A local Sydney council bowed to pressure from the Chinese government and banned an Australian-owned media company from sponsoring an event because it was critical of the Communist Party.
A joint investigation by Four Corners, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald obtained documents showing how Chinese consular officials issued at least eight warnings over 12 months to the Georges River Council over its dealings with Vision China Times, a Chinese-language media organisation.
The newspaper has been repeatedly harassed because it publishes information in Mandarin that is critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
Vision China Times advertisers based in China were threatened by Chinese officials, including intelligence agents, and forced to pull their advertising.
Vision China Times manager Maree Ma says her paper has come under attack because it does not toe the Communist Party line.
“The Chinese consulate don’t like any media outlets that they cannot have some sort of control over,” she said.
The newspaper had been listed as a sponsor for the 2018 Chinese New Year celebrations hosted by the Georges River Council. The council area, in Sydney’s south, is home to one of Australia’s largest populations of Chinese-Australians.
But on January 17 last year, a consul official wrote to the council warning “we have noticed a politically anti-China media named Vision China Times has been listed as an event supporter”.
“We have attached great importance to our cooperation with the Georges River City Council and hope there will be no change to the policy of the Georges River Council on supporting the development of Australia-China relationship,” the consul official said.
That same day, Vision China Times had its sponsorship banned by the council.
A council administrative officer emailed the Chinese consulate to confirm the move.
“Council respects and values the relationship with the Consul General and also the development of the Australia-China relationship,” the email stated.
This year the consulate issued fresh warnings to the council in the lead-up to the Chinese New Year event.
According to council files obtained under freedom of information legislation, the warnings included a December 4, 2018 memo:
“This morning I had a call from [a Chinese consulate employee] to remind us that he would like to keep a friendly relationship between China and New South Wales,” the memo said.
“He wanted to make sure that there were no embarrassing situations this year and re-iterate their position involving anti-China groups.”
The next month, on January 7, 2019 another memo stated:
“The Chinese consulate phoned… to remind Council of the delicate issues around this anti-China group…”
Vision China Times manager Ms Ma had earlier confronted councillors at a public meeting, demanding to know if and why some had buckled to threats from the CCP.
“We are clear about the pressures we face as an independent Chinese media. We are also clear of the possible pressures this council can come under from foreign agents,” she told the council.
“However, council events are to serve the local community.
“These are not international exchanges. We believe council should be making decisions in the interests of the local community, not foreign governments.”
Late last year Georges River Council decided to allow Vision China Times to sponsor this year’s Lunar New Year event, prompting another call from the Chinese consulate.
According to the notes, a council officer wrote on February 1 this year:
“I received a call from … the Office of the Chinese Consul General,” they wrote.
“The Chinese Consul General was disappointed that Georges River Council would include anti-Chinese political groups in the Lunar New Year event… As a consequence, the CCG [Chinese Consul General] will not attend the Lunar New Year event. [The Chinese consulate employee] expressed his desire to meet with Council… to discuss.”
Australian sinologist Dr Geremie Barme warns that China’s Communist Party is increasingly seeking to control what Chinese nationals see at home and abroad.
“The Chinese Communist Party … believes that the only way to maintain stability … is not only through police and political action, but also by having people, if they don’t agree with you at least be silent,” Dr Barme said.