China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, education minister and one of its top international influence organisations have heaped praise on Premier Daniel Andrews amid warnings that his tightly guarded tour could split Victorian and national interests.
After meetings in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday, Andrews was lauded for “the firm determination of the premier himself and Victoria to persist in developing relations with China” after years of acrimony between Canberra and Beijing over human rights, national security and $20 billion in trade strikes that still affect some industries.
The comments, from Li Xukui, the vice president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, were warmer than any received by an Australian federal representative since the relationship deteriorated sharply in 2020. That has raised questions about whether the Victorian premier had a Commonwealth official present for each high-level meeting.
No media have been allowed to travel with Andrews. China has been reluctant to approve separate journalist visas since it re-opened after years of pandemic restrictions. The exception has been those travelling with government officials, including Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who had two Australian journalists accompany her in December under tight conditions.
Andrews has not taken any questions since leaving for Beijing on Monday, restricting coverage of the trip to brief schedule updates and official photos taken by groups including the Chinese friendship association.
The association has been described by the US Department of State in a US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre report as “a Beijing-based organisation tasked with co-opting subnational governments”.
“Leaders at the US state, local, tribal, and territorial levels risk being manipulated to support hidden People’s Republic of China agendas,” the US security centre warned last year.
In Nanjing, the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, Andrews will meet local Chinese Communist Party boss Xin Changxing and governor Xu Kunlin.
“The No.1 person in the province is the party secretary in the Communist Party, and the governor,” said Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor. “So he’s getting the highest level reception.”
Andrews has not raised any concerns with his Chinese counterparts, according to the 60-word summaries released after each of his meetings, focusing instead on collaborating on tourism, education, innovation and investment. He has refused to raise the cases of detained Australians Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei and has not commented publicly on any of the ongoing trade restrictions including on wine, barley and cotton growers in Victoria.
McGregor said it was important from a national security perspective that China was not able to create the impression of separating the interests of Victoria from those of Australia.
“If a Chinese provincial leader was visiting Australia, they’d have an official from their foreign ministry with them,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Chinese influence operations in the US state of Utah had succeeded in delaying legislation Beijing disliked and developing support that enhanced the Chinese government’s image, which has been tarnished by years of systemic human rights abuse allegations.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Andrews’ trip showed it was in the common interest of both sides to improve relations between China and Australia.
“China is willing to make joint efforts with Australia to launch and resume dialogue and communication in various fields, expand co-operation and push bilateral relations back on the right track based on the principles of mutual respect, mutual benefit and seeking common ground while reserving differences,” spokeswoman Mao Ning said.
After Andrews’ meeting with Minister of Education Huai Jinpeng, the Chinese Ministry of Education said Andrews “appreciated China’s strategy and reform measures to build an education power, and is willing to promote educational exchanges and co-operation with China in various fields”.
Andrews’ summary described the meeting with Huai as “very positive”, but did not include those specific comments.
A Victorian government spokeswoman said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was briefed during the organisation of the trip, including about meetings and their participants.
Victoria’s Minister for Government Services, Danny Pearson, said on Wednesday the premier was “no Manchurian candidate” and that he had not been accompanied on the trip by the education minister or anyone from the higher education sector because he was “incredibly knowledgeable” on the issues that needed to be canvassed.
“China is our biggest trading partner and all of us recognise as you go through a pandemic … we have to grow and recover our economy,” Pearson said. “It would be negligent if we didn’t look at opportunities to try and grow and expand our economy.”
Victorian shadow treasurer Brad Rowswell said that while it was important for Victoria to have a good relationship with China, the details of the premier’s trip were shrouded in secrecy.