Beijing and Canberra should reset their relations following the election of a Labor government, China’s envoy to Australia said in a rare public speech that was interrupted repeatedly by human rights protesters.
Xiao Qian, who was appointed China’s ambassador in January, was questioned on the fraying of ties between two countries, trade tariffs and the plight of Australian citizens detained in China after addressing an audience at the University of Technology Sydney on Friday.
The ambassador said the election of Anthony Albanese’s government provided an “opportunity for a possible improvement for bilateral relations” following a tense period between the Asia-Pacific countries.
But protesters condemned the university for hosting Xiao and interrupted his reception on eight separate occasions to express anger and dismay over the Chinese government’s policies towards Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.
One protester dressed in a Chinese Red Guard uniform was refused entry while other demonstrators were removed from the hall after holding up signs or shouting at Xiao.
Drew Pavlou, an anti-Chinese Communist party activist, said Xiao — whose speech was carried by national broadcaster ABC — had been given a platform to defend Beijing’s actions.
“This was basically a whitewashing exercise,” Pavlou told the Financial Times. “I struggle to understand why they are not treated as pariahs. You would never ever expect the Russian ambassador to have the red carpet rolled out like this.”
Tensions between the countries rose in recent years after Australia banned the use of Huawei and ZTE equipment in 5G networks and former prime minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, triggering a furious reaction from Beijing.
Xiao described the Huawei ban as “the first shot that damaged our normal relations”.
China responded by imposing punitive tariffs on Australian imports including wine and barley and slapping a ban on Australian coal. The Chinese navy has also been accused of acting aggressively towards Australian aircraft in the South China Sea and close to the Australian coast.
Since his election, Albanese has called on Beijing to end the tariffs and has criticised China’s military actions. His government has also moved to improve relations with Pacific Island nations to counter the growing influence of China in the region.
In a sign of a diplomatic thaw, Australian defence minister Richard Marles met his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Singapore this month.
China remains Australia’s largest trading partner and Xiao said that the tariffs were “an issue of complexity”.
Michael Fullilove, head of the Lowy Institute think-tank, said that Albanese needed to remain “strong on China” even as the government developed a more balanced foreign policy than the “one-dimensional” approach adopted by Morrison.
“We should co-operate with China when we can, disagree when we must and always stand our ground,” he said.
Fullilove added that a Lowy Institute poll due to be published this month showed that the number of Australians who trusted China had dropped to 12 per cent this year from 16 per cent last year, and 52 per cent four years ago.