause of tension between countries. Lack of Australian government support for temporary visa holders like international student and graduate has threatened the university sector.
Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye response fast. He suggested that Chinese consumers and international students boycott Australian goods and services – especially the trade, tourism and education sectors, which have been crucial to Australia’s prosperity in recent decades.
Political and diplomatic clashes followed, with the Chinese embassy releasing accusations conversation details with Frances Adamson, head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). This release is controversial for two reasons. It was intended to show that the Australian government was backing down. It also violates customary diplomatic protocols.
The Chinese Embassy claims that:
He also acknowledged this was not the time to start the review now and Australia did not have the details of the proposal. He further said that Australia did not want this problem to have an impact on Australia-China relations.
DFAT does not confirm or reject claims:
The Department will not respond by itself violating old diplomatic greetings and professional practices that will continue to be followed.
This Tweet is a typical reaction:
Hoping that Australia will stand firm and not give up, also have to start seeing other markets to replace China as much as possible, like for ambassadors who are trying to intimidate us? He is a bloody bully and must openly apologize.
– Christine (@ Rackapuzz1957) April 28, 2020
China Global Times state media editor Hu Xijin added fuel for the controversy on the Chinese social media platform Weibo:
Australia is always there, making trouble. It’s like gum sticking to the soles of Chinese shoes. Sometimes you have to find stones to rub.
This brought angry responses from many Australians online:
Australia is “gum stuck to the bottom of Chinese shoes”, huh?
Well, it’s time for Australia to rethink trade and other agreements with China if they don’t like criticism of handling their global pandemic. Honestly, that’s a rubbish statement
– Angela Allan (@MissSoot) April 29, 2020
This Tweet is light compared to some social media posts that feature open racism and synophobia [fear or dislike of China]. This Twitter search continued covers the period immediately after Hu Xijin’s comments were published.
Instead, others question the benefits of Australia’s close relations with the United States government:
Coronavirus: Australia calls the threat of China over the threat of an economic boycott
We will see if America saves us when we once again bite the hand that feeds us.
Morrison has truly been Trump’s sheriff’s representative and is harming us
– rob stary (@robbulldog) April 28, 2020
Retired Australian diplomat Bruce Haig calling for diplomacy rather than loud pounding from Australian politicians:
In terms of our relations with China and America, ships must be balanced if Australia wants to cross uncharted and rough waters ahead.
… it gives the Chinese what Australian policy makers should recognize as an unacceptable level of influence, even grip, in times of stress.
… It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Chinese Australia’s policy is in the hands of amateurs, or ideologists, or both.
Some of the issues debated between the two countries are summarized in the story of Global Voices at the end of 2019. However, recent research at Australian National University questions whether this contention has lasting economic consequences:
What is the impact of the current diplomatic dispute between Australia & China?
Research from @ vishesh053 shows the effects of diplomatic conflicts between China & major partners including Australia are usually minimal. Story by @ErykBagshaw & @Gallo_Ways. https://t.co/faFBeDkYS3
– ANU Crawford School (@ANUCrawford) April 29, 2020
This is research from ANU. It was found that for 20 years, political shocks between Australia and China only resulted in three months of trade disruption before starting to return to normal transmission. # corona virus https://t.co/Px8MNxAyTQ pic.twitter.com/Mf2hlQjdsp
– Eryk Bagshaw (@ErykBagshaw) April 28, 2020
Meanwhile, there are some comments by Chinese citizens about Weibo. Some, including Tong Da Huan, support independent investigations:
病毒 起源 是 科学 问题。 追踪 源头 ， 利于 切断 传播 途径 ， 为 后来 积累 经验。 是 是 是 是 是 是 是 是 是 美国 吗 吗 吗 ？？？？ 定 定
The origin of viruses is a scientific question. Tracking the origin can help block future outbreaks and inform the science sector about how to combat new viruses. They say that the virus originated in the US too? We have to do an investigation to fix everything.
There are a few taunts in reply to Tong’s post:
人家 要 调查 你 有 有 有 出轨 ， 你 愿意 接受 调查 吗？
If someone else wants to investigate whether your wife is having an affair, will you accept it?
There are also some comments that reflect the position of the Chinese government, as referred to in 2019-20 forest fire disaster in Australia:
你们 国家 是 什么 什么 调查 调查 调查 国 国 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 境 境 境 境 境 境 境 境 境 境 境 境 可 境 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 可 境 境 境可 病毒 对 你们 索赔？
Your country is not in a position to investigate the origin of the virus in China. If you are allowed to investigate, China must investigate fires in Australia and ask for compensation for negligence leading to global environmental disasters. [Global warming] can cause the release of an ancient virus in the North Pole and we can ask for your compensation?
In a strange episode, Australian iron ore billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest shy Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt at a joint media conference on the source of the 10 million king of mining virus test kits. Forrest invited Consul General Victoria China Long Zhou to the press – without informing Hunt – and took a hammering blow on social media for that. This Tweet summarizes responses:
#abcnews what is actually doing tax fraud avoiding Twiggy Forrest telling Premiers to improve their game and telling citizens to “get back to work” while praising their own shopping expedition in China, while Morrison is attacking China … who is responsible here? # corona virus
– grace pettigrew (@ broomstick33) April 29, 2020
For a timeline of the ongoing story, please see: ‘Chewing gum stuck to the soles of our shoes: a war of Chinese-Australian words.
We may have to wait until after the pandemic to see if this is more than a war of words.
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