Police Accused of Repressing Protesters as Chinese Premier Visits Australia

Both pro- and anti-China demonstrators gathered outside Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra on Monday as Chinese Premier Li Qiang paid a visit.

Some anti-China protesters said they were treated roughly by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Another scandal erupted when Chinese officials traveling with Li physically blocked an Australian journalist once imprisoned by China from appearing on camera with Li.

The premier is second in power only to China’s dictator Xi Jinping. Li was the first Chinese premier to visit Australia in seven years. He arrived on Saturday and made an appearance at the Adelaide Zoo on Monday, where he promised a new pair of giant pandas would arrive soon. China often uses “panda diplomacy” to either express its anger or soothe hurt feelings by withdrawing or promising pandas to other countries.

Adelaide, the state capital of South Australia, is a major exporter of wine to China. China brought that $800 million trade to a halt in 2020 with heavy tariffs — some of them over 200 percent — along with effective bans on other Australian products like lobster, beef, coal, and lumber.

China imposed these tariffs because the Australian government insisted on asking tough questions about the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus. Tensions also grew over Chinese interference in Australian politics, Australia excluding China’s telecom behemoth Huawei from its 5G networks, and Australia forging closer strategic relationships with the U.S., UK, and Japan.

China lifted the tariffs in March as relations between the two countries thawed, while Australia withdrew complaints it had lodged with the World Trade Organization (WTO). China’s embargo on Australian lobster remains in effect, but Australian Trade Minister Don Farrell predicted it would be lifted after Li’s goodwill visit.

“We will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must and we will engage in our national interest,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong declared as she met with Li at the Adelaide Zoo.

The zoo has long been home to two giant pandas named Wang Wang and Fu Ni. The pandas are due to return to China in November, but Li announced on Sunday that China would “soon provide another pair of pandas that are equally beautiful, lively, cute and younger.”

“It’s good for the economy, it’s good for South Australian jobs, it’s good for tourism, and it is a signal of goodwill, and we thank you,” Wong responded.

Less enthusiastic about Li’s panda diplomacy were the hundreds of human rights protesters gathered outside the zoo. Some carried signs urging Australia to resist Li’s “panda propaganda.”

Former Hong Kong parliamentarian Ted Hui, who fled to Australia in 2021 after the Beijing-controlled government tried to throw him jail for political activism, said Li’s panda pandering was nothing but a cynical gambit to distract from China’s human rights abuses.

“It’s a public relations move by the Chinese regime and, disappointingly, the Australian government is reciprocating by welcoming him and shaking hands,” Hui said.

“The fact that Tibetans are being tortured in Chinese prisons for criticising the Chinese occupation of Tibet while the prime minister and foreign minister discuss trade and pandas is an affront to Tibetans’ unflinching resistance to Chinese occupation, and the Tibetan struggle for freedom,” said Zoe Bedford of the Australian Tibetan Council.

Li left Adelaide on Sunday and headed for Canberra where Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised he would take tough stances on topics like Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and China jailing Australian citizens and dual nationals for their pro-democracy activism.

Albanese’s government was still at pains to make Li feel welcome, but an even larger crowd of human rights activists had other ideas, hoisting banners to protest the oppression of Tibet, the Uyghur genocide, tyranny in Hong Kong, and other abuses by the Chinese Communist regime.

Some human rights activists claimed China paid its supporters to swarm the grounds of Parliament House and block out their own demonstrations. The pro-China forces came suspiciously well-equipped with gigantic Australian, Chinese Communist, and hybrid flags they could unfurl to block the demonstrators from view.

A few scuffles broke out between the competing groups of demonstrators. Human rights activists also said the Australian Federal Police used inappropriate and unnecessary force against them.

Amnesty International (AI) said on Monday it was concerned about the intimidating and thuggish behavior by counter-protesters and criticized the AFP for failing to keep the two groups safely separated.

Human rights activist Vicky Xu said she was dragged away by AFP officers after she tried to protect a friend who was planning to burn a Chinese Communist Party flag.

“I saw that the police were trying to forcefully take the flag away from him, so I intervened and tried to understand what was happening. Next thing I knew I was being shoved by the police,” said Xu.

Another controversy arose when Chinese officials apparently closed ranks to physically block journalist Cheng Lei from appearing on camera while Li and Albanese talked to the press.

Cheng, a Chinese-born Australian citizen who now works for Sky News Australia, was employed as a business reporter by China’s state-run CGTN when she was arrested in 2020 for “illegally supplying state secrets overseas.” She was jailed after a secret trial and held until last October, adding to the tensions between China and Australia.

Cheng said Chinese officials “went to great lengths to block me from the cameras” during the Li-Albanese press conference. On the other hand, she praised Australian officials who “behaved courteously and firmly” by standing beside her during the incident.

Albanese looked visibly uncomfortable when reporters asked him about how Cheng was treated, dodging questions and claiming he did not see the Chinese officials blocking her from the cameras.

“I’m not aware of the issues and it is important that people be allowed to participate fully and that is what should happen in this building or anywhere else in Australia,” Albanese said. 

Albanese insisted that he asked Li about the case of another imprisoned Chinese-Australian journalist, Yang Hengjun, during their meeting.

Yang, 58, was arrested while visiting Guangzhou, China, in January 2019 and has been held ever since, with a secret trial supposedly conducted in 2021. In February 2024, a Chinese court handed down a suspended death sentence that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life. Yang says he has been tortured and forced to make concessions during his captivity.

Human rights activists around the world denounced Yang’s arrest and secret trial as an “outrageous” violation of human rights. The Albanese government summoned China’s ambassador to protest Yang’s suspended death sentence in February and promised to file complaints in the “strongest terms,” but nothing seems to have come from those complaints.

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