Pandas, red wine and human rights: Albanese’s tightrope tour of China

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Beijing: Anthony Albanese was pumped. The crowd at the China International Import Expo had swarmed around the Australian prime minister. Between bottles of South Australian red, West Australian lobsters, and Leggo’s tomato paste, Chinese importers had gone from despair to joy within 12 months.

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi,” they yelled after scrambling to get selfies with the leader of a country that until recently had been accused of fuelling a regional arms race, threatened with missile strikes by Chinese state media, and warned it could have its “eyes poked out” by China’s Foreign Ministry.

Albanese received a warm welcome at the China International Import Expo. Credit: Sanghee Liu 

If that was jarring, more was yet to come on a trip that began weeks after the release of Australian journalist Cheng Lei from years of arbitrary detention in Beijing and ended with China’s Premier Li Qiang calling Albanese “a handsome boy” after a video of Albanese walking along Shanghai’s foreshore in a Matildas jersey lit up Chinese social media.

Albanese recalled the same stretch of glistening skyscrapers as he spoke off the cuff to business leaders on Monday afternoon.

“I was just struck by the experience of my first visit here back in 1998,” he told the crowd of 400 Chinese and Australian business executives.

“There was a very tall building that was a very lonely building across the other side of that magnificent river. Just 25 years later, the growth is quite extraordinary.”

The Chinese military guards the Bund in Shanghai on Sunday nightCredit: Sanghee Liu

So too is the growth in power of the Chinese Communist Party. Few others walking on the same Shanghai boardwalk as Albanese would dare talk about how China’s economy was impacting them.

“That’s too political,” said Chen Lijun, a 40-year-old hospital administration worker visiting Shanghai from Chongqing. “I’m a Chinese person and I believe in the Chinese government and the Communist Party. They will always make the best choice.”

Wang Guowei, 58, a sheepskin trader, said the choice for foreign leaders was clear. “If one is friendly to China, then we will be friendly to them,” he said. “If one is not friendly to China, we will not recognise them.”

Like many of their peers, Chen and Wang have grown up under a Chinese government that has overseen a rapid expansion in material wealth since Albanese’s first visit. It has also seen a widespread crackdown on human rights, a purge of liberal ideology, growing nationalism and the fastest escalation in military capability in modern history.

Chen Lijun said she believed in the economic decisions taken by the Chinese Communist Party. Credit: Sanghee Liu

At the centre of it all is the man Albanese met at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday night: Xi Jinping.

In an hour-long meeting, Albanese and Xi bantered about whether Tasmanian devils or pandas were cuter. Xi smiled. Then they discussed whether Australian or New Zealand wine was better.

“We are, I think, moving forward in a really positive way,” Albanese said after the meeting, pointing to $6 billion in trade that has been recovered since China began the process of removing sanctions on Australian exports, including billions of litres in Australian wine.

“We’re not going to be defined by our differences. I’ve said very clearly that one of the things that I’ve brought to this relationship is it isn’t transactional, it isn’t ‘you do this, and I’ll do that.’”

For Australian officials, the past week was a delicate balancing act. After months of planning the message in China was relentlessly optimistic. Few leaders turn up for an official visit and start criticising their host. But for human rights advocates from Hong Kong, to Xinjiang and Tibet, it has left a bitter taste in the mouth.

All smiles at the meeting between Albanese and Xi in Beijing.Credit: AAP

Tsewang Thupten, a former refugee and a spokesperson from Australia’s Tibetan community said spectacle should not come at the cost of tough discussions, and that improved economic ties risk normalising China’s “egregious” human rights abuses.

“Nearly a million Tibetan children have been forcibly separated from their families into China’s colonial boarding schools to assimilate into Chinese society.”

Asked repeatedly for details about the concerns he raised with Xi about human rights and the ongoing detention of Australian father Dr Yang Hengjun, Albanese would only confirm that he had raised them and would not go into specifics.

“His task is to bring home Dr Yang alive,” said Feng Chongyi, Yang’s friend and a Chinese politics expert at the University of Technology, Sydney. “Not to sell red wine and lobsters to China.”

Trade Minister Don Farrell joined the prime minister at China International Import Expo.Credit: AAP

Nick Coyle the former executive director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in China, said it would be unreasonable to expect Albanese to take a strong public stand on human rights while in Beijing.

“You just don’t do it, unfortunately. It would be like a foreign leader coming to Australia and criticising us about the Voice. It won’t do any good,” he said.

Coyle’s partner Cheng Lei was released a month before Albanese’s trip. The Australian journalist’s sentence was backdated to 2 years and 11 months, so she would not be in jail during Albanese’s visit – avoiding a political maze for both Canberra and Beijing that would have been dominated by questions about her arbitrary detention and what it cost to get her out.

“I just don’t take these things personally,” Coyle said.

“Once you are friends again that’s how it’s done, that’s the Chinese way,” said Coyle. “The Chinese and the Americans are the best in the world at making you feel good when it suits them and ignoring you when it doesn’t.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, arrives to a ceremonial welcome at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.Credit: AAP

Chinese and Australian officials were also acutely aware of the timing of the meeting. It came just a week after Albanese met President Joe Biden in Washington, and a day before he flew to the Cook Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum, a region where the US and China are engaged in intensifying strategic competition.

“China is trying to use Australia to try and break democratic alliances,” said Feng.

Albanese said he made clear to Xi that he would be pursuing Australia’s national interest at Forum, and the pair also spoke broadly about the wars in Ukraine and in the Middle East, where China is attempting to solidify its position as an alternative to the United States and the leader of the developing world.

Next to Albanese’s plane on the tarmac at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport on Sunday was an Iranian government plane. It dwarfed the 737s of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Xi also met with Cuba’s Prime Minister Manuel Marrero and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic hours before he met Albanese. The trio were all feted by Chinese state media, but by the end of the official visit, it was clear that Albanese’s was the highest profile as Australian flags flew over Tiananmen.

Chinese officials took every opportunity to get as much time with Albanese as they could. China’s Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, hitched a ride with Albanese on the prime minister’s plane from Shanghai to Beijing. By Tuesday, Chinese state media would be running cartoons of bridges from Shanghai to Sydney.

Wang Yiwei, a professor of foreign affairs at Renmin University and the vice president of the Academy of Xi Jinping Thought in Beijing, said the reason for Beijing’s shift was primarily economic.

“It is a very strong signal about the future relationship,” he said. “Australia also relies on the world market and promotes openness. That’s the reason we improve relations with Australia.”

China’s Premier Li Qiang speaks as Albanese looks on during the import expo.Credit: AAP

China, which is wilting under property debt, an ageing population and a consumer slowdown since three years of COVID-19 isolation, is now seeking a fast injection of foreign funds in non-sensitive sectors to prop up its economy.

Beijing’s treatment of Australia and others damaged its global reputation as it looked to drive domestic growth that has not materialised under its “internal circulation” and “Made in China 2025″ models.

“We will continue to promote opening up,” Li, the Chinese premier, said to the audience of hundreds of global business leaders in Shanghai. “We will expand market access, including all restrictions on foreign investment in the manufacturing sector.”

That Albanese was chosen to speak second after Li at China’s largest import expo was not lost on Australian business representatives in Shanghai. Australia has many of the raw materials, including coal, gas, iron ore and rare earths, to help get it moving again, but few business executives are rushing back in as if it were 2009.

“You have to do your due diligence,” said David Olsson, the president of the Australia-China Business Council.

20-year-old student Yang Li said she hoped China’s economy would remain open. Credit: Sanghee Liu

In Shanghai on Sunday night, 20-year-old student Yang Li marvelled at the shining lights on the Bund.

“We know how bad it was to be isolated,” she said. “That shouldn’t happen any more.”

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