Transcript of Chinese Ambassador CHENG Jingye's interview with Australian Financial Review political correspondent Andrew Tillett
2020/04/27

Chinese Ambassador CHENG Jingye was interviewed by Australian Financial Review political correspondent Andrew Tillet on 26th April 2020. Here is the transcript which has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Andrew Tillett:

What I'd like to start with is a bigger picture question about China economically. It helped the globe through the global financial crisis a decade ago. Is it in the same position to do that with the response to COVID? There's been some commentary that the size of the Chinese stimulus packages isn't as big as it was ten years ago and also that the global demand for Chinese goods may not be there. I was just curious if you had some observations around that to start with.

Ambassador Cheng:

More than ten years ago when we had the GFC, the world especially the major countries, worked together to mitigate the impact of the financial crisis. One of the things they did was the establishment of the G20 and then of course separately, all major countries - major players - took many strong measures in the coordination to combat the crisis, which went well and demonstrated again the importance of working together among countries especially when you have such global crisis. At present, since the outbreak we continue to do this and we are working very hard to try to contain the outbreak in China. At the same time, since we are facing another global crisis, it's very important that we keep up the spirit of the G20 to work together again to meet this challenge which we are facing now.

In that regard, in the early days we've got a lot of support and solidarity from other countries. And now the situation in China is improving. It's important for us to work with others and to give our own support. On the one hand to reciprocate what has been done for China. Now it's our turn to help others. And also since the epidemic is still spreading, it's important that we help each other. No one is safe until everyone is safe. So I think it is important for us to help others. Not long ago there was a video conference of the G20 where the leaders coordinated their responses and their actions, which is important.

It's important also that the outcomes or the consensus that was reached at the conference be implemented. We'll continue to play our role to help others and work together with others as well, including sharing our experiences and giving others the necessary assistance. For example, in the past one or two months, we have dispatched about 14 medical expert teams to 12 countries. At the same time we have held 83 video conferences involving more than 150 countries to exchange views, experiences, and share information on how to deal with this crisis. And also we have provided certain assistance in terms of needed medical equipment and all materials to more than 140 countries or international organizations. Moreover, the Chinese exporters have reached some commercial procurement agreements with about 60 countries so far. Let me give you some figures: from March 1st to April 10th China exported 7.1 billion masks, 20,000 ventilators, 55 million protection suits and also 13 million goggles. That is a brief introduction about what we have done. Of course we will continue to do what we can - that's also our obligation.

Andrew Tillett:

You talk about working together. Australia has called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus and the reform of WHO and obviously the foreign minister has been very vocal about that. Why is it upsetting or making China so angry when we say that?

Ambassador Cheng:

Frankly speaking, the reason why we are opposed to this idea, this proposition from the Australian side, (because) it is politically motivated. It's 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.

Secondly, it's our fear that this idea would disrupt international cooperation which is so urgently needed at the moment. We all know that this pandemic is still rampaging across some parts of the globe. So the most pressing task for the world is to put the life and safety of the people first. That means on the one hand it's important for every country especially those affected to concentrate, to work and to speed up the efforts in their response. On the other hand, it's important for countries to work together, to help each other and to support each other.

Resorting to suspicion, recrimination or division at such a critical time could only undermine the global efforts to fight against this pandemic. We think it is irresponsible.

By the way, 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.

Andrew Tillett:

So where do you think it originated?

Ambassador Cheng:

That's something for the scientists to work out, to make more studies. For the moment there are different conclusions and they are still working on that. It'll take some time, but it's important we've got to know and that comes only from the work, that's something that has to be worked out and to be addressed by professionals.

Andrew Tillett:

But isn't that the idea behind an inquiry to find out where it came from.

Ambassador Cheng:

That's for the scientists, the experts, and the medical experts to do. It is none of the business of the politicians or policymakers. This is not their business. In summary, I think whatever the initiative or proposition is - how you package it or repackage it and what kind of label you have, you said something like a review, or an inquiry or now you said some process, it is in essence political maneuvering. Since it is politically driven, it has got little international support and it will lead to nowhere. This idea, as I see it, is not in your interests. It will not help lift Australia's standing, and it only undermines international cooperation. So we hope, as our ministry's spokesperson said, you should aside ideological bias and discontinue this kind of political game.

Andrew Tillett:

What would be the consequences for Australia if we continue to pursue this?

Ambassador Cheng:

As I said just now it's not in your interests. It won't bring you respect and it's detrimental to global efforts. What we hope is that the Australians will do more things to contribute to the bilateral relations, to help increase mutual trust and better cooperation in our joint efforts to fight against this terrible disease. That's what I hope. Resorting to dancing to the tune of a certain country and hyping up the blame game is dangerous. It's irresponsible as we see it.

And from what I have read and heard, the idea that you have put forward in that regard is ill-received among the Chinese public. Many people feel very frustrated and dismayed by the fact that what you are doing is actually a kind of political move to please a certain country.

Andrew Tillett:

But surely you think there should be - when you've had a disease that's infected 3 million people, left 200,000 people dead and essentially caused the world economy to grow into a halt - surely there needs to be some sort of inquiry to work out how it started, how it was managed and how we can learn things, learn lessons so that this is not repeated in the future, that we're not here in another ten years' time and there's another pandemic and we don't want to see history repeat. Surely China has that same desire.

Ambassador Cheng:

I think at the end of the day each and every country will look back, and I think the WHO is evaluating things that needed to be done. I think the most important thing is that this is done at a certain time without any hidden political agenda or any political purpose. As I said, for the moment, the most pressing task is for every country to work together to concentrate on their fight against the epidemic. The reason why we are opposed to the review is because it's politically motivated. Everyone knows what the purpose is. Secondly, now it's important to focus on the fight against the epidemic. That is the shared views worldwide.

Andrew Tillett:

Could there be economic consequences for Australia if we continue to pursue this?

Ambassador Cheng:

I don't think it would lead to anywhere because so far I don't think this has got any support.

Andrew Tillett:

But if Australia continues to do it, would China stop buying our iron ore and coal and gas and look elsewhere for it?

Ambassador Cheng:

Firstly, I don't think this will make any substantial progress. Secondly, as I said earlier, 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?

Andrew Tillett:

So a boycott of Australia?

Ambassador Cheng:

I don't know. I hope not. But if the mood is bad or even worse, I don't think it's helpful to everyone and as I said, I hope that the Australian side will do more positive things, which would serve the interests of both sides.

Andrew Tillett:

One of the things that's been commented on is Xi Jinping. You talked about the G20 - he's spoken to most of the G20 leaders, but he hasn't spoken to Scott Morrison. What's the reason for that? How should that be interpreted? Is that a sign that Australia's still in the bad books with China as we would say?

Ambassador Cheng:

I think first you'd better ask this question to the officials of the PM's office. It's not something I should answer. I have no idea. But what I do know, there are some communications between the two sides at different levels, including your early support - that solidarity you have demonstrated and later, of course, on our side when you had a big increase of cases. On our side we have also extended our sympathy and solidarity with the Australian side. In general terms, it's important for both sides to work towards the same direction, to meet halfway together and to help build mutual-respect and fruitful bilateral relations.

Andrew Tillett:

One of the things that Australia has done in response is tightened up its foreign investment rules, to make it basically any foreign investor who wants to buy an Australian asset has to get government approval. Have you had any feedback whether that's making it harder for Chinese businesses to get approval in Australia for things at all? Has there been any sort of indication about that?

Ambassador Cheng:

Firstly we have got some references and indications, publicly and privately, that those measures that were taken by the Treasury will be temporary. It's not targeting at any country and the Australian side continues to welcome foreign investment. And I think those indications and remarks are important for the Australian side and for other countries as well. Trade and investment is important for anyone, especially for those who are advocating for free trade and for free flow of capital. We expect the Australian side will continue to provide the necessary, fair and non-discriminatory treatment to Chinese companies who have an interest to invest here in accordance with our bilateral free trade agreement.

Andrew Tillett:

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that China - I'm not sure if you're aware of this story - that China had approached a number of countries about easing border controls for business travellers, having people tested before they depart so they would not have to go into quarantine when they get to their destination. Is that something you've discussed with the Australian government? Are you aware of that?

Ambassador Cheng:

It is my understanding that China is working with a few neighboring countries, for example the ROK, to try to establish a kind of fast track arrangement for urgent and essential travel including business and technical purposes. The purpose of which I think is to try to stabilize the important economic and trade cooperation between China and its close neighbors and also to help guarantee the industry and supply chains in good operation. I don't know how the progress is - how it's going. But I understand they are working on that, but I haven't heard any discussions with the Australian side. That's not something I know about. I understand, for the moment, there are some discussions with our close neighbors.

Andrew Tillett:

Is it something you'd like to see?

Ambassador Cheng:

Well, I haven't heard the Australian side has made the request. That's what I know.

Andrew Tillett:

I guess connected to that was one of the issues we had very early on about the Chinese students trying to come and study here being caught out by the travel bans. Now that we have, perhaps, a better idea of the pandemic and can control it in a way, would you like to perhaps see the Australian government allow Chinese students to come here but subject to them doing maybe 14 days quarantine in a hotel or something like that? Is that something that you've discussed with the government or would like to see the government do?

Ambassador Cheng:

We actually had some discussions, not at this time but more than one month earlier. The idea had been discussed. And also I think that was the idea from many universities. As now you have imposed a total ban, I also don't know how this thing could happen in light of this total ban. I have no idea how long it's going to last. So I don't know how this would evolve, but of course, the embassy here, especially our education section, is always mindful of the interests of the Chinese students. We hope to see that will be sorted out in the near future.

Andrew Tillett:

Even if they could come here, they actually can't go to classes because all the universities have scaled right back. You talked about there's no proof that the virus originated in a wet market. There is concern about the cross contamination between wildlife and food sold for human consumption. Is China looking to reform those wet markets?

Ambassador Cheng:

Firstly, recently there were a lot of narratives or discussions or even especially unfounded reports about the so-called wet markets, which actually were not fact-based. We have already put some information on the website of the embassy. Here I just want to follow up on that issue.

There is no such thing, to the best of my knowledge, no such wildlife wet market in China. As a matter of fact, the so-called wet market is a foreign notion for us. In China, what we actually have is what is called farmers' markets or seafood markets which you also have here in this country. In those farmers' market or seafood markets, they sell meat, fish, vegetables, seafood or some other fresh produces and a few of them also sell live poultry. But generally speaking, these kinds of markets – farmers' markets or seafood markets - do not only exist in China but also exist in some South East Asian countries and even in a lot of developing countries. They are part and parcel of people's daily life. So there is no prohibition on opening or operation of such kind of markets in international law.

Of course China's laws and regulations have banned any illegal hunting, trading, transportation or consumption of wildlife. And in China, the farmers' markets or those markets which sell live poultry are not places for selling any wildlife or wild animals. Selling those kinds of wild animals in those markets are prohibited by law. If there are any violations they will be cracked down and will be punished once they are detected by the authorities.

Another point I want to make is that after the outbreak of the epidemic, relevant Chinese authorities especially local government have further strengthened regulations on these markets and they have adopted more strict quarantine and testing to ensure that all measures concerning prevention and control of zoonotic diseases will be well implemented.

By the way, I don't know whether you know it or not - the Chinese seafood markets remain a core part and an important part for the Australian supply chain, especially for agricultural products. I was told that 95% of Western rock lobsters were delivered into those markets and then to be redistributed to other parts of China. And many other shell and fin fish industries in Australia equally rely on these markets.

Andrew Tillett:

So if we push too hard wanting to shut them down, it could be ...

Ambassador Cheng:

I have no idea because there is no such regulation or law internationally prohibiting this kind of normal farmers' markets or seafood markets. That's just normal. Many countries have that.

Andrew Tillett:

Just going back to the inquiry issue, I just want to get it clear in my head. You're obviously concerned about it - your phrase - the political maneuverings behind it. Does that mean that China is opposed to any international inquiry at all? Is there any sort of format of an inquiry that you would accept given the scale of this - the damage that's been done by the pandemic?

Ambassador Cheng:

I think I have made it clear to the proposal, the proposition that the Australian government has put forward that it's politically driven. And there is a time when every country will look back to see how we could be better equipped to respond to this kind of epidemic in the future. As a matter of fact, it seems to me at least every country is not fully prepared for such a kind of epidemic which is so contagious, which has spread so fast and which is so difficult to contain.Of course nobody or no country is perfect in dealing with this kind of large scale and serious epidemic. So it is important for each and every country to do their job in a certain time, but that should not be politically driven. If it's politically driven, you cannot come out for a right conclusion or an objective conclusion.

Andrew Tillett:

So why do you think we're driving it politically because we've caused a lot of economic damage through this? Why do you think Australia is dancing to the US tune?

Ambassador Cheng:

Recently there was a lot of political bashing on China. They, I mean some Americans, try to shift the blame and try to blame China for their own problems. Everyone knows that's the proposal that you have come up with - it's just against this background. And just look at the remarks of your politicians and look at the comments in your media. Obviously everyone could know and easily find which country you are targeting. This is political. As we said, it's political maneuvering. It's a political game. It's a blame game. So in this sense this has laid bare the major flaw of the idea.

Andrew Tillett:

But our prime minister says that we would do this if the disease had broken out anywhere else. It doesn't have to be, it just happened to be China in this case.

Ambassador Cheng:

As I said, however that idea is packaged and repackaged, whatever name or label you would have on it, in essence it is a political maneuver. Just look at the comments that you made before you made the proposal. The Minister said that you had great concern about China's transparency at a high point and said China should be more transparent. It's easy for you to see. It's not difficult for you to see the hidden agenda behind this idea.

Andrew Tillett:

The risk you mentioned earlier about Australia with students, tourists, the wine and beef, does that apply though to the high value commodities?

Ambassador Cheng:

I didn't say or imply anything. I was just thinking if the ordinary people see that you are playing a blame game in teaming up with some forces in Washington or you're trying to please them, it would have a very bad impression on the public and on the ordinary people. I was told by my colleagues some of the comments on the social media. You could see how angry and how disappointed they are.

Andrew Tillett:

What's your assessment of the current state between Australia and China at the moment?

Ambassador Cheng:

It's an important relationship.

Andrew Tillett:

It's obviously been very bad over the last few years. Is this a new low point? Would you characterize it as that?

Ambassador Cheng:

It's important we work together to try to sort out the difficult things and to look at each other in a rational and objective way and not through a kind of ideological lens or from a cold war mindset.

Andrew Tillett:

Just a couple of things before we go - a sort of unrelated thing. Obviously we had an Australian war ship which was confirmed to participate in naval exercises with the US Navy in the South China Sea last week. What's your view on that? Is that an unwelcome development?

Ambassador Cheng:

I think it's important for countries outside the region to do things that would contribute to the stability and also the tranquility of the region instead of any provocative actions. China has been working with the regional countries and trying to sort out some of the differences that we have in a constructive way and I think that deserves support from other countries.

Andrew Tillett:

Just finally, Dr Yang Hengjun obviously a consular case that's been of great concern for many months here in Australia. Where is that case up to and when do you expect him to be charged?

Ambassador Cheng:

I've talked about this issue on many different occasions. I don't have much to add. Of course it will move on in accordance with the Chinese law, the legal process and the judicial process. I think that relevant judicial authorities will deal with the case in accordance with Chinese laws.

Andrew Tillett:

Do you have any indication when he will be charged?

Ambassador Cheng:

Well that's up to the prosecution authority. I have no idea. That's their business.

Andrew Tillett:

Okay. Well I think that's 40 minutes up. Thank you Ambassador.

Ambassador Cheng:

Thank you.

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