China

China ambassador tells Australian protesters ‘no such thing as absolute freedom’


China’s ambassador to Australia has declared there is “no such thing as absolute freedom” as he defended his country’s human rights record during a speech in Sydney.

Facing repeated interruptions from protesters, Xiao Qian said on Friday there was no reason the two countries should be enemies but they should respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – phrasing that indicates Australia should moderate its comments about Taiwan and Hong Kong.

He described the meeting between China and Australia’s defence ministers in Singapore earlier this month as “very significant”, after the freeze on high-level talks lasted more than two years.

Xiao disclosed that diplomats were in “very intense communication” about the Australian writer Yang Hengjun and the Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who have been detained in China over national security-related accusations.

Addressing a public event at the University of Technology Sydney, Xiao made the case that there was “great potential for cooperation” between the two countries, including on climate change.

But he was interrupted at least four times by protesters, who shouted to “stop the genocide” in Xinjiang and “Tibet remains colonised”. One asked: “How about freedom of speech in China?”

Xiao said it was his pleasure to address the event “although there are different views” and they “should be expressed in a way that is appropriate”.

“Freedom of speech is different from absolute freedom,” Xiao said.

“In this world, there’s no such thing as absolute freedom. Freedom is freedom within rules and laws.”

Xiao said audience members “should respect the law and order” and “keep quiet while we’re speaking”.

The moderator, Prof James Laurenceson, brought up the cases of “UTS alumnus Dr Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei, who, like me, is a University of Queensland graduate”.

Laurenceson, the director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, noted Cheng had been “cut off entirely from communicating with her family, including her two young children”.

Laurenceson asked the ambassador if he could understand why Australians would feel it was “perfectly reasonable for the Australian government, for example, to not entertain an extradition treaty with China, or to warn Australians visiting China about the risk of arbitrary detention”.

“Is there any message of hope that you can give to those Australians who are worried sick right now about their loved ones?”

But Xiao defended the secrecy about the specific accusations against Yang and Cheng and urged Australia to respect China’s legal system. The ambassador said national security-related cases were not necessarily heard in open court in other countries, either.

“For the individual case of the Australians in China, first of all, there’s been very intense communication between China and Australia through the diplomatic channels – in Beijing and in Canberra,” Xiao said.

“These are individual cases and the Chinese relevant authorities are dealing with the cases according to Chinese laws and regulations.”

Xiao played down the risk of arbitrary detention – something that the Australian government specifically warns about in its travel advice for China. As long as people respected the rules and laws, there was “no reason for them to worry” in China.

Laurenceson also raised the concerns of “folks in Australia’s Uyghur diaspora who have been saying for several years that they cannot reach friends and family members caught up in detention facilities in Xinjiang, or they don’t want to contact them because they are worried they are being surveilled”.

Xiao repeated the Chinese government’s argument that “terrorism is a serious challenge” and “necessary measures have been taken” in Xinjiang.

The former Australian Coalition government – with Labor’s backing – expressed “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang”, including large-scale detention and mass surveillance.

Xiao said on Friday there was “no reason that we cannot coexist peacefully when we respect each other”.

He said respect for each other’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity, political system and development mode” were “just some of the basic principles for sound and healthy relationships between two sovereign states”.

“I absolutely support the territorial integrity of Australia,” Xiao said, before offering what he conceded may be an imperfect example. “Tasmania is part of Australia – no one should ever challenge that.”

Xiao said there was “every reason for China and Australia to be friends and partners, rather than adversaries, or even the so-called enemies”.

He said Australia and China should “properly handle differences” so that they did not affect the overall relationship between the countries.

The already frosty relationship worsened in 2020, in part because the Chinese government objected to the Australian government’s early advocacy for an independent international investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

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Beijing then introduced steep tariffs, unofficial bans and higher screening requirements on Australian exports such as barley, beef, wine and coal, prompting Australia to denounce “economic coercion” and to challenge some measures at the World Trade Organization.

Australian ministers were blocked from meeting with their direct Chinese counterparts for more than two years.

Xiao rejected the description of the trade measures as “sanctions” and defended them on technical grounds.

He said Chinese authorities had acting on anti-dumping concerns after complaints from Chinese business groups. He said some Chinese businesses had also become more cautious because they saw trade with Australia was increasingly risky.

“There’s no government official sanction measures, per se,” he said.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, had said on Thursday that Beijing should “remove the sanctions”, arguing such a step would “go a long way towards restoring improved relations”.



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