China’s new ambassador to Australia chided human rights protesters who heckled him Friday during a speech about the future of frosty relations between the two countries.

Protester at UTS
Human right protester interrupts a speech by China’s ambassador to Australia on Friday. Photo: Drew Pavlou, via Twitter screenshot.

Xiao Qian, who has only been in the role since January, had just begun his speech when the first protesters interjected, calling for freedom for Tibet and Hong Kong.

The ambassador was repeatedly interrupted by sign-wielding protestors, some criticising China’s treatment of the Uyghur people as well as the university for inviting Xiao to speak.

“People who are coming again and again to interrupt the process, that’s not expression of freedom of speech… this should not be welcomed,” the ambassador said.

James Laurenson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, which invited Xiao to campus, said the university “welcomes freedom of speech on campus… that right, however, does not extend to speaking over the top of invited guests.”

During the ambassador’s speech, one protester was escorted from the room by security as she yelled: “The University of Technology cannot platform a representative of a genocidal dictatorship.”

Another protester’s sign, which read “Free Tibet, Free East Turkestan”, was ripped from his hands by a member of the audience.

China and Australia have been at loggerheads for years after Canberra cracked down on foreign interference and called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 while Beijing responded with sweeping trade sanctions.

But in recent weeks, Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles met with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines on the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the first ministerial meeting between the two nations in three years.

University of Technology, Sydney
University of Technology, Sydney. File photo: Brickworks Building Products, via Flickr.

In his speech, Xiao said Australia’s May elections, in which the centre-left Labor party swept to power, created an “opportunity of possible improvement” in relations between the two countries.

He quoted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, saying that “a reset requires concrete actions” and pointing to the potential for political, economic and security cooperation, as well as regional affairs.

Xiao was asked whether there was hope for Australians detained in China, including journalist Cheng Lei and writer Yang Hengjun.

There had been “very intense” communication between Beijing and Canberra on these individual cases, he said, but was firm the Chinese legal process should be respected by Australia.

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