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Inside the ‘most bizarre press conference of the year’

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This wasn’t your average media conference – and that’s putting it mildly.This was a performance on a grand scale, inside a palatial ballroom.High-backed red chairs spaced apart in front of a giant screen, nearby the Australian and Chinese flags were side-by-side.The cast featured an ambassador in a suit, joined on Zoom by a table full…

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This wasn’t your average media conference – and that’s putting it mildly.

This was a performance on a grand scale, inside a palatial ballroom.

High-backed red chairs spaced apart in front of a giant screen, nearby the Australian and Chinese flags were side-by-side.

The cast featured an ambassador in a suit, joined on Zoom by a table full of men in suits, and somewhere else, a group of people claimed to be parents, workers and an imam in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Accompanying them in this real-life political drama were highly-produced videos spruiking life in the province.

It was propaganda, delivered direct from Beijing, for “a wonderful land”.

“A land of prosperity and progress.”

“A land of harmony and stability.”

A land where it’s claimed 1 million ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs are held in camps.

A land the Australian and New Zealand governments claim there is enough evidence of “severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation”.

That’s a far cry from wonderful.

But the Chinese Government has long disputed all these claims and inside the Chinese Ambassador’s Residence, the defence was put on show.

“We’re here to talk about Xinjiang,” Ambassador Cheng Jingye beamed.

Satellite imagery of a re-education internment camp in Hotan, Xinjiang.One of the videos is shown to journalists.

The performance got off to a bumpy start, as technical issues meant a video selling life in the “wonderful land” did not play, then had no sound, then was restarted for the full production.

Journalists gathered in the room were treated not to one production, but multiple on different issues.

On work, school life, the economy, birth control, and claims the Chinese Government had been countering a surge in terrorism in Xinjiang.

A surge it claims to have effectively wiped out.

But it’s a surge Uyghurs in Australia say never existed.

A video is broadcast.

Over a picture of a lake at sunset, and families smiling posing for pictures, the narrator spouts: “The tendency of frequent terrorist activities has been effectively curbed.”

Each of these videos was separated in the production by a different guest speaker, with a similar narrative: life in Xinjiang is wonderful.

The Vice-Governor of Xinjiang reeled off an array of numbers that would impress any statistician as he talked about lifting people out of poverty.

"Facts speak louder than words," Mr Cheng insisted.

The public-relations exercise was in overdrive.

The Xinjiang panel was chaired by Xu Guixiang, a deputy director of the publicity department for the Chinese Communist Party in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

He had the lead role in attacking Western democracies and disputing what he described as “lies” about re-education camps.

Then came a series of supporting roles.

We were told these were six experts in Xinjiang who would tell us all about life in the “wonderful land”.

All but one was a woman and mentioned they had children and how many they had.

They talked of returning to work after realising their husbands “were the only breadwinners”.

It was a line seemingly repeated.

“These are related to the topics for today’s event,” Xu Guixiang declared.

“As we understand it many Western media are concerned about family planning policies and related issues in Xinjiang so we think it is more appropriate to have women representatives answering the questions.”

But it was, at times, almost as if each were reading from a prepared script.

Eyes moved right to left across the screen like there was an autocue, normally used by television newsreaders or essentially anyone who doesn’t want to get what they’re about to say on camera wrong.

The only man to speak was an imam, who opened the door with an invitation to a province usually closed to those outside of China.

Again his eyes were fixed on the camera.

To them life was ideal, and the promotional videos sold a life that was designed to look that way.

Designed to make you ponder whether this place really could be what it was claimed to be.

How could somewhere as beautiful as this have 1 million people from an ethnic minority held in detention?

They all look so happy…

There’s videos of people washing a family car, walking to school, landscapes not dissimilar to a tourism video.

It’s like, “Xinjiang, where the bloody hell are you?”

Police officers on duty in the vicinity of a centre believed to be used for re-education in Korla in western China's Xinjiang region.

The first hour ticked by, the first act ended.

A second was in store.

It was time for questions.

But the experts had vanished. 

There were to be no questions to them, only the Chinese government and Xinjiang officials, and the ambassador.

Mr Xu repeated Chinese government lines dismissing the claims of 1 million people held in the re-education camps.

He was asked twice a provide a number on how many were being held.

We were told how people could graduate from these camps and move on, while others who did not graduate would spend more time there.           

The ambassador said allegations of genocide or human rights abuses in Xinjiang were “fake news”.

He warned if Australia was to follow other international allies by placing sanctions on China then the communist government would “respond in kind”.

The Chinese ambassador said he had wanted all questions to be centred on life in Xinjiang, but after more than a year where the relationship between Beijing and Canberra has been colder and more bitter than a long, frosty winter, His Excellency would have known questions would circle back to the bilateral relations.

“We hope the Australian side will look at the situation in Xinjiang (in an) objective and rational way,” Mr Cheng said.

“We hope that the Australian side will go together with us in the same direction so that this important relationship could be put back on track.”

It sounded almost as wonderful as the propaganda videos made life in Xinjiang look.

But the answers were laden with language, some nuance but little in substance.

This was a show of defence and an opportunity for the Chinese government to claim it was being trying to be transparent.

Two hours of the ambassador’s time, two hours of time from the officials in Xinjiang.

The show was to come to an end, but not without a final say from the show’s headline act.

“Facts speak louder than words,” Mr Cheng told the gathering.

“Today’s presentation from a different angle, different people, these presentations as I see it has given is a true picture of Xinjiang.

“Rumours are rumours no matter how many times the rumours are repeated.

“Think those who spread those rumours against China against Xinjiang are futile.

“Nobody can stop or can change the course of progress for a better future of the place”.

READ MORE: China pressures brands to reject reports of Xinjiang abuses

Protesters rally in support of the Uyghur community outside Parliament House in Canberra in March.

The ambassador finished, a panel of government officials waved from Xinjiang, ending perhaps the most bizarre media conference this year.

Bizarre if not for the fact that there are Uyghurs here in Australia and around the world who fear for the safety of their loved ones.

They fear what is becoming of them. 

They say they cannot talk to them, hear them, or know they are okay.

In some instances, they haven’t spoken in years.

One woman who sent money to her parents eight years ago for them to buy a house is now reportedly being held on charges of “giving material support to terrorist activity”.

That is what the Australian government is concerned about.

The show at ambassador’s residence is over for now, but there could be many more sequels in this story yet.


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Homes ‘smashed flat’ as ex-Cyclone Seroja continues destructive path

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The clean-up is beginning in the wake of ex-Cyclone Seroja, with homes damaged and destroyed as the storm made landfall overnight in Western Australia.Warnings remain in place across parts of the state, with Seroja downgraded to a tropical low this morning.Winds of up to 170km/hr were recorded at Karlbarri, north of Geraldton on the WA…

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The clean-up is beginning in the wake of ex-Cyclone Seroja, with homes damaged and destroyed as the storm made landfall overnight in Western Australia.

Warnings remain in place across parts of the state, with Seroja downgraded to a tropical low this morning.

Winds of up to 170km/hr were recorded at Karlbarri, north of Geraldton on the WA coast, overnight after the cyclone hit just after 7pm (AWST).

LIVE UPDATES: Follow our rolling daily news blog here

More than 167mm of rain fell over the region in 12 hours, prompting warnings of flash flooding.

Nine reporter Darius Winterfield, in Karlbarri during the storm, detailed how the roof on his balcony was torn away, and that some residences had been “smashed flat”.

“Water is flooding in through the windows and the main roof is rattling very loudly … we’ve lost power and have little phone reception, we are considering options if the roof goes,” Winterfield said.

https://twitter.com/dwinterfield9/status/1381232540401295360?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

However, thankfully, there were this morning reports of only minor injuries.

The damage to the town was extensive, with the SES estimating at least one-fifth of homes had lost roofs.

Winterfield said the resort town looked like “a bomb had gone off”.

READ MORE: More than 20,000 without power as cyclone lashes WA

“The trail of destruction is widespread,” he said this morning.

“Almost everywhere you look, it seems as though no structure has been saved from the wrath of Tropical Cyclone Seroja.”

Seroja

There have been numerous reports of structural damage in areas near and to the north of Seroja’s landfall location.

“So scary hiding under mattresses with my wife n 2 (sic) boys” was how Joel McIntyre described his experience on the Kalbarri Info Noticeboard on Facebook.

“In Northampton and have some one’s roof against back shade house wall,” said another post by Helene Parker.

In Geraldton, tens of thousands of people remain without power, while powerlines and trees were blown over.

https://twitter.com/MiaEgerton/status/1381222119783034881?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

However, Nine reporter Mia Egerton-Warburton said the town had not been hit has hard as Karlbarri.

The system’s fast movement across Western Australia has allowed tropical cyclone impacts to extend well inland. Southern Cross had recorded a wind gust of 93km/hr by 4.30am (AWST) today.

Heavy rain and potentially damage winds will continue to spread over parts of the Wheatbelt and Goldfields into Monday morning. A severe weather warning is even in place down to the state’s South East Coastal and Eucla districts.

Cyclone Seroja

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) has declared an all-clear for Geraldton, though red alerts remain in place for south of Carnarvon to Lancelin, including the Shires of Shark Bay, Northhampton, Chapman Valley, Morawa, Mingenew, Three Springs, Perenjori, Irwin and the townsites of Denham, Coorow, Carnamah, Moora, Paynes Find, Jurien Bay, Lancelin, Wongan Hills and Dalwallinu.

People in red alert areas are asked to stay in their homes until the all-clear comes from the DFES.

Wind gusts of up to 110km/hr and heavy rains are still predicted for the state’s south-west, around Esperance and Kalgoorlie, with damage and flash flooding a possibility.

A severe weather warning is in place for these regions.


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Ben Roberts-Smith responds to new 60 Minutes allegations

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The Seven Network is standing by its Queensland managing director Ben Roberts-Smith after the former soldier and Victoria Cross-winner was accused of burying evidence relevant to war crimes investigations.A report by 60 Minutes, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last night accused Mr Roberts-Smith of allegedly burying in his backyard a pink children’s lunchbox…

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The Seven Network is standing by its Queensland managing director Ben Roberts-Smith after the former soldier and Victoria Cross-winner was accused of burying evidence relevant to war crimes investigations.

A report by 60 Minutes, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last night accused Mr Roberts-Smith of allegedly burying in his backyard a pink children’s lunchbox containing a USB drive with photos and documents on it.

The report said the contents of the USB, including photos of a fellow soldier dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member at a fancy-dress party at a coalition base in Afghanistan and evidence of the alleged desecration of an enemy soldier’s body, had since been obtained by military and police investigators.

Mr Roberts-Smith has emphatically denied any wrongdoing, repeatedly saying he has nothing to hide about his time in Afghanistan.

He says new allegations are “baseless”.

The Seven Network has said Mr Roberts-Smith will remain in his position in the wake of the allegations.

“Seven Network notes the denial by its Seven Queensland Managing Director Ben Roberts-Smith VC of the allegations aired by Nine on 60 Minutes last night and as further published in the Nine newspapers,” the network said in a statement.

“Insofar as most of the material aired is old, Seven notes that it is before the Federal Court and the court process should be respected.

“Insofar as new allegations are made they do not appear to be supported by evidence.

“In the circumstances Seven does not need to reconsider its position concerning Mr Roberts-Smith and him continuing in his position.”

Benjamin Roberts-Smith is awarded his Victoria Cross by then-Governor-General Quentin Bryce on January 23, 2011.

Mr Roberts-Smith is running a defamation case against Nick McKenzie and Nine newspapers over a series of stories, claiming they suggest war crimes were committed by the decorated former soldier.

The 60 Minutes episode and stories in Nine newspapers also aired secret recordings of Mr Roberts-Smith lauding the network’s owner Kerry Stokes for funding his legal battles and being critical of the broadcaster’s operations.

Nine is the publisher of this website.


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Chinese vaccines ‘don’t have very high protection rates’

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In a rare admission of the weakness of Chinese coronavirus vaccines, the country’s top disease control official says their effectiveness is low and the government is considering mixing them to get a boost.Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high protection rates,” said the director of the China Centres for Disease Control, Gao Fu, at a conference…

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In a rare admission of the weakness of Chinese coronavirus vaccines, the country’s top disease control official says their effectiveness is low and the government is considering mixing them to get a boost.

Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high protection rates,” said the director of the China Centres for Disease Control, Gao Fu, at a conference in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

Beijing has distributed hundreds of millions of doses abroad while trying to promote doubt about the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine made using the previously experimental messenger RNA, or mRNA, process.

READ MORE: Pfizer vaccine rollout will be made easier as vials ‘very stable’ at -20C

“It’s now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunisation process,” Mr Gao said.

Officials at a news conference Sunday didn’t respond directly to questions about Mr Gao’s comment or possible changes in official plans. But another CDC official said developers are working on mRNA-based vaccines.

Mr Gao did not respond to a phone call requesting further comment.

READ MORE: Morrison refuses to put ‘target’ on when all Australians will receive first vaccine dose

“The mRNA vaccines developed in our country have also entered the clinical trial stage,” said the official, Wang Huaqing. He gave no timeline for possible use.

Experts say mixing vaccines, or sequential immunisation, might boost effectiveness. Researchers in Britain are studying a possible combination of Pfizer-BioNTech and the traditional AstraZeneca vaccine.

The coronavirus pandemic, which began in central China in late 2019, marks the first time the Chinese drug industry has played a role in responding to a global health emergency.

Vaccines made by Sinovac, a private company, and Sinopharm, a state-owned firm, have made up the majority of Chinese vaccines distributed to several dozen countries including Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Hungary, Brazil and Turkey.

The effectiveness of a Sinovac vaccine at preventing symptomatic infections was found to be as low as 50.4 per cent by researchers in Brazil, near the 50 per cent threshold at which health experts say a vaccine is useful. By comparison, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been found to be 97 per cent effective.

Health experts say Chinese vaccines are unlikely to be sold to the United States, western Europe and Japan due to the complexity of the approval process.

A Sinovac spokesman, Liu Peicheng, acknowledged varying levels of effectiveness have been found but said that can be due to the age of people in a study, the strain of virus and other factors.

Beijing has yet to approve any foreign vaccines for use in China.

Mr Gao gave no details of possible changes in strategy but cited mRNA as a possibility.

“Everyone should consider the benefits mRNA vaccines can bring for humanity,” Mr Gao said. “We must follow it carefully and not ignore it just because we already have several types of vaccines already.”

Mr Gao previously questioned the safety of mRNA vaccines. He was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying in December he couldn’t rule out negative side effects because they were being used for the first time on healthy people.

Chinese state media and popular health and science blogs also have questioned the safety and effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

As of April 2, some 34 million people in China have received both of the two doses required for Chinese vaccines and about 65 million received one, according to Mr Gao.

The Sinovac spokesman, Mr Liu, said studies find protection “may be better” if time between vaccinations is longer than the current 14 days but gave no indication that might be made standard practice.


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