Reporter Matthew Knott shares what he saw travelling to Beijing with Penny Wong

The call came through last Tuesday evening: “Would you like to travel to Beijing with Penny Wong next week?”

Aware the 50th anniversary of Australia’s establishment of diplomatic ties with China was fast approaching, I’d been on the lookout for a goodwill gesture from China to mark the occasion. But there’d been no sign a trip by the foreign minister could be in the offing. My answer, of course, was an instant yes.

Reporter Matthew Knott in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse; Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong before a media briefing.Credit:Matthew Knott, AAP

This was a significant diplomatic event: three years had passed since an Australian minister had set foot in China, reflecting the near-total collapse in the nations’ bilateral relationship. It’s been just as hard for Australian journalists to gain access to the country. Applications for media visas – including by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – have been rejected repeatedly since relations soured. The two remaining China correspondents for Australian news outlets had to flee in 2020 and have never been replaced.

Then there are China’s hardline “zero-COVID” border restrictions, which have made visiting the country impossible for most foreigners since the pandemic began. Any time spent there — no matter how brief, no matter how controlled — was an opportunity to seize, given the rising superpower’s influence to shape the destiny of this century. As well as Wong’s entourage, there was room on the trip for just two journalists, one photographer and one camera operator.

The visit was top-secret information and wouldn’t be announced until six days later. There was a chance a COVID-19 infection could scuttle the trip, embarrassing the Chinese government. In the meantime, we had to frantically obtain visas, organise PCR tests and arrange technology fixes. Authoritarian China is a high-risk environment for hacking so we travelled with new phones, telephone numbers and laptops that would be discarded as soon as the trip ended.

Hazmat suits at the ready as Penny Wong arrives in Beijing.

Hazmat suits at the ready as Penny Wong arrives in Beijing.Credit:AAP

When the government’s plane touched down on the tarmac in Beijing at 11pm, it felt like the movie Contagion had come to life. Workers in hazmat suits were everywhere you looked.

On the drive to our accommodation, the Beijing streets were desolate and deserted; I could only imagine how busy and lively this megalopolis would be when there wasn’t a virus breakout.

Our delegation was sequestered at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a compound of villas used by the Chinese government for international visits. More than 1000 heads of state have stayed there, including Barack Obama.

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