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China envoy threatens Australia boycott over coronavirus probe

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Chinese ambassador says demands for inquest into virus spread could lead to boycott of Aussie goods

SYDNEY: China's ambassador in Australia has warned that demands for a probe into the spread of the coronavirus could lead to a consumer boycott of wine or trips Down Under.

In response, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne cautioned China against attempts at "economic coercion".

Australia has joined the US in calling for a thorough investigation of how the virus transformed from a localised epidemic in central China into a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people, forced billions into isolation and torpedoed the global economy.

In a thinly veiled threat, ambassador Cheng Jingye warned the push for an independent inquest into the origins of the outbreak was "dangerous".

"The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now," he claimed in an interview with the Australian Financial Review published on Sunday.

"If the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think, 'why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China?' The tourists may have second thoughts," he added.

"It is up to the people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say, 'Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?'"

Mr Cheng also threatened the flow of Chinese students to Australian universities, a key source of revenue that is already under threat from pandemic travel restrictions.

"The parents of the students would also think whether this place which they found is not so friendly, even hostile, whether this is the best place to send their kids," he said.

The comments mark a significant escalation in tensions between Beijing and Canberra, whose relations are already strained.

Mr Cheng also accused Australia of echoing talking points from the US.

"Some guys are attempting to blame China for their problems and deflect the attention," he said.

"It's a kind of pandering to the assertions that are made by some forces in Washington."

Ms Payne said in a statement yesterday that Australia had made a "principled call" for an independent review of the Covid-19 outbreak.

"We reject any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to a call for such an assessment, when what we need is global cooperation," Ms Payne said.

Ms Payne said an "honest assessment" of the pandemic would seek to strengthen the World Health Organisation's role.

SCHOOLS REOPEN

In a separate development, tens of thousands of students returned to school in Shanghai and Beijing yesterday after months of closures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Shanghai students in their final year of middle and high school returned to classrooms, while only high-school seniors in Beijing were allowed back on campus to prepare for the all-important "gaokao" university entrance exam.

Across the country, schools that have been closed or online-only since January began gradually reopening last month.

Virus epicentre Wuhan is set to reopen its high schools on May 6.

Students in the capital will have their temperatures measured at school gates and must show a "green" health code on a special app that calculates a person's infection risk, according to China's Education Ministry. - AFP, REUTERS

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