Geremie Barme … decision underscores thorny issues. Photo: Supplied
BEIJING has complained to Canberra about the contents and title of a university publication, Red Rising, Red Eclipse, triggering stinging rebukes about the "harassment" of Australian scholars and threats to democratic values.
Chinese diplomats complained to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University about the alleged lack of balance in the centre's China Story Yearbook 2012.
They also blocked internet access to the report from mainland China.
In return, the Chinese embassy received a 13-page lecture from one of the world's leading sinologists about diplomacy, free speech and vestigial Maoism.
In a letter to the Chinese embassy dated November 14, the centre's director, Geremie Barme, wrote: ''I for one do not see how such a crude interdiction benefits mutual understanding [and] respect.''
Professor Barme's decision this week to reveal the Chinese pressure and publish his letter on his centre's website has underscored thorny issues about free speech, as the Chinese Communist Party flexes its economic and diplomatic muscle in the world.
Stephen FitzGerald, who was Australia's inaugural ambassador to Beijing in 1972, said the Chinese government must have been wanting the Australian government to censor or reprimand the centre, despite Australian norms of academic independence. "What we've got here is the clash of values," said Mr FitzGerald.
He applauded Professor Barme's decision to publicly uphold ''what they stand for, in terms of free speech and intellectual and academic freedom''.
The incident echoes efforts by Chinese diplomats in July 2009 to prevent the Melbourne Film Festival screening a documentary about an exiled leader of China's Uighur people, which triggered an international storm.
The Fairfax Media journalist who broke the story, a former Beijing correspondent, Mary-Anne Toy, has since been denied visas to enter China for tourist travel.
This week the Chinese Communist Party took the rare measure of in effect expelling a resident journalist, Chris Buckley, and his family. Buckley is an Australian citizen.
The failure to renew Buckley's media accreditation was an apparent retaliation against a New York Times story about the family wealth of the Premier, Wen Jiabao.
Buckley's wife and daughter have been forced to leave mainland China, despite their respective work and school commitments.
A November survey by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China revealed that 20 members had been forced to wait more than four months for
accreditation. The treatment contrasts with the unfettered access Chinese journalists and scholars are given to Australia and other nations.
Most of Australia's Chinese language media is controlled or closely linked to the Chinese government and more than 650 Chinese government journalists are working in the US alone.
The Australian Centre on China in the World was opened by the former prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010 and visited that year by Xi Jinping, who has just been promoted to China's top political and military positions.
The year book, launched in August by the former Treasury secretary Ken Henry, provides multiple perspectives and case studies on contemporary China, including the rise and apparent decapitation of China's neo-Maoist movement with the purge of the Politburo member Bo Xilai.
The year book also contains views from Communist Party officials, such as a People's Daily summation of China's ''Golden Decade''.
Professor Barme wrote: ''We believe that it is important to act as if the People's Republic had already sloughed off the vestiges of Cold War-era and Maoist attitudes, behaviour and language.
"We engage with the People's Republic as if it enjoyed an environment like that of any other mature, open and equitable society … as if such comments and criticisms were not a result of ideological bullying nor merely the product of fearful bureaucratic fiat or the desire to avoid possible official embarrassment," he said.
"We act as if the rhetoric of friendship, understanding and shared concerns were a reality."
Mr FitzGerald delivered a speech at the centre in November in which he raised the need to "be tough and have courage in your values" when dealing with China, just as toughness and independence were required when dealing with the US.
"The Chinese position was that its right should override any rights we had - in these cases China's right being to direct how it is seen, presented and understood in Australia," he said, referring to the incident involving the Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer.