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China and Australia brawl over call for independent investigation of COVID-19 origins

Simon Birmingham celebrating Australia-China ties

Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism & Investment Simon Birmingham celebrating Australia-China ties, Beijing August 2019 – Courtesy DFAT Flickr account (CC BY 2.0)

The Australian government has triggered a major clash with Beijing by questioning the origin of COVID-19 — Prime Minister Scott Morrison and some of his senior cabinet members have publicly called for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus.

Although it has been seen by some as a thinly disguised attack on China, there has been considerable support down under. Morrison has called on Australia's allies to reform the World Health Organization and conduct an investigation of the coronavirus source.

Australia already faced a bleak future in its economic relations with China as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The shutdown of travel in early March was an early cause of strain between the countries. The lack of Australian government support for temporary visa holders such as international students and graduates has threatened the university sector.

The Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye’s response was swift. He suggested that Chinese consumers and international students boycott Australian goods and services — especially the trade, tourism and education sectors, which have been vital to Australia's prosperity in recent decades.

A political and diplomatic brawl followed, with the Chinese embassy releasing alleged details of a conversation with Frances Adamson, the head of Australia’s Foreign Affairs and Trade department (DFAT). The release was contentious for two reasons. It was meant to show that the Australian government was backing off. It also breached customary diplomatic protocols.

The Chinese embassy claimed that:

She also admitted it is not the time to commence the review now and Australia has no details of the proposal. She further said that Australia does not want the matter to have any impact on the Australia-China relationship.

DFAT neither confirmed nor denied the claim:

The department will not respond by itself breaching the long standing diplomatic courtesies and professional practices to which it will continue to adhere.

This tweet was a typical reaction:

The editor of Chinese state media Global Times, Hu Xijin, added fuel to the controversy on Chinese social media platform Weibo:

Australia is always there, making trouble. It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.

This brought an angry response from many Australians online:

This tweet was mild compared with some social media posts that displayed open racism and sinophobia [fear or dislike of China]. This advanced Twitter search covers the immediate period after Hu Xijin’s comments were publicised.

In contrast, others questioned the benefits of Australia's close ties with the United States government:

Retired Australian diplomat Bruce Haig called for diplomacy rather than chest-thumping from Australian politicians:

In terms of our relationship with China and America, the boat must be balanced if Australia is to get through the uncharted and rough waters ahead.

At The Conversation, Tony Walker argued that Australia’s economic over-dependence on China needs to be reassessed to give itself a few more options to avoid political blackmail:

…it affords the Chinese what Australian policymakers should recognise as an unacceptable level of leverage, even a stranglehold, in times of stress.

…It is hard to escape the conclusion that Australia’s China policy is in the hands of amateurs, or ideologues, or both.

Some of the contentious issues between the two countries were summarised in a Global Voices story in late 2019. However, recent research at the Australian National University questions whether these squabbles have had any long-lasting economic consequences:

Meanwhile, there was some commentary by Chinese citizens on Weibo. Some, including Tong Da Huan, supported an independent inquiry:

病毒起源是科学问题。追踪源头,利于切断传播途径,为后来积累经验。不是又说源于美国吗?一定要调查清楚

The origin of the virus is a scientific question. Tracing the origin can help blocking future outbreaks and inform the science sector on how to combat new viruses. They are saying that the virus comes from the US too? We must have an investigation to clear things up.

There was some mockery in reply to Tong’s post:

人家要调查你老婆是否有出轨,你愿意接受调查吗?

If someone else wants to investigate if your wife is having an affair, would you accept that?

There were also some comments reflecting the Chinese government's position, such as this one referring to the 2019-20 bushfire disasters in Australia:

你们国家是以什么身份来调查中国病毒起源?如果你们可以调查的话,那中国是不是可以对澳洲大火起源发起调查,并因为你们的疏忽造成了全球生态自然环境遭到破坏,有可能会释放北极病毒对你们索赔?

Your country is in no position to investigate the origin of the virus in China. If you are allowed to investigate, China should investigate the fires in Australia and ask it for compensation over negligence that leads to global environmental disaster. [Global warming] may lead to the release of an ancient virus in the Arctic and we could ask for your compensation?

In a bizarre episode, Australian iron ore billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest embarrassed Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt at a joint media conference about the mining magnate's sourcing of 10 million virus test kits. Forrest invited China's Victoria Consul General Long Zhou to the presser — without telling Hunt — and copped a hammering on social media for it. This tweet summed up the responses:

For a timeline of the unfolding story, please see: ‘Chewing gum stuck on the sole of our shoes': the China-Australia war of words.

We may have to wait until after the pandemic to see if this is more than just a war of words.

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