China has blocked access to the ABC after the country’s cyber security regulator claimed the broadcaster breached its internet laws. The move coincided with the Australian government’s announcement of new rules that stop Chinese telco Huawai from being involved in Australia’s 5G network.
The ABC’s online presence, including its website and mobile apps, have been blocked by China’s “great firewall’ since August 22, according to the ABC, prompting the broadcaster to seek further information from Chinese authorities. Other Australian news websites remain available.
The ABC said that after repeated requests for clarification, an unnamed official from the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission said China reserved the right to censor information that may “endanger state security and damage national pride”.
“China’s internet is fully open. We welcome internet enterprises from all over the world to provide good information to the netizens of China,” an official told the ABC.
“However, state cyber sovereignty rights shall be maintained towards some overseas websites violating China’s laws and regulations, spreading rumours, pornographic information, gambling, violent terrorism and some other illegal harmful information which will endanger state security and damage national pride.”
‘A sovereign country’
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was not concerned by China’s decision.
“The ABC is funded to broadcast in Australia so we’re in control of that,” Mr Morrison told Radio 3AW on Monday. “China’s a sovereign country. They make decisions about what happens there. We make decisions about what happens here.”
The ABC joins a long list of news organisations subject to censorship in China, including The New York Times, BBC, Reuters and Bloomberg. Beijing’s censors have a history of banning foreign media outlets, usually for covering sensitive issues such as human rights or the private business interests of the country’s leaders. The reasons for any bans are usually opaque.
Hitting a low point
Prominent Chinese academics said the ban could be a warning to Mr Morrison following his government’s decision to block Huawei from bidding for 5G mobile phone contracts.
“The China-Australia relationship has really hit a low point at the moment but we don’t have evidence to prove the ABC has closed just because of that. It could be trying to give a lesson to the new Prime Minister,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor at the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“For China, the US is too big to offend and things are slightly different with Australia.”
Playing a negative role
Liu Qing, head of the Asia-Pacific department at the foreign ministry-linked China Institute of International Studies, said the ABC played a “negative role in the bilateral relationship”, pointing to reports that China was using its Confucius Institute education program to extend its soft power into Australia. Other Australian media outlets have carried similar reports.
“The ABC has played a negative role in the bilateral relationship,” Mr Liu said, suggesting the broadcaster was promoting former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s “infiltration theory”.
Asked whether this was a signal that the Australia-China relationship was at a low point, he said: “I don’t see a lower point than this.”
Many possible reasons
ANU College of Asia and the Pacific research fellow Graeme Smith said there could be a number of reasons for the decision, including Huawai and content that Beijing perceives as critical of the Chinese government.
“You have to look for a domestic reason and Huawai might be a good place to start,” Dr Smith said. “You could also throw in the recent trial and defamation case against Four Corners.”
The latter is a reference to Chinese billionaire Chau Chak Wing’s defamation action against the ABC and Fairfax Media.
The move could also be about sending “a signal to the new administration that China wants to see a different line taken” by the Morrison government, Dr Smith said.
The ABC previously provided a sanitised version of its content to Chinese consumers through a website called Australia Plus, which was a collaboration between the ABC and a Chinese state media outlet. The ABC faced criticism for the arrangement because the website was subject to China’s censorship laws, and axed the website earlier this year.
Dr Smith said China’s decision could also be in response to that move, given the ABC’s main website is not subject to the Beijing’s control and contains a series of articles on Chinese power, many of which are critical of President Xi Jinping’s administration.
“That might have ruffled a few feathers,” Dr Smith said. “But we will probably never know the answer.”
The Australian embassy in Beijing declined to comment, referring media queries to Canberra.