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Senior Liberal MP denounces ‘totalitarian’ Chinese rule on secret tape

Asked by one participant on the call if Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had committed “high treason” with his Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China, Kevin Andrews said: “If we don’t stand up to it now, it’s going to do a lot more damage to the people of China and to the rest of the world.”

The comments, which were recorded and obtained by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, come as Prime Minister Scott Morrison also stepped up his pressure on China, saying the Foreign Affairs Minister would from now on assert the foreign affairs power in the constitution and review relationships between China and all state, territory and local governments and universities. Proposed agreements would be vetted to see if they contradicted Australia’s national interest.

Senior government MP Kevin Andrews on a Zoom call talking about China.

Senior government MP Kevin Andrews on a Zoom call talking about China.

In its public commentary, the federal government is usually careful in its rhetoric to avoid naming Mr Xi or the CCP. However, China, as with its main rival the US, often favours a far more aggressive approach to countries it perceives as attacking its interest. On Wednesday, deputy ambassador Wang Xining told the National Press Club that China felt betrayed by the Australian government’s insistence on investigating the causes of COVID-19, citing “indignation, anger and frustration” of the Chinese people.

Richard McGregor, author and China expert for the Lowy Institute, said Mr Andrews’ comments underscored how being hyper-critical of China was increasingly part of attempts by conservative politicians to appeal to their base.

Asked on Thursday if he had any further comment about what he had said, Mr Andrews replied: “I have spoken and written extensively about the CCP regime. I would be surprised if people didn’t know my views.”

But Mr Andrews’ comments to potential party members go further than his previous public statements, a point that could rankle his colleagues, who may query whether Mr Andrews went too far, risking further damage to the Australia-China relationship in an attempt to woo new members to shore up his preselection.

Flexing his muscles in the region. Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea in 2018.

Flexing his muscles in the region. Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea in 2018.Credit:AP

In his comments to the Christian-aligned audience, Mr Andrews hit a number of hot-button issues, saying: “We’ve seen aggression in the China Sea, both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. We’ve seen more oppression in China. We’ve seen this bellicose nationalism from President Xi Jinping.”

Uighur people in Xinjiang province were “being transported to other parts of China to work effectively as slave labour”, he said, and religious freedoms were being “trodden on” by the Chinese Communist Party.

He also accused China of “a complete trampling” of the agreement with Britain to allow Hong Kongers to enjoy more freedom than their fellow citizens on mainland China. “And we’ve seen people now being arrested in China, simply for proclaiming some sort of democratic rights and being told that they’re being treasonous to China.”

On the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s plan to establish global trade links, aid, infrastructure and communications, Mr Andrews said it was “essentially about China projecting its place in the world, into every other part of the world” with the intention of making nations “essentially indebted to China”.

The Australian government’s “clear advice to Victoria was that they should not sign up” to Belt and Road, he said.

“Despite that being well known to Victoria, the Premier of this state, Dan Andrews, decided that he would sign up … this is great propaganda value for China. China can say, ‘Oh, look here … Australia has signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative’. And so it plays into the strategic view that China is propounding around the world.”

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Mr McGregor said Mr Andrews, “as a devout Catholic, has naturally long been critical of Chinese practices, like the old one-child policy, and no one could blame him for that. But describing the Xi government as ‘the most complete totalitarian regime that has ever existed’ goes beyond that. It’s red meat to the base, and really a no-lose proposition for someone in his position.”

As defence minister in 2015, Mr Andrews said Australia had “made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South and East China Sea”, including militarising reclaimed islands.

In 2016, he urged the government to embark on “freedom of navigation” exercises within 12 nautical miles of the contested islands to assert the need for unrestricted trade routes in the area.

In May, Mr Andrews signed a joint statement organised by former Hong Kong governor Christopher Patten and former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind, saying China’s controversial national security law was a “comprehensive assault on [Hong Kong]’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms” and a “flagrant breach” of the Chinese-British Joint Declaration that returned the city to China in 1997.

People of Chinese ancestry account for 15.5 per cent of Mr Andrews’ constituency of Menzies.

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