ABC: Journalists in China and Rio Tinto

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
TV INTERVIEW
ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
9 SEPTEMBER 2020

Topics: Mike Smith, Bill Birtles, Cheng Lei, Rio Tinto and Queensland’s health border

Patricia Karvelas
Kevin Rudd, welcome.

Kevin Rudd
Good to be on the program, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas
Does the treatment of the ABC and the AFR China correspondents suggest Australia and China and the relationship between the two nations has entered a new, more dangerous phase now?

Kevin Rudd
I believe it’s been trending that way for quite some time. And without being in the business of, you know, apportioning responsibility for that, the bottom line is the trajectory is all negative. So this is just one further step in that direction and deeply disturbing if your fundamental interest here is press freedom, and your interest is the proper protection of foreign correspondents in an authoritarian country like China.

Patricia Karvelas
Is there any doubt in your mind that these two correspondents were caught up in politics?

Kevin Rudd
No, listen, I actually know these two guys reasonably well. They’re highly professional journalists and when I’ve been in China myself, I’ve spent time with them. And these are journalists just doing the professional duties of their task. To infer that these folks were somehow involved in some, you know, nefarious plot against the Chinese government is just laughable. Absolutely laughable. If that was the case then, you know, you would have every foreign correspondent in Beijing up on the witness stand at the moment. It’s just nonsensical.

Patricia Karvelas
Okay. But these are Australians that have been targeted. What do you read into that? Should we be particularly concerned about the fact that they are Australians — obviously we’re are concerned about that — but does that demonstrate that the relationship with Australia is particularly troubled?

Kevin Rudd
Look at the end of the day, at this stage, we don’t know what has actually driven this particular, you know, roundup of these two Australian journalists. We know that it’s directly related to the Cheng Lei case and we don’t know what underpins that. And she’s an Australian citizen, and she needs to have her rights properly protected by the Australian Government, and I’m confident that DFAT is doing everything it can on that score. But in the broader bilateral relationship, I think you’re right. When Beijing looks at the world at the moment, it sees its number one problem as being the United States and the collapse in the US-China relationship which is now in its worst state in 50 years. And secondly, in terms of its most adverse relationships abroad, it would then place Australia, and I simply base that on what I read in each day’s official commentary in the Chinese media.

Patricia Karvelas
So is this retaliation? Is that how we should see this?

Kevin Rudd
As I said, we don’t know the full details here, other than that the Chinese themselves have confirmed that it’s related to the Cheng Lei case. But what underpins that in terms of her Australian citizenship, in terms of any other matters that she was engaged in, we don’t know. But certainly the overall frame of the Australia-China relationship is a factor here, and including the accusations contained in today’s Global Times alleging that Australian intelligence officials engaged with Chinese correspondents in their homes here in Australia on the 26th of June.

Patricia Karvelas
Bill Birtles says he was questioned about the case of this detained Chinese Australian broadcaster you’ve mentioned Cheng Lei. Do you see these incidences as related? What what does that demonstrate? And how concerned are you about Miss Cheng Lei?

Kevin Rudd
Well, she’s an Australian citizen and I’ve met her as well, in fact, at a conference I was attending in Beijing, from memory, last November. And as with any Australian, and whoever they work for, and despite the fact that she worked for China’s international media arm CGTN, we’ve got a responsibility to do everything we can for her wellbeing as well. But I think if we stand back from the individual cases, there are two big facts we should focus on. One we’ve touched on, which is the spiralling nature of the Australia-China relationship and I’ve not seen anything like it in my 35-years-plus of working on Australia-China relations. But the second one is the changing nature of Chinese domestic politics. As China increasingly cracks down on all forms of dissent, both real and imagined, and as a result what we’ve seen in Chinese domestic politics is the assertion of greater and greater powers by China’s police, security and intelligence apparatus. And the traditional constraints exercise, for example, by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, not just on this case but on others, are being pushed to one side.

Patricia Karvelas
Chinese authorities have confirmed that Ms Cheng is suspected of endangering national security. What does that suggest about how she’ll be dealt with?

Kevin Rudd
Well, the Chinese domestic national security law, quite apart from the one which we focused on recently which has been legislated for Hong Kong, the Chinese domestic law is draconian, and the terms used in it are wide-reaching, and provide, you know, maximum leverage for the prosecutors to go after an individual. Regrettably, the precedence in Chinese judicial practice is that once a formal investigation has been launched, as I understand has been the case in Cheng Lei’s case, then the prospect of securing a good outcome are radically reduced. I’ve seen this in so many cases over the years. That should not prevent the Australian Government from doing everything it possibly can, but I am concerned about where this case has already reached given that she was only arrested in the middle of August.

Patricia Karvelas
Do you see her case as an example of what’s being called hostage diplomacy?

Kevin Rudd
I don’t believe so, but I obviously am constrained by what we don’t know. What I have been concerned about and have been intimately — engaged is the wrong term — but in discussions with various people about is the case of the two Canadians who have now been incarcerated in China for well over a year in what was plainly a retaliatory action by the Chinese government over the incarceration of Madam Meng by the Canadian government at the request of the United States, Madam Meng being the daughter of the owner and chief executive of Huawei, China’s Major 5G telecommunications company. So China has acted in this way already in relation to Canada. I presume that was the basis upon which the Australian government issued its own travel advisory in early July about the risks faced by Australians traveling in China. But on these circumstances concerning Cheng Lei, I’d be speculating rather than providing hard analysis, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas
You say in 35 years of watching you haven’t seen relations this low or deteriorate quite like they have. You’ve talked about responsibility here, who is responsible? Is it ultimately China and the Chinese regime that’s making this relationship untenable?

Kevin Rudd
Well, after the last Australian election, I went and saw Mr Morrison and was very blunt with him, which is that this is a difficult relationship. It was difficult when I was in office, and it’s difficult for him. So I’m not about to pretend that it’s easy managing a relationship with an authoritarian state which is now the world’s second-largest economy and during the course of the next 10 years likely to become the largest, and whose foreign policy is becoming increasingly assertive. There’s a high degree of difficulty here. What I have been critical of in the Australian public media is the fact that every time an issue arises in the Australia-China relationship, I’ve seen a knee-jerk reaction by some in the Australian Government and various ministers to pull out the megaphone within 30 minutes and to take what is a problem, and frankly to play it into Australian domestic politics. So China is difficult to deal with, but I think the current Australian government from time to time has been less-than-skilled in its handling. I’ve got to say however the professionals in DFAT including, you know, Ambassador Graham Fletcher’s handling of this most recent case in Beijing and the Consul-General in Shanghai, has been first class and they should be congratulated for their efforts.

Patricia Karvelas
And how should the Morrison government deal with these issues? Clearly, they’ve been pretty key here too, as have the media companies involved, both the ABC our own Managing Director, but also the Australian Financial Review. How do you think the Morison government should be behaving now?

Kevin Rudd
Look on this question of Australian media access to China, which is important as a public policy objective in its own right, and broader Western media access to China, bearing in mind we’ve had something like 17 American journalists booted out in one form or another over the last year or two. What I would suggest is that the Australian Government and the media companies keep their powder dry for a bit. What China has done in my judgment is unacceptable in the treatment of these two individuals, these two Australian journalists, but there’s a structural interest here which is to try and find an opportunity for the re-establishment of an Australian media presence in China. So until we have greater clarity in terms of the direction of Chinese overall policy on these questions, I mean, my counsel, if I was in government at the time, would be to keep our powder dry. If possible, rebuild this element of the relationship. And if not take whatever actions are then necessary. But it’s far better to be cautious about your response to these questions than to automatically jump into the domestic political trenches and try and score domestic political points in Australia by beating your chest and showing how hairy-chested you are at the same time.

Patricia Karvelas
How will the fact that there are no correspondents from Australian media left in China affect how this incredibly important subject is covered?

Kevin Rudd
Well, Patricia, to state the bleeding obvious it’s not going to help. Both Birtles and the correspondent from the Australian Financial Review, Mike Smith, are first-class journalists and they write well, and so their coverage has been important in terms of the continuing awareness of Australians not just of the Australia-China relationship, but frankly, its fundamentals which is: what’s going on in China domestically? Ultimately, what we see at this end is driven by Chinese domestic politics and the Chinese domestic economy. China’s foreign policy is ultimately a product of those factors. And the more you have effective analysis of those things, the better we are in Australia and around the world in framing our own response to this phenomenally complex country which is now becoming increasingly assertive, requiring an increasingly sophisticated response from governments like Australia.

Patricia Karvelas
Just a couple of other issues. It would be odd for me not to ask is it reasonable for Queensland to continue keeping its border with New South Wales closed given how well authorities there have kept the virus under control?

Kevin Rudd
Look I think Annastacia Palaszcuk has played this pretty well from day one, and she like the other state premiers has been highly attentive to the professional advice the chief medical officer. I mean, pardon me for being old fashioned about these things, Patricia, but I always think you should listen to the experts. We do believe, at least on our side of politics, in something called objective science. And if the experts are saying ‘be cautious about this’ then so you should be. And the other thing to say is, what would I do if I was in her position right now? Well, you could have listened to the leader of the LNP in Queensland, Ms Frecklington and opened the borders to the south many, many months ago, and run all sorts of risks including people coming in from Victoria as well. Annastasia Palaszczuk resisted those demands. I think she’s been proven to be right as a result. So if I was her, and if I was in her shoes today, I think I’d be doing exactly what she’s doing which is listening to what the chief medical officer is advising her to do.

Patricia Karvelas
Just finally, I spoke to Noel Pearson a little while ago about of course this issue around Rio Tinto and that conduct around the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves. And of course, you know, you as prime minister delivered the the apology and has I know a long interest in Indigenous affairs. What’s your assessment of the way the company has behaved here? And what is the sort of lasting legacy here that you’re concerned about?

Kevin Rudd
For Rio Tinto — which will soon be known in Australia as Rio TNT, I think — for Rio Tinto it has blown up its own reputation as anything approximating a responsible corporate citizen in Australia. What we know already from the parliamentary inquiry is that far from this being some sort of shock and surprise or accident, that in fact, senior management within Rio Tinto were already taking legal advice and PR advice about how to handle a reaction once the detonation occurred. So for the company, they should be hauled over the coals. If there’s a fining regime in place, it should be deployed. The executives responsible for this decision should no longer be executives. If I was a shareholder of Rio Tinto, this is just appalling for Indigenous people. Look, you know, something as old as 40,000 years. This is as old as the ancient caves of Altamira and Lascaux in in Europe. And to simply allow someone to walk in with a stick of jelly and bang, you’re gone? I mean, this will be devastating for the Indigenous people who in this generation are responsible for the custodianship of the land which means these ancient sites. So for our Indigenous brothers and sisters, this has been an appalling development. For the company, I think their reputation now is mud.

Patricia Karvelas
Kevin Rudd, many thanks for joining us this afternoon.

Kevin Rudd
Good to be on the program.