Australians divided over new China travel warnings

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade upgraded its travel advisory amid escalating tensions between Australia and China. Source: AP

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said Australians travelling to China could face arbitrary detention.

The federal government's new travel advice for China has seen mixed reactions from Australians living and doing business there.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade changed its advice on Tuesday, although the Level 4 "do not travel" alert remains in place.

"Authorities have detained foreigners because they're 'endangering national security'. Australians may also be at risk of arbitrary detention. Do not travel to China," it said.

Justin Fischer, originally from Bega, NSW, has lived in Guangzhou since 2004.

He works as a curator for international art fair Art Canton and also sits on the board of the China-Australia Chamber of Commerce in South China. 

"I have lived in China for 16 years, I understand the political sensitivities but I have had no problems living here at all," he said.

"Sure there are more rules and regulations to follow compared to Australia, but you just learn to deal with it, it doesn't trouble me at all." 

epa08501633 A man wearing a protection mask crosses a bridge in Guangzhou, China, 22 June 2020. China races to contain a second wave of coronavirus cases mostly in Beijing.  EPA/ALEX PLAVEVSKI
A man wearing a protection mask crosses a bridge in Guangzhou, China.

Mr Fischer said around half of his Australian expat friends living in China are planning to stay in the country.

But he said others are considering returning home, a decision driven in part by the coronavirus pandemic but also the rise in tensions between Beijing and Canberra.

The new travel warning has caused some small businesses based in Australia to rethink their trading relationships.

Prior to the pandemic, Catherine Cervasio, who runs an organic baby skincare company which exports to China, was a regular visitor there. 

"I was in China probably every four-six weeks, apart from actually selling products in the region, I was involved in a lot of educational workshops," she said.

She said the updated travel advisory has made her think twice about travelling to China when borders reopen. 

Aromababy founder Catherine Cervasio was a regular traveller to the Chinese mainland.

"It's out there for a reason. It's for us to take notice and for us to take more care ... So it will impact the decisions I make about travel," she said.

"But at the end of the day ... Travel is integral to relationship-building, especially in Asia, not just in China."

David Thomas, president of the Australia China SME Association, said the new advisory has not dissuaded Australians already doing business in the region. 

"I've been talking to [Australians] in China today ... And none of them have any fears about this travel warning," he said.

He's adamant Australia's business relationship with China remains critical for the nation's economic recovery after the pandemic. 

"I think we need to remove the politics from the business," Mr Thomas said.

"We're facing some very severe economic problems over the next few months, we're going to be looking around the world for markets we can trade with [and] China is very open to doing business with Australia."

The new DFAT advice has received the endorsement of Australian academic Dr Feng Chongyi, who was briefly detained by authorities three years ago.

He said the advisory was necessary because of Beijing's track record for engaging in "hostage diplomacy".

"China detains or arrests foreigners as leverage against foreign governments to submit to political or economic demands by the Chinese communist party," he told SBS News.

Chongyi Feng
Dr Feng Chongyi was briefly detained by Chinese authorities in 2017.
Supplied: Twitter

In a strongly-worded statement, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Australia slammed the advisory as "ridiculous".

"We have noted Australia's updated travel advice regarding China, which asserts that Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention. This is completely ridiculous ... [It's] disinformation.

"However, those who engage in illegal activities, such as drug smuggling or espionage, will be dealt with according to the laws in China, as is the case in all other countries."

Tensions between Australia and China have been on the rise over the past six months.

The Australian government has flagged plans to offer safe haven visas for Hong Kong residents, after controversial security legislation was enacted.

The ongoing detention and indictment of Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun has also been a point of contention. 

Australian officials have also voiced concerns over the detention and indictment of Canadian businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, charged in June with espionage.

When asked about the upgraded travel advice today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was not consulted about the new advisory, but described the change as routine.

"As yet I haven't had anything put in front of me, but from time to time travel advisories are changed and on this occasion, the officials have upgraded that advice," Mr Morrison said.

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