‘I don’t think I’m working for the devil’: The Australians still working in Chinese media
When Harry Harding landed in Beijing for a holiday a decade ago he did not have enough clothes to get through winter. Jetstar had lost his luggage, so the cash-strapped Griffith University graduate headed south to Guangzhou in search of warmer weather.
Strikingly blonde and fluent in Chinese, “Hazza” – as he is now known to his fans – arrived in China as an aspiring singer whose covers of Chinese pop songs were gathering hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
Harry Harding, Alex McCutcheon and Jerry Grey
He didn’t become a pop star. He turned into a television journalist, almost overnight, after a producer at Guangzhou’s state-run station spotted Harding’s cult following on social media and invited him to interview for a job as a presenter at its station’s new international channel.
“I was 21 at the time,” he says. “I thought, this is an amazing opportunity. I can’t say no.”
Harding is now one of the few Australian media workers left in China after the last two correspondents working for Australian media were forced to leave amid a wider diplomatic dispute between the two countries. Australian reporters working for foreign news outlets including Bloomberg and the BBC remain in Beijing, but local coverage has been hamstrung by the spiralling relationship between Australia and its largest trading partner.
“Honestly, I feel it’s sad in a way,” Harding says of the departure of Australian foreign correspondents from China, “because I think China is so important to Australia’s future, and it is this place that’s so hard to understand”.
The Ipswich-born Harding occupies a rare foreign position inside Chinese state media as a news anchor and talk show host for Guangdong Radio and Television station. He also contributes to national state-media networks Xinhua and CGTN. Along with Melbourne expat Alex McCutcheon, who works for Hong Kong Satellite Television, and Jerry Grey, a 63-year-old former English-teacher who contributes to state-owned nationalist tabloid Global Times, the trio are part of a media ecosystem that does not tolerate criticism of its government and is often at odds with the west’s portrayal of the Chinese Communist Party.
Their years in China have made them suspicious of western media motives, claims against China of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and foreign attacks on a government that they believe is serving its people.
Like a handful of presenters and video bloggers from Britain and the United States paraded by Chinese state TV, the Australians are now presented as the friendly foreign faces of a tightly controlled system that has prevented dozens of independent reporters from entering. Many of them arrived as English teachers when a wave of private teaching positions swept China a decade ago, only to later be unexpectedly scouted by Chinese media networks despite their limited journalism training.
McCutcheon, 40, has worked for 11 years at HKSTV in Shenzhen, China’s tech capital, where he is the only foreign news anchor and hosts a weekly chat show called East Meets West. HKSTV, while headquartered in Hong Kong, relies on the mainland for its financing.
“I don’t think that working for an organisation which is somewhat controlled… I don’t know if that means that I’m working for the devil,” McCutcheon says. “I don’t think it does. It just means that I’m working within a system, and all of us kind of have to do that.”
Growing up in a musical family (his father played piano on variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday), McCutcheon trained in Bel Canto technique and toyed with the notion of becoming an opera singer. But in a major gear shift in his 20s, he ditched an Arts degree and moved to China to teach English. Eventually, like Harding, he was spotted by a network looking to boost its international profile.
“I think part of the aim of our network is to give some more positive image of what’s going on over here,” he says. “And if you’re doing that, perhaps, a face that doesn’t look Chinese – I think this was the reasoning – it would give a little bit more credibility. The feeling that we’re also an international voice, not just one voice representing one country or one party.”
McCutcheon was the face of the station’s efforts to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party this year – a project commissioned by a government agency in Guangdong.
Alex McCutcheon, 40, works for HKSTV.
He interviewed dignitaries from South American nations, including Peru, Venezuela, and Uruguay, who praised the CCP on its efforts to end poverty, its trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and its “first-class” response to COVID.
But when pressed on whether his role is less journalist and more mouthpiece, McCutcheon insists he has never been forced by the station to pursue a particular line.
“In my full-time job for this organisation, they may have certain goals and a narrative that would like to be pushed on this side, I guess. But I don’t feel that I’ve departed from the truth in any way, and I certainly haven’t received any payment for making statements or made any statements under coercion or under any pressure.”
As the only foreign anchor at GRT, Harding is responsible for presenting most of the station’s English-language content, including a weekly TV talk show called China Chats, as well some Chinese programs. He says his job is primarily focused on reporting local news in Guangdong and covering issues of interest to the expat community living there. As a side hustle, he regularly posts English-language videos to his YouTube channel HazzaChinaVlogs, often discussing the deteriorating relationship between Australia and China – while pitching himself as a neutral player.
Harry Harding, an Australian anchor at Guangdong Radio and Television station.
“I try to stay away from politics as much as possible because my main motivation for being in China, and being in the job that I am, is that I think it’s important to have an Australian face on television in China and to be able to talk directly to Chinese audiences,” Harding says.
But in November last year, Harding dived headfirst into the diplomatic spat between Australia and China over the infamous Australian soldier tweet posted by China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
The doctored image was designed as a swipe at Australia’s human rights record after the release of the Brereton inquiry report into alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. China said Australia should not be lecturing it on human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong when it has its own blemished record.
As the Tweet ignited a furious response from the Australian government, Harding tweeted to Zhao that “as an Australian I feel ashamed”. “Today was the first time I’ve even contemplated giving up my Australian citizenship,” he said.
“I pay tribute to you [Zhao] and all of the efforts you have made. I hope leaders in our country can learn from you; only then can the world be peaceful and prosperous.”
Days later, as his comments were praised by the Global Times while westerners called him a traitor, Harding attempted to clarify his position in a YouTube video.
“On that night that I left the comment in question, I was genuinely ashamed of our country for caring more about a tweet than the lives that were taken away as a result of our involvement in Afghanistan”.
“I am a patriotic Australian and I love my country,” he says in the eight-minute video, signing off with a hope to “move on” from the incident.
Harding wrestled with the backlash for several months. In an interview with his mother in March for his YouTube fans, he asked her: “would you consider me and what I’m doing in China to be something that makes me a traitor?” (She doesn’t).
While he has been criticised at home, Harding’s reporting has never troubled Chinese authorities.
Harding with his Guangdong TV co-host Michelle.
“Sometimes people from the foreign affairs office might come and have a chat with me,” he says. “Usually it’s just like: what can we do to make expat lives easier in Guangzhou?”
His experience of Chinese state security is a world away from the regular surveillance undertaken on other foreign reporters working on sensitive issues.
As floods tore through Henan province in July and killed 302 people, foreign correspondents were targeted by political cadres and locals. In one instance, Henan’s Communist Youth League asked its 1.6 million followers on Chinese social media site Weibo to report the whereabouts of BBC Shanghai reporter Robin Brant after he reported flaws in the disaster response of local authorities.
In another, residents surrounded correspondents from Deutsche Welle and The Los Angeles Times, grabbing a camera and their clothes and briefly preventing both outlets from leaving the site.
A dozen correspondents reported being followed, denied access to public places, or asked or forced to delete photographs and other data from devices in Xinjiang last year, according to a survey by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. One reporter said they had experienced threats or retaliation against interviewees and sources in the region.
Both McCutcheon and Harding are sceptical of the claims of human rights abuses being made by foreign governments and media against China in Xinjiang – a region in the country’s north west – where up to one million of the local Muslim Uighur minority have reportedly been detained in re-education camps.
In February, the BBC aired first-hand accounts of systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture in Uighur detention camps, including from a former camp guard who claimed that those who failed to pass loyalty tests would be subject to food deprivation and beatings and a former detainee who said she had an electrified stick inserted into her. The Australian and British governments have called for independent UN observers to be given access to the region. The US has labelled China’s actions a genocide.
“Right now there’s a very contentious idea around concentration camps in Xinjiang – from everything that I can see, there’s not really a lot of evidence to support these claims,” says McCutcheon.
“I’m not here to say that absolutely nothing is happening that shouldn’t be happening.”
Harding says the coverage of China by western outlets hasn’t always matched his lived experience in the country, causing him to doubt news sources he would otherwise “trust and look up to”.
“You watch and read the reports by BBC…and then you watch things like CGTN. They’ve gone there and made programs, where they say that they’re debunking all of these claims [about Xinjiang],” he says.
Residents line up at a security checkpoint into the Hotan Bazaar where a screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hotan in western China’s Xinjiang region.Credit:AP
“So for somebody like me who is sitting in Guangdong and you see all these different perspectives, it’s really complicated. If you haven’t lived it, if you haven’t experienced it, if you haven’t seen it, if you haven’t heard it, then you still have to keep an open mind to all the possibilities.
“Before I would be comfortable talking about Xinjiang, I would have to be very knowledgeable about the situation, and have my own sources, have my own firsthand sources.”
Harding says he has never covered Xinjiang because he is a local reporter in Guangdong.
“To put that into perspective, I guess it would be like asking a local reporter in Townsville about what’s going on with politics in Canberra.”
Jerry Grey, a retired Australian-British teacher from Redcliffe in Queensland, spent more than a decade teaching English in Zhongshan. He now contributes to Global Times and CGTN and writes his own blog. The 63-year-old says he has cycled more than 3000 kilometres through Xinjiang.
“Nobody at any time said you can’t film here. Nobody at any time said, let’s have a look at what you filmed,” he says. “I interacted with the police every day and they are very, very polite. They would say ‘Do you want some water? Do you want some fruit? Look, we’ve got a fruit bowl’.
“This is not the image that the BBC are putting out there,” he says. “I can get a video of the police pushing me around. That is easy to do because there’s a lot of police there.”
The perspective echoes that of Chinese state media’s own Media Watch-style programs which criticise foreign reporters under the #Mediaunlocked hashtag. The videos accuse foreign journalists of fabricating grey skies, media companies of being proxies for foreign intelligence services, and manufacturing police interference.
Jerry Grey cycled through Xinjiang.
Grey acknowledges that his reports have had details cut out by Chinese state media editors. He says that does not mean Chinese state media is lying because they have never “stated something which is not true”.
“I said that when you go to Xinjiang the security there is really, really intrusive. It’s not a problem. It’s just an intrusion in your life. You walk into a hotel, you walk into a shopping centre, or you walk into a McDonald’s, you have to go through a metal detector, and there’s a guy there with a wand.
“It’s like going into an airport departure lounge, every single time you walk into a building. They would put in the bit about them giving me water and fruit, but they leave out the not so nice bit.”
Is that accurate reporting?
“I’m not an expert, never have been, never claimed to be,” he says. “I get a very small amount of money when I write. You get paid to write articles, I get paid when I write something.”
Professor Liu Haiming from the School of Journalism and Communication at Chongqing University says the promotion of foreign bloggers to mainstream broadcasters is part of the shift to using “ordinary voices”.
“The main body of oriental culture communication is transforming from the one dominated by journalists and actors to the one dominated by ordinary people,” he says. “The most effective way of cultural communication is to tell cultural stories in a language that audiences can understand.”
Liu argues accusations of bias on either side are misplaced. “The so-called “bias” is a traditional misunderstanding,” he says. “In my opinion, the ‘bias’ of different perspectives is a kind of balance when they are placed together.“
Right now, there are fewer independent observers on the ground in China than there have been in decades. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China found at least 18 foreign journalists were forced to leave China last year while only 15 were granted short-term visas.
Grey accuses those correspondents that remain of living in “the Sanlitun bubble,” referring to an upmarket area of Beijing popular with expats.
“There are people here who sit around drinking their beers in the street talking about how bad China is. You can’t do that in Australia, you can’t do it in Canada, you get arrested. In China, you are really living a life that is full of freedoms, and it’s a very enjoyable life.
“They say they won’t let me use Facebook, yeah but is that the worst thing that can happen to you?“
Grey claims foreign coverage frames Chinese state control as something sinister.
“Don’t get me wrong and say that the Chinese government is all-loving and caring and nice, but it’s not sinister, and it’s not malevolent,” he says. “It is not cruel. If it was, it wouldn’t survive.”
Those on the receiving end of the Chinese government’s repression of free speech might have a different perspective. The price of crossing China is steep.
Australian-Chinese journalist, former CGTN anchor Cheng Lei, has been detained by Chinese authorities for over a year on national security charges. The mother of two was jailed after she made a series of Facebook posts critical of the Chinese government’s response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19.
Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun have been detained by Chinese authorities. Credit:The Age
The Chinese government has released scant details of what she has been charged with beyond allegations of sharing state secrets. Her prospects of release are remote: the Chinese justice system has a 99 per cent conviction rate
Cheng’s compatriot, Chinese-born Australian pro-democracy blogger and Chinese government critic Yang Hengjun, was detained upon returning to China in January 2019. He was also charged under vague national security charges.
Jerry Grey speaks to Chinese travel show Are We There Yet in 2020.
The father of two has faced sleep deprivation, isolation, torture and been threatened with execution while awaiting sentencing for more than two years.
In his last letter to his two sons in Australia before his closed-door trial in May, Yang said if the “worst comes to the worst, please explain to the people inside China what I did and the significance of my writing to people in China”.
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