National Security

Shadow home affairs minister James Paterson claims 'Chinese delegation will be laughing' over treatment of Cheng Lei

June 18, 2024

Tuesday 18 June 2024
Max Melzer

Shadow home affairs minister James Paterson has claimed the delegation of visiting Chinese Premier Li Qiang will be "laughing" at Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's defence of Sky News Australia journalist Cheng Lei.

Ms Lei, who spent almost three years detained in Beijing on manufactured charges of espionage, was body blocked by Chinese diplomats on Monday while she attempted to report on a joint press conference between Mr Albanese and Premier Li.

The heavy-handed attempt to sideline the journalist sparked widespread criticism from media, the opposition and the Greens, who all labelled the behaviour of the Chinese diplomats unacceptable.

However, when asked about the incident later, the Prime Minister claimed he had not been "aware" of the attempted blocking, adding only that "people be allowed to participate fully" in democratic processes.

Speaking to Sky News Australia on Monday evening, Senator Paterson rejected that explanation, before claiming Premier Li's delegation would have been amused by the Prime Minister's "disappointing" defence of Australian journalists.

"I don't believe the Prime Minister, unless every one of his 11 media advisers are guilty of the most serious professional malpractice of allowing the Prime Minister to go and face a press gallery press pack, including Cheng Lei, and didn't bother to tell him about the serious incident involving Cheng Lei only an hour earlier," he said.

"Frankly, I'm worried that the Chinese delegation will be laughing tonight because not only did they get away with it, but they didn't even cop the mildest rhetorical rebuke from the Prime Minister of Australia after they engaged in body blocking and intimidation of an Australian journalist.

"This really is a very disappointing episode.

"The Prime Minister has one last opportunity to clear this up tomorrow. He should seek an explanation from the Premier for the behaviour of his delegation and an apology, and he should front up the press tomorrow and answer questions about it."

This is not the first time Senator Paterson has called on Mr Albanese to ask for an apology from Chinese officials, with the shadow home affairs minister having previously echoed demands the Prime Minister personally confront Chinese President Xi Jinping over acts of aggression toward Australia's military.

The Senator on Monday argued the recent thawing of relations between Canberra and Beijing had come at a cost, with the government offering unnecessary "concessions" to China in return for stabilising ties.

China has removed several trade restrictions on barley, wine and other products since the Albanese government came to office, with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet arguing the easing of sanctions was down to deliberate and thoughtful diplomatic talks.

However, Senator Paterson suggested the government had benefitted from Chinese officials seeking an "off-ramp," due to the restrictions' lack of impact on Australia's economy, before claiming the Prime Minister was also failing to call out Beijing's "serious" foreign interference campaigns.

"The Chinese government is unwinding the economic coercion campaign they launched against Australia because it failed, and they were always going to unwind it against Australia, because it had done them great damage in the region and around the world," he argued.

"The change of government was just a plausible off-ramp for the Chinese government, a face saving way of unwinding these things.

"It didn't require any concessions from Australia, but I think there have been concessions and particularly that's been rhetorical.

"This government has virtually ceased all public criticism of China's serious domestic human rights abuses, all public criticism of their wrongful conduct in the South China Sea, and all public criticism of their foreign interference, espionage and cyber attacks on our country, which are occurring on a daily basis."

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