‘Bad look’ as China officials block Aussie journo

Cheng Lei at Monday's signing ceremony

Source: Sky News Australia

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has refused to comment on a bizarre incident involving Australian journalist Cheng Lei during Monday’s high-profile China visit to Canberra.

Lei has described it as “a bad look” after Chinese officials appeared to try to block her from camera view during a signing ceremony at Parliament House with Chinese Premier Li Qiang.

Lei was released from a Chinese prison less than a year ago after nearly three years in detention. She now works for Sky News Australia and was sitting with other Australian journalists in the media section in the main committee room on Monday.

Footage shows a Chinese embassy official apparently standing in front of her and ignoring repeated requests to move. Eventually an Australian official says: “You’re standing in front of my Australian colleague – you must move.”

Lei and another journalist then swap seats, at which point another Chinese official appears to move closer to her. The woman’s path was blocked by an Australian official.

“I’m only guessing this is to prevent me from saying something or doing something that they think would be a bad look, but that in itself was a bad look,” Lei told Sky News afterwards.

Asked later if the scenes were appropriate, Albanese refused to weigh in.

“I didn’t see it, but I saw Cheng Lei and we smiled at each other during … the event,” he said.

“I’m not aware of the issues and it is important that people be allowed to participate fully and that is what should happen in this building or anywhere else in Australia.”

Another view of Monday's confrontation

Source: X/Matthew Knott

Earlier, Albanese praised the “renewed and revitalised” relationship with Beijing as Li’s visit continues.

Li arrived in Canberra on Monday for an annual leaders’ meeting with Albanese and cabinet members including Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, Trade Minister Don Farrell and Resources Minister Madeleine King.

Emerging from the high-stakes discussions, Albanese said such talks were crucial for the bilateral relationship.

“My government has put dialogue at the centre of Australia’s relationship with China, because they’re always most effective when we deal directly with each other,” he said.

“It is crucial for us to engage with each other, given how close we are geographically, how interconnected we are economically, and the deep and enduring bonds between our people.

“Australia and China have renewed and revitalised our engagement.”

Meanwhile, Li – Beijing’s second-most powerful leader – said Australia’s relationship with China was on a path of “steady improvement”.

Li said Albanese’s trip to China last November – followed by his own visit – showed both countries attached “great importance” to their relationship.

“This relationship is on the right track of steady improvement,” he said.

“Prime Minister Albanese and I have had a candid, in-depth and fruitful discussion that has reached a lot of common consensus.”

The politicians signed four memoranda of understanding on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, climate change, education and research, strategic economic dialogue, and cultural co-operation.

Representatives of both nations then attended a state lunch with business and community leaders where they were served wine, wagyu beef and, most notably, Australian rock lobster – which remains subject to trade restrictions.

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt noted there had been “enormous progress” in restoring trade with China in recent months, with sanctions on coal, wine and barley easing.

The opposition, including Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, has urged the government to stand up for itself when addressing thornier issues like foreign interference and broader geopolitical issues.

“We have got to stand up for ourselves, because otherwise, people say you’re weak, and if you’re weak, you get walked over,” Joyce told Seven’s Sunrise.

Notably, Joyce took aim at Li’s offer of a “panda swap”. At Adelaide Zoo on the weekend, Li said two new giant pandas would replace Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who “will return to China before the end of the year”.

“But what I want to tell you is that we will provide a new pair of beautiful, lovely and adorable pandas as soon as possible,” he said.

But Joyce said the pandas did not make up for China’s recent hostility towards Australia.

“In fact, two pandas that we have to pay for,” he told Sky News Australia on Sunday.

“Hell of a present when it costs you a million bucks – I’d take the present back.”

Albanese, however, welcomed the offer, saying the pandas would be “good diplomats for China in South Australia, and for the entire nation”.

Li’s visit is the first by a Chinese premier to Australia in seven years and comes after a period of turbulence for the country’s biggest trading partner, while recent military incidents in international waters have threatened the diplomatic thaw.

Both pro and anti-China protesters congregated throughout Canberra on Monday, with flags and bunting on street corners near parliament.

-with AAP

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