China successfully influenced an Australian council to paint over students’ flags of Taiwan

  • An Australian council painted over Taiwanese flags that some school students created for an art exhibition that was supposed to celebrate the students’ diversity.
  • In defending the move, the city mayor said the council was alerted to the “international incident” by the Chinese Vice Consul in Brisbane.
  • The news indicates how Chinese consulates try to push the political agenda of the Chinese Communist Party even at local council levels.

The mayor of an Australian city has admitted that, at the request of a Chinese official, its local council got rid of a Taiwanese flag that some school students painted as part of an art exhibit.

The Rockhampton Regional Council invited students from a number of schools in April to paint six statues of bulls.

But when one of the bulls painted with international flags was exhibited in the town, the Taiwanese colours and characters for Taiwan (台灣) painted by two students were missing, reported ABC News last week. The bull was still accompanied by a plaque that said “This bull celebrates the cultural diversity of the Rockhampton community.”

“A decision was made to change one bull statue on display… in line with the Australian Government’s approach of adhering to the one-China policy, which means while it does not recognise Taiwan as a country, we continue to maintain unofficial contact with Taiwan promoting economic, trade and cultural interests,” a council spokesperson said.

The federal government, which doesn’t display Taiwanese flags, does not direct local governments to abide by the same policy.

On Sunday, city mayor Margaret Strelow explained that an official from Chinese Consulate in Brisbane was the one to alert the council to the issue, which is a “highly charged political minefield.”

“The Chinese vice consul in Brisbane made contact with one of our officers and sent through photos of the fish shaped flag, clearly showing the Chinese characters. (The Vice Consul is well known to us and she is a regular visitor to Rockhampton),” Strelow wrote in The Morning Bulletin.

Strewlow added: “Council officers contacted the school to explain that there was a problem. When the school couldn’t offer a solution, council staff proceeded to paint over the flag and words. The Australian Government’s agreement with China is that Australia does not recognise Taiwan as a separate country – hence no flag. The addition of the name ‘Tai Wan’ across the flag made the matter even more sensitive.”

Strewlow said the council was facing pressure because an important cattle industry event was about to begin and that “this was no time for an international incident.” Though she wasn’t aware of the incident at the time, Strewlow said she would not have changed the council’s actions.

The reach of Chinese consulates

Chinese Consulate Perth Australia
The national flag flies outside the Consulate General Of The Peoples Republic of China, in East Perth, Western Australia. Will Russell/Getty Images

Many consider Chinese consulates to play an important role in doing the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party, and trying to influence local councils as well as foreign governments.

They also target ordinary citizens.

Business Insider previously reported how advertisers in Chinese-language media in Australia have been called in by consulates in an attempt to strip funding from critical media.

“Some of our advertisers have been pulled into the Chinese consulate, I won’t say which one, but [one advertiser] was grilled for three hours for a ‘tea chat.’ She was told not to tell anyone,” Maree Ma, the general manager of Australia’s Vision Times Media, said.

The beef industry is crucial to this council

Rockhampton Cattle Australia
Then-opposition leader Tony Abbott visits Glenlands cattle station on August 31, 2013 in Rockhampton, Australia. Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The bull paintings were organised as part of Beef Week, which Strelow described as the region’s “most important event.”

China is a huge market for Australia’s cattle industry. In 2016 it was Australia’s fourth-largest beef-export market, according to data from Meat Livestock Australia.

In the council’s initial statement to ABC, a spokesman appeared to hint at this saying, “We highly value the relationship with all of our international trading partners and the opportunities they present for our region.”

Interestingly, Taiwan, which has a population 58 times smaller than China, is Australia’s sixth-largest beef-export market. Its Australian beef imports are as high as one-third of China’s.

Strelow hosted delegations from both China and Taiwan during Beef Week.

Rockhampton City Council and Beef Australia did not respond to earlier requests for comment from Business Insider.