A Chinese diplomat gatecrashed a government press conference to discuss COVID-19 and used the opportunity to reject Australia’s push for an independent inquiry into the origins of the outbreak.
Victorian China Consul-General Zhou Long arrived alongside billionaire miner Andrew Forrest at the official ministerial event in Melbourne on Wednesday evening.
The pair earlier inked a deal worth $320million to bring an additional 10 million coronavirus testing kits to Australia, increasing the country’s capability 20-fold.
But the move blindsided Health Minister Greg Hunt, who did not introduce Mr Zhou.
Mr Zhou was not allowed to take questions, but took the opportunity to praise Beijing’s handling of the crisis.
In particular, he credited the ‘open, transparent and responsible’ manner with which China had worked alongside the World Health Organisation.
Victoria and Tasmania Consul-General of China Long Zhou (centre) departs a press conference where he spoke of the relationship between China and Australia
Mr Forrest (pictured) is understood to have invited the Chinese diplomat to speak
But the move blindsided Health Minister Greg Hunt (pictured), who did not introduce Mr Zhou
‘The Chinese government has released information related to COVID-19 in open, transparent and a responsible manner,’ he said.
‘We have worked closely with the WHO and other countries. Including sharing experiences … and providing assistance within our capacity.
‘China very much appreciates and is thankful to the compassion, support and sympathy of the Australian people.’
The once-friendly relationship between Australia and China has been waning in recent weeks as the Australian government doubles down on calls for an investigation into the origins of the virus and the dissemination of information.
The deadly respiratory virus has infected more than three million people globally, including 6,729 Australians. So far, 212,000 people have died worldwide.
Mr Zhou said during a speech that COVID-19 could well be ‘the biggest crisis faced by mankind since world war two,’ before urging people from every nation to work together.
‘Solidarity is the only way to overcome this public health challenge. All countries should work together as one,’ he said.
The initiative to provide face masks to help the Australian health system will strengthen the friendship between China and Australia during this difficult time, Mr Zhou hoped.
Politicians at the event reportedly said Health Minister Greg Hunt (pictured) had been ‘ambushed’ by Mr Long’s presence
Vendors wearing face masks as they offer prawns for sale at a market in Wuhan where reports of the virus first emerged in December
Politicians at the event reportedly said Mr Hunt had been ‘ambushed’ by Mr Zhou’s presence.
Liberal MP Andrew Hastie said Mr Forrest allowed the Chinese Communist party to ‘ambush the press conference’.
‘Now is not the time for games. Australia must come first,’ Mr Hastie said. ‘This guy drops out of the sky in his private jet and enables the Chinese Communist Party to ambush a commonwealth press conference. Yeah, we’re not happy.’
Mr Forrest is understood to have invited the Chinese diplomat to speak.
China has repeatedly refused to welcome an international investigation into the outbreak, most recently describing the demands of Australia as ‘political manoeuvring’.
The nation’s ambassador, Jingye Cheng, triggered a diplomatic firestorm by warning Scott Morrison’s push for an inquiry would lead to a boycott of Australia.
He received a fiery dressing down from the Foreign Affairs Department on his ‘threats of economic coercion’, which the Chinese embassy then leaked.
China is accused by some of covering up the severity of the epidemic after it started in a live exotic animal market in Wuhan, costing the world vital weeks of preparation.
China is accused of covering up the severity of the epidemic after it started in a live exotic animal market in Wuhan, costing the world vital weeks of preparation. Pictured: A bat in a wet market in Indonesia
New Deloitte Access Economics modelling estimates $8.1 billion could be wiped from the accommodation and food services sector in the months from April to August
Economists believe Australian families and businesses will lose $60 billion by the end of the coronavirus crisis.
American lawyers suing China for $10 trillion claimed up to 95 per cent of the infected global population would have been spared if China acted faster to contain the outbreak.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday vowed not to back down from his efforts to find out exactly what happened.
‘We will of course continue to support moves to ensure there is a proper independent assessment of what has occurred here,’ he said.
Jingye Cheng triggered a diplomatic firestorm by warning Scott Morrison’s push for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus could lead to a boycott of Australia
A healthcare worker (pictured on April 1) talks to a man at a pop-up clinic testing for the coronavirus disease at Bondi Beach after several outbreaks were recorded in the area
‘It is not a remarkable position. It is a fairly common sense position and one that we don’t resile from.’
Mr Forrest, who has enjoyed a close professional relationship with China, refused to comment when asked about his personal opinion on an inquiry into COVID-19.
But he did urge authorities to delay any further investigation until after the American presidential election.
‘That would make it instantly political,’ he said. ‘Australia needs to walk that line where we have a best friend in America, a best friend in China, best friends across South-East Asia.’
Long Zhou used the press conference to praise Beijing for the handling of the coronavirus crisis
AMBASSADOR’S ECONOMIC THREAT TO AUSTRALIA
In an interview with the Australian Financial Review, Ambassador Cheng slammed Australia’s push for a global inquiry as ‘political’ and warned Chinese consumers could boycott the country.
Answering a question about whether China could boycott Australian iron ore or gas, Mr Cheng instead focused on China’s contribution to Australia’s agriculture, tourism and education sectors.
Mr Cheng said: ‘I think if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think why we should go to such a country while it’s not so friendly to China.
‘The tourists may have second thoughts. Maybe the parents of the students would also think whether this place, which they find is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to.
‘So it’s up to the public, the people to decide. And also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef.’