The federal opposition has raised the alarm over the Socceroos’ friendly match with world champions Argentina tonight in China, warning that Beijing is likely to exploit the match for propaganda.
- Chinese diplomats have suggested the match is another sign that Beijing is willing to restore friendly ties with Canberra
- The Coalition hit out at the event, suggesting that Football Australia risked being manipulated by China’s government
- Human rights groups also criticised the event, saying the event was an insult to minorities abused by the Chinese Government
The Socceroos will face Argentina and its talismanic superstar Lionel Messi at the National Workers Stadium, seven months after Australia lost a tense knockout match against the South American powerhouse at last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The highly anticipated contest is expected to draw plenty of attention in China and will also fall on the 70th birthday of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been described as an “avid” fan of the sport.
Chinese diplomats have suggested the match is another sign that Beijing is willing to restore friendly ties with Canberra, while Football Australia has argued it will align neatly with the federal government’s attempts to “stabilise” ties with China.
Football Australia also expects it to highlight Australia’s capacity to secure high-profile international soccer matches against top-shelf opponents, with Socceroos coach Graham Arnold declaring last month the prospect of the game gave him “goosebumps”.
But the Coalition has hit out at the event, suggesting that Football Australia risked being manipulated by China’s government while the political relationship between the two countries remains delicately poised.
The match was organised by a promoter called China Rainbow International Investment Company, which has previously identified itself as an engineering and petrochemical firm.
But the Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Claire Chandler, said the company had publicly identified itself as part of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese – a well-known United Front group.
The United Front is a coalition of organisations that work to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic legitimacy and boosting its influence abroad, and which has come under increasing scrutiny from several Western security agencies.
“The timing of this event and the central role that the UFWD (United Front Work Department) has played in it presents a real risk of the Socceroos unwittingly being used for propaganda purposes,” Senator Chandler told the ABC.
The senator said the risk of this happening was exacerbated by the fact that some Australian journalists had been “blocked” from attending.
The Australian’s North Asia correspondent Will Glasgow wrote yesterday that he applied for a visa to China to cover the match, but had been rejected by the Chinese government.
On Wednesday Football Australia told the ABC that other Australian journalists had been given permission to travel to China to cover the match.
But today the organisation said that information was wrong, and that in fact no Australian press were travelling to Beijing for the event.
In a statement, a Football Australia spokesperson said securing the match against the World Cup winners “reflects Australia’s standing within world football and the respect that the top nations have for both our senior national teams”.
“Football is truly the global game, and this match in China against Argentina, we hope will open further opportunities for our nations to work together both on and off the football field.”
Earlier this month, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told a Senate estimates committee that they had helped Football Australia with logistics and travel advice for the event, but denied that the federal government had directly endorsed it.
Senior DFAT official Elly Lawson said the department “support(s) people-to-people engagement that contribute to the stabilisation of the relationship and more broadly people-to-people engagements” but said DFAT did not typically scrutinise football matches.
When pressed on possible United Front links to the event, DFAT secretary Jan Adams said China’s political system was “quite different” to Australia’s.
“From our point of view, it’s normal business to play our part in the activities that non-government organisations undertake,” she said.
But Senator Chandler said the department’s response was unsatisfactory.
“Foreign influence and interference have been identified by our security and intelligence agencies as one of our nation’s biggest challenges, yet somehow the Department responsible for foreign affairs didn’t know that it was helping the United Front-controlled organisation land a deal with Football Australia,” she said.
“It is not credible that DFAT wouldn’t have known that this match is being played on President Xi’s 70th birthday, particularly in circumstances where Football Australia has briefed media that they expected Australian Government officials to attend.”
In a statement a spokesperson for DFAT said that “scheduling and commercial arrangements for international matches of the Socceroos are a matter for Football Australia.”
The department also played down its role in preparations for the match, stressing it had only offered routine briefings to Football Australia.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade briefed Football Australia on practical considerations for the soccer match in Beijing on 15 June, including visas and travel advice, as we often do for touring Australian national teams,” the spokesperson said.
The ABC understands that Australia’s Ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, will attend the match on Thursday night.
‘A birthday gift to Xi’
Yang Han, a Sydney-based former Chinese diplomat and political commentator told the ABC that the event looked like a “birthday gift to Xi Jinping in a subtle way” – and might be a bid to win favour from the upper echelons of the Chinese government.
“Xi is a soccer fan who has never expressed a preference for sports other than soccer. The choice of Thursday suggests it was intentional,” he said.
But Mr Yang also stressed that so far Chinese state-owned media had been silent on the “coincidence” of the timing of the match.
In response to the ABC’s inquiry, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Canberra said they were “not aware” of the investment company’s link to the United Front Work Department or the football match being scheduled to coincide with Mr Xi’s birthday.
“We hope that the reports of Australian media outlets should be always based on facts and conducted in an objective, fair and professional manner,” the spokesperson said.
The contest has also been criticised by human rights groups, who say holding the high-profile event is an insult to Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities abused by the Chinese Government.
Football Australia executives reportedly responded to that criticism last month by suggesting that the match could help “create awareness” around human rights issues in China.
Football Australia told the ABC that the organisation’s prime focus remained on “promoting the game of football and ensuring that our teams can perform at their best”.
“While we acknowledge the logistical challenges that have arisen around this match, it is our aim to navigate these hurdles with the spirit of sportsmanship and mutual respect that underpins our sport,’ its spokesperson said.
“The Socceroos are in Beijing to focus on their game against Argentina, and we are doing everything in our capacity to support them in this endeavour.
“As always, we value the tireless support of our fans and the media, and we are working hard to ensure their connection with the game remains strong, irrespective of geographical boundaries.”
Source: ABC News