The dramatic decline in Australia China relations has paralleled the rise in the anti-China rhetoric from the Trump administration, capped by its naming of COVID as “the China virus”. Who benefits from this situation? Hint: it’s not China and it’s not Australia.
A recent article in The Australian by Paul Kelly, hailed as insightful by China Matters (the consultancy defunded by the Morrison ministry as too pro-Beijing) pointed out that while Kelly agreed with almost every step that the Government had taken, the consequences were a mess and boded ill for the future. The reason Kelly proposed lay in its incapacity to articulate a clear set of goals other than an inchoate “national interest”.
Ten years ago I argued that immigrant societies always face tensions for the loyalty of newcomers (for instance, from China) between their identification with their origin countries, and their commitment to their new country. In receiving societies (for instance, like Australia) with a history of racism and race hatred, people of colour may be attracted by the willingness of their new country’s government to actively protect their human rights, especially in relation to any continuing racism. In Australia this willingness by government has been declining.
As well, China I suggested would be anxious to maintain the loyalty of Chinese immigrants to the greater transnational community of Hua Ren, led by the vision of Beijing – today guided by Xi Jinping thought. In his speech of 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the global Anti-Fascist War Xi proclaimed that China was dedicated to peace while noting “an ancient Chinese saying goes, ‘After making a good start, we should ensure that the cause achieves fruition’.” Fruition for Xi is a developed society which can never again be threatened with disruption, foreign invasion, or the horrors of regional war-lordism. It does not, he claimed, seek any hegemony nor desire to impose on other societies the horrors that China endured during a hundred years of foreign incursions and invasions, from Europe, the USA and Asia.
In order to achieve this peace, China in 2015 announced a sequence over fifteen year for expanded rings of influence and security. The first “ring” encompassing the South China Sea, has reached initial fruition, with the seeding of the southern waters with Chinese land bases, frustrating its neighbours and causing regional powers to push back, somewhat ineffectually. The current year marks the beginning of the next phase, pushing into the Pacific, and the implementation of the next five year economic plan, announced in May. The lock step between foreign policy and economic policy is no accident, reflecting the sense of imminent threat that China has experienced for nearly two hundred years. This explains its strategic use of economic capacity to bind partner nations in the next zone in ways they cannot avoid.
Australia has noticed the effects of these plans on the Pacific nations which it had previously assumed sat comfortably under its own hegemonic umbrella. When China butts up against the USA zone of influence in the Pacific (as Japan did in its attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) current tensions are likely to become even more inflamed than the Trump administration’s calling out of China’s economic hooks into America has achieved over the past four years.
However the warnings are clear – as Yale University’s Jason Stanley noted in his discussion of contemporary fascism on the UTS VC’s Democracy Forum (1 October 2020), fascism is a process of ensemble practices rather than a thing. So all the players in Venn diagram in which Australia is trapped use some fascist and anti-humane practices to advance their regime position. Australia’s finesse in holding asylum seekers at arms length in torturing situations has psychological reverberations with earlier regimes’ intimidation and torture of people they wished to deter or expel – Jews in pre-war Nazi Germany for example. That doesn’t make Australia a fascist state though to some Australians (many young Indigenous men or asylum seekers) it may be experienced as exactly that.
If we step back a bit and review the current apprehensions constantly stoked by the conservative elites (both prompted and echoed by some leftist nationalists such as those at the former Fairfax press), the Trumpets in security and defence, and the stalwarts of the Institute of Public Affairs, China has been construed an appalling though rational fascist state seeking to extend its hegemony over populations which wish to escape its grasp. Some escapees wish to pursue religious alternatives to the state ideology – including Muslims in the North West and Christians and democrats in Hong Kong. Others are democrats willing to put up with the more chaotic life offered by Western societies while hopefully prospering in less authoritarian regimes. Many immigrants from Communist China in Australia are seeking a degree of freedom, clean environment and economic opportunity hard to find in the old country. Others though are apparently potential spies, saboteurs and agents of the malign forces based in Beijing. Those forces, we are told, have infiltrated everywhere, watching us, influencing our views and seeking to erode and corrode our fierce sense of independence and autonomy that is the essence of Australian identity and morality.
Only the forces of Good can protect us, and anyone who resists is either a fool or an agent of the regime, even if they are not aware of their collaboration (Clive Hamilton on Jocelyn Chey as an example). In particular, anyone who suggests that the critique of the Chinese government and the Communist Party simply disguises a White Australia prejudiced loathing of the Mongol race, plays into the hands of the highly manipulative Beijing scriptwriters.
While this summary might be interpreted as a caricature of the real and subtle complexity of a constantly evolving situation, it does capture most of the talking points that pepper the rhetoric of the “beware” community.
There is a competing narrative that is given short shrift in the Australian media, well cowed by the trumpet players. China has dragged itself out of centuries of Euro-American imperialist impoverishment, and learned to play the games of global capitalist wealth accumulation through a state prism. One thing Chinese rulers have taken from their own detailed analysis of history – fed but not drowned by the insights of Leninist studies of imperialism – is that no one will look after their national interest (or their own place in the elites/ nomenklatura) other than themselves.
This lesson has been reinforced by the performance of President Trump, who correctly recognised that China had been playing the US economy as a rigged roulette wheel for years, to its advantage and the US’s real cost. China (and maybe also Trump) recognises that capitalism without a state plan has been prone to massive fluctuations as the business cycle regularly pushes tsunamis of growth and contraction through the economy: dirigisme would most likely trump neo-liberalism over the medium to long term. Possibly the most important indigenous lesson learned was that the empire/Middle Kingdom would collapse if regional war-lordism were allowed to break out again (as experienced post 1842 and the Opium Wars and then 1912 to 1949). Taiwan for Beijing is a war-lord enclave not yet subdued, Hong Kong has been a war-lord enclave now being subdued, Tibet was a war-lord enclave well subdued, and Xinjiang was threatening to become such an enclave and there it’s all out to subdue resistance.
Moreover the alternatives of neo-liberalism offered by the West have been demonstrably incapable of handling the accelerating Gaia crises – COVID, global warming, water shortages, wildfires, hurricanes, ocean warming and rising, and environmental pollution. Also Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are not exemplars of how democratic states successfully resolve the rise of irredentist religious anti-regime movements, the feared and not unrealistic potential outcome in China of Xinjiang Muslim autonomy movements. Boris Johnston and Donald Trump provide salutary lessons of what happens when under-educated self-interested socially-unaware populations “choose” incapable leaders who sacrifice their own populations (Brexit, COVID) due to their ineptitude and lack of social concern. It is not only China where the emphasis on Law and Order neglects the third key element – justice.
Throughout Chinese history a principal strategy of successful regimes has kept a buffer zone of dependent-supplicant economically-productive states/ cultures/ tribes/ regions between the heart of the empire and the barbarians beyond. The Belt and Road initiative reflects this world-view amplified through an appreciation of globalisation and its threats and benefits. In the Chinese view, collaborations between Chinese ingenuity, management and strategic vision, with subordinated or partner governments offering local resources, energy and logistics, would create a win-win with China on top while aiding a lot of other populations floating upwards to become extended consumers in a global Chinese supermarket.
Thus we have seen the Africa push, the Pacific push, the Europe push and indeed the Australia push. Pity though about Huawei, which freaked out the trumpets with its imaginative or imagined access into the heart of the Australian future; its banning means Australia will slip even further back into remaining a mine and pasture, with a rump of sheltered-workshops “making things because that’s what Australia does”, now that the two other industries – tourism and education – have been on the one hand wrecked by COVID and on the other trashed by the trumpets.
So, who benefits from the current mess in Australia / China relations? It does China no particular good to have to keep swatting at the Australian fly buzzing at it. It is now clear that the ham-fisted raids in Australia by the trumpets on Chinese journalists led to the “please explain” interviews with the Australian journalists in Beijing. The Australian media accepted government advice to pull “our” journalists out of China, a sensible move in the short term, but now a guarantee we are without independent thoughtful analysis of the current Chinese situation. I would not like to trust the hysteria of the IPA to provide the nation with a compass into the future.
In Australia there were raids on an Australian politician, Shaoquett Moselmane, and his Chinese born advisor John Zhang. Moselmane’s career and reputation have been trashed, but he has been declared of no further interest, and no crimes have ever been alleged against him, let alone taken to court or proven: practices remarkably like those of other authoritarian regimes anxious to suppress internal criticism. The trumpets then had the Australian government ban a number of Chinese academics who had specialist knowledge of Australia, just at the time this knowledge (rather than fevered propagandised prejudice) was needed in China – a really smart move (not). The Chinese had banned two trumpet politicians (not smart but hey, they are a pain) and two leading academics who are PRC regime critics. In the meantime a tit for tat series of dumping claims riddle the inter-nation trade situation.
The only interest that is served by the current state of affairs is that of the Trump regime, and its Australian trumpets, who show many of their own signs of being undeclared agents of a foreign power. In this case the USA (in its Trump incarnation) has undermined much of the Australian relationship with China. We know Trump uses disruption as a tactic while pursuing a more shaded longer term strategy: viz at even the inter-personal level his shouting over Biden in the first Presidential debate, the effect of which (until Trump was laid low by COVID and then returned resurrected and youthfully invigorated by the virus treatment) was potentially to reduce the interest of moderate US citizens in voting at all. A similar effect is emerging following the urging of the trumpets on Australia’s relationship with China, demonstrated through our disengagement, apprehension and reduction in real knowledge interactions.
Hopefully the relation can be resurrected, but only if we recognise that both China and the USA are gaming us, and not for our benefit. The basis needs to be a rational appreciation of the societal values that Australia espouses, the reality of how we actually implement those values, and the distances we need to travel to draw them together.
We should not have any illusions about the Chinese government and its ruling party, though we might be rather more respectful of their circumstances. Similarly we should have no illusions about the USA, or the cabal that runs its government. Empires have their own logics, which may work well for the metropoles but rather less well for the periphery. As a peripheral nation we will continue to be a small but precious (to us) circle in the Venn diagram of imperial contestation in the Pacific over the next century.