China Denies Threatening Australia Over COVID-19 Inquiry

Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye was interviewed by Australian Financial Review political correspondent Andrew Tillet on 26th April 2020.
Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye was interviewed by Australian Financial Review political correspondent Andrew Tillet on April 26, 2020.

Published Apr 28, 2020 8:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

China has denied that remarks made by its ambassador to Australia were threats of economic coercion following Australia's call for an international inquiry into the source and spread of the coronavirus.

Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, was reported to say that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian beef, wine, tourism and universities in response to Australia's support for an inquiry. 

The issue was followed up by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading Secretary Frances Adamson. After a phone call with Adamson, the Chinese Embassy in Australia released a statement saying: “Secretary Adamson tried her best to defend Australia's proposal about the independent review, saying the proposal neither has political motive nor targets China. 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 Australia-China relationship.” 

The problem arose after Cheng gave an interview with the Australia Financial Review, saying the call for an inquiry was “a kind of pandering to the assertions that were made by some forces in Washington over a certain period of time. Some guys are attempting to blame China for their own problems and deflect the attention. The proposition is obviously teaming up with those forces in Washington to launch a political campaign against China. Just look at the remarks of some of the politicians and also the inflammatory comments in the media. People with common sense can easily come to the conclusion which country this initiative or this idea is targeting at.”

Speaking on the origins of the virus, he said: “Some politicians here claim that the virus originated in Wuhan, China, which is not the case. The fact that the epidemic first broke out in China, and the first cases were reported, this does not mean the source of the virus is in China. The source of the virus is a complex and serious scientific issue that should be dealt with or addressed by professionals, by scientists, by medical experts. Pending any clear findings about the whereabouts of the virus, it's inappropriate for non-professionals to jump to conclusions.”

Regarding retaliation against Australia, he said: “The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what you are doing now. In the long term, for example, I think if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think why we should go to such a country while it's not so friendly to China. The tourists may have second thoughts. Maybe the parents of the students would also think whether this place, which they find is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to. So it's up to the public, the people to decide. And also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef. Why couldn't we do it differently?”

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has now responded to the issue in a radio interview, saying: “In no way is the Australian Government going to change our public policy positions on matters of public health or national security or other matters in Australia's national interest, in response to any intimation of economic coercion or the like from other countries or governments.”

He said Australian resources and energy have helped to fuel much of China's manufacturing and construction activity and economic growth and that China will continue to need these resources in the future. Additionally: “Our premium high quality and safe food provides quality to Chinese consumers in a growing middle class that they want and demand.” 

He said that Australia will continue to do its best not to seek to escalate or elevate difficulties with China, but the nation is not going to trade away its principle decisions in relation to good public health policy and practice.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have died. Hundreds of millions have probably lost their jobs. Billions of people have suffered disruption to their lives, and it's not asking much that there be a transparent investigation to ensure that the world learns from this and that we are better placed to prevent the impacts of such pandemics in the future,” said Birmingham.