It was scheduled to take place at the same time the following day, but the embassy official put it forward “as planned.”
I arrived about 10 minutes early. The hotel was quiet. There was no sign of the embassy official. A group of older ladies sat in the middle of the bar area, casually enjoying tea. I looked at the entrances, waiting for the clock to pass 3 in the afternoon.
At around 3:05 p.m., two people entered: a woman with a blue bag in her hand and a man dressed in a suit carrying a small bag. They approached me.
The woman saluted and smiled. The man said nothing.
We exchanged courtesies in Mandarin, before I selected a table near the bar, in full view of everyone.
I met the woman. He had seen her in this same place 18 months before. I had never seen the man before.
I introduced myself, with my name.
The answer – “Hello”. That was it.
I turned to the woman with a puzzled expression.
She replied “This is my colleague”.
That was it. The man with no name presented the bag to me; Inside were two guides on China travel. He said nothing.
No reaction, still no name. And I wondered, given the current climate, what his role was. Communist Party official? To spy?
The bag was placed on the ground.
After brief courtesies, I asked a simple question.
“How does China view the relationship with Australia?”
The woman, normally cautious in her way of speaking and acting, unzipped her blue purse and pulled out a piece of paper folded in four.
I asked what the purpose of this document was.
“I’m giving it to you because I want it to be clear,” he said. “This is what worries China.”
He unfolded the paper and slid it across the table.
I was there. List of grievances from China. The 14 black marks that Beijing had checked against Canberra were the reasons for bad blood between the two capitals.
Everything from banning Huawei from deploying the 5G network, Australia calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, Australia’s stance on the South China Sea, talking about human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong described as “interference without sense “and” leading the crusade against China “to foreign relations laws designed to give the federal government a veto power over state agreements with foreign governments, which the document claimed were intended to torpedo Victorian involvement in B&R ( the Belt and Road of China) “.
There was also criticism of Australian media reports on China, which Beijing saw as “poisoning the atmosphere of bilateral relations.”
“Can I keep this?” I asked.
“Of course, it’s yours,” replied the embassy official.
“The environment (between Beijing and Canberra) is very bad,” he said.
I inquired about the content of the list and whether the trade issues of Australian lobster, beef, wine, cotton, barley and timber had anything to do with the content of this list.
“Everything is linked,” he said.
“The economic and diplomatic situation from China’s point of view is tied to the geopolitical atmosphere.”
“How does China feel?” I asked.
“China is angry. If it makes China the enemy, China will be the enemy,” he said.
This was the strongest public indication from any Chinese embassy official of how toxic the relationship had become and what China wanted done about it.
I asked again about the intent of this document.
Did Beijing want the Australian government to make changes to its own laws designed to protect its democracy? Would that help if there was a change in attitude on certain issues like the foreign interference laws or the foreign relations bill?
If Huawei were allowed to be a part of the 5G rollout, would the ministers in Beijing and Canberra talk to each other?
“Yes, that would lead to a better atmosphere,” he said.
In Beijing’s eyes, all the Australian government had to do to improve the relationship was renounce our sovereignty. It was simple, but impossible and completely ridiculous.
While my eyes roamed the document, the official repeated: “the atmosphere was very bad.”
An “atmosphere” in which China blocks Australian products and ignores calls from Australian ministers.
The stranger in the suit, who had handed me the bag, was silent.
I had opened my notebook and was scribbling notes. Page after page, as he asked them to make the list.
The stranger finally speaks.
“Do you think the virus started in China?” They ask me.
I said I knew China claimed it started in Italy, but how did they get there? What was your test?
“We believe in science. There are two types of DNA: one European and one Asian.”
They criticized the term Wuhan virus and again said they were “waiting for science” – from their own scientists, not from an international delegation.
It was clear that Australia’s unremarkable call for an investigation into the origins of a virus that spread around the world, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying economies had sparked a visceral reaction from the Chinese government.
The woman repeated Beijing’s memory phrase that Canberra was following America’s lead in terms of language and politics. Not just about the coronavirus but everything.
I asked why the ministers in Beijing were not getting calls from the Australian ministers.
The initial response was “they haven’t done anything.”
I noted that the Australian government says yes, and on multiple occasions.
“Well, why would they? (China’s ministers accept or return the call).”
The woman again pointed out what she considered a “bad environment.”
“All that would happen is that we would talk about everything that’s on this list. That’s not conducive to a good atmosphere,” he said looking between his “colleague” and me.
I asked where the diplomatic talks were. Who was talking to whom in Beijing?
“It is being treated at the work level,” he said.
It was becoming very clear.
After all the coverage on trade disputes that were only related to labeling issues or insect infestation, Beijing was punishing Canberra for a long list of new and old perceived sins of commission and omission.
The embassy official warned that if the Morrison government followed through with foreign relations laws, China was ready to speak on the world stage about “Australia’s treatment of indigenous Australians and the elderly.”
Time passed and the clock ticked closer and closer to the time when Scott Morrison would sign the agreement with the prime minister of Japan for further military cooperation, particularly in the highly disputed South China Sea, and Beijing was preparing to fire. a shot across the bow with his take on the deal.
Hours after the document was released to 9News, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused Australia of “provocative and confrontational actions”, demanding that Australia “correct its mistakes”.
When 9News published the story revealing the document and its contents, the reaction was swift.
The next morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to the Today Show with a strong defense of Australian values and a dismay that Beijing would play the game this way.
“Australia will always be, we will be ourselves,” he said.
Then the White House intervened.
The National Security Council tweeted:
“Beijing is upset that Australia has taken steps to expose and thwart Chinese espionage and to protect Australian sovereignty. It is heartening to see a growing number of countries following Canberra’s lead in taking such steps, which Beijing kindly presents here” – retweeting the story of the dossier revealed by 9News.
Could it be Beijing’s clumsy move to reveal everything, was it exactly what Western governments wanted?
The Prime Minister now had a clear opportunity to say to the Australian people: “What are you willing to give up?” There was a way this had benefited him.
“We will establish our own laws and our own rules in accordance with our national interest. Not at the urging of any other nation,” Morrison told Today.
“I tell you one thing that we will not do, we will not compromise the fact that we will establish what our foreign investment laws are or how we build our 5G telecommunications networks or how we handle our interference protection systems. The way Australia manages our country. We won’t change any of that. “
The White House National Security Council controlled China’s strategy: “Its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy is failing; more and more nations around the world are supporting Australia.”
Releasing with the tweet a YouTube video titled “The funniest wolf howls are lazy”
The Beijing dossier spill was turning upside down.
But the private meeting with me had to have been authorized at the highest level and coordinated with the comments of the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The public statement provided images and quotes to accompany the more detailed list of lawsuits.
Australia would respond to the dossier and the US would be lured.
The document had been delivered.
The stranger with the book bag was still that.
I went out with my notebook and the document.
Australia was about to find out what the problem was and the world was going to know how China was now playing a very public game of coercion.