An expert has been grilled after making an eyebrow raising comment about human rights abuses in China.
Australian businesses have been warned to “de-risk” their relationships with China because of an intensifying trade stoush between the two countries.
But speaking to a senate committee on Thursday, Australia China Business Council interim chief executive officer Michael Clifton was forced to concede that downplaying human rights abuses in Xinjiang as “colour and movement” was a “poor choice of words”.
Chinese diplomats have refused to answer calls from their Australian counterparts for months, though Mr Clifton accepted the federal government had made “every best effort” to reopen dialogue.
But Mr Clifton urged the government to bring business “into the tent” as it attempted to thaw its relationship with Beijing.
“Clearly China has shunned every approach from the government and continues to do. But that doesn’t mean we give up; we just can’t give up, we have to keep trying,” he said.
“(We need) a diversity of opinions and diversity of voices being heard, on how we get through this current toxic environment.
“Sooner or later, it will pass. But the earlier it passes, the better.”
Mr Clifton said business could help inform the government’s approach to the fraught relationship, but would do so “quietly … (and) behind closed doors”.
After over a year of sanctions imposed by Beijing on Australian produce, he urged companies to “de-risk” their relationship with China by diversifying to alternative markets, but warned they could not afford to leave a 1.4b person market on Australia’s doorstep altogether.
“We’re not blind to the reality on the ground. That said, we do not believe there is a pressing case for decoupling from China,” he said,
“We don’t believe it’s in our longer-term national interest for Australian companies to walk away.”
A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2020 found 82 “well-known global brands” had potentially profited, either directly or indirectly, from slave labour sent from Xinjiang.
It estimated 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of the region between 2017 and 2019 to work in factories.
Mr Clifton would not be drawn on whether Australian businesses should be required to report whether their supply chains involved slave labour, raising concerns the measure could be an “unreasonable impost” on small companies.
But he did accept a need for supply chain audits, insisting Australian companies were not “blind to all the colour and movement around what’s happening in Xinjiang”.
“Would you agree with me that the events occurring there are a little bit more serious than colour and movement?” Liberal senator Eric Abetz asked.
Mr Clifton accepted the phrase was a “poor choice of words”, but would not join Mr Abetz in using the term “atrocities” to describe abuses in Xinjiang.
“Given the very toxic climate in which any debate about China takes place, anything that further aggravates that environment and muddies the water doesn’t help us get towards resolution,” he said.
“I’m all about resolutions, rather than throwing stones.”
“What do you think the one million people in concentration camps would want Australia to do today: softly, softly or call out concentration camps for what they are?” Mr Abetz asked.
Mr Clifton implied he would rather avoid a “long and torturous discussion” on the topic.
The exchange came as Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared he was “not prepared to concede” onraised by Beijing.
Mr Morrison was en route to a meeting of G7 leaders in the UK on Thursday, a day after calling for the international community toto prevent economic coercion.
And the prime minister showed no signs of flinching amid the ongoing pressure.
He confirmed Australia would be “very happy” to discuss the issues with Beijing if it decided to reopen dialogue, but warned Australian values were non-negotiable.
“Australia will maintain our very clear positions on those; we’ve made that very clear,” he told 6PR radio on Thursday.
“But at the same time, we’re very willing to work, trade and engage with China in our own region and more broadly around the world. So there’s no obstacle at Australia’s end.”
Mr Morrison rejected suggestions Australia had been “pig-headed” in its posture towards the global superpower, saying no country would be prepared to “trade away” its values for financial gain.