Last Friday I found myself caught up in a moderately fiery exchange on Facebook with an old friend, Matt da Silva, in defence of another friend, M, who, as you may know if you are a regular here, came to Australia from China in December 1989. I have known M since July 1990. Matt I first met in Glebe in the early 1980s through the literary magazine “Neos” with which we were both associated.
Surry Hills Christmas 1992 or 1993: l-r George from Shanghai, me, M — and as you can see, 25+ years is rather a long time!
The occasion was the publication in the Sydney Morning Herald of Andrew Hastie’s We must see China — the opportunities and the threats — with clear eyes. A backbencher, Hastie is chair of the Australian parliamentary joint committee for intelligence and security, and a former elite soldier. He is also a well-known conservative, very much to the Right. His words have attracted condemnation from China — no surprise there — but also from Australian politicians and commentators, not only those on the Left, as unhelpful. Matt’s post began with what I thought a very poor sketch of US/China relations under Clinton and Deng Xiaoping, though to be fair he was perhaps stirring the possum a bit.
It surprised me that M joined the conversation. suggesting essentially that Matt should ask some Chinese people what they think. That’s where Matt’s response stirred me up in defence of M — and I admit I laid it on with a trowel, though I stand by what I said.
The irony is that I don’t entirely disagree with Hastie, at least so far as there is a need for “clear eyes” about China, a point developed in a column I subsequently read in the next day’s Herald: Anne-Marie Brady, “We need to talk about China — why Hastie was right to sound the alarm.” Professor Brady is a China specialist from New Zealand but she does have a history of her own. I have seen it said that she may be a CIA asset! I have no idea really….
Hastie does in my opinion indulge in enough over-ripe rhetoric and bad analogy to justify the exception many have taken to his piece — me not least.
Imagine if you will that the very latest military kit from China fell out of the sky over, say, Wollongong. What do you think our people would do with it? Exactly.
Hastie begins by recounting such an event, much less hysterically noted in Ron Huisken, Introducing China — the World’s Oldest Superpower Charts its Next Comeback, Canberra, ANU E Press 2010. “When US President George W. Bush assumed office in January 2001, his Administration essentially codified the preceding decade of difficulty and deterioration in US-China relations. During the election campaign, the Bush team had bluntly characterised China as a strategic competitor. Once in office, it consciously took a more detached or aloof approach to China, signalling—as befits a sole superpower—that China was an important concern but not especially important. In an early crisis—the collision between a Chinese fighter aircraft and a US intelligence-gathering EP-3 aircraft in international airspace off Hainan Island in April 2001—the Bush Administration conspicuously resisted elevating its significance and pursued a resolution through normal diplomatic channels.” Hastie notes the plane was returned in pieces.
Hastie sees this as “the most significant geopolitical moment of the 21st century” — yes, even more significant than 9/11!
Hastie goes on to liken the belief, once common in the West, that China would eventually become more democratic as economic liberalism prevailed there, to the “Maginot line”, so implying an equation between China and the threat of Nazi Germany, we being protected from China by that comforting but dubious belief. The sunny idea he alludes to was no doubt part of the “end of history” meme following the fall of the Soviet Union and encouraged by the student movement in China.
Now let me reinterpret that idea of a Maginot Line, for the moment ignoring that rarely have apples and oranges been so confused as in Hastie’s rhetoric.
If I were Chinese I might see those militarised islands in the South China Sea as something of a “Maginot Line”, protecting China’s interests against possible encroachments or invasions. (Of course the view from Vietnam or the Philippines would differ.) The century of humiliation before 1949 was not forgotten, is not forgotten. It is in part what Mao was referring to in 1949 when he asserted that the Chinese people had stood up.
Just 30 years before at Versailles the assembled powers had left then impotent China in no doubt where it stood. “The event that ought to have marked a new era for Europe and the world took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on Saturday afternoon, June 28, on the spot where the German Empire had been proclaimed in 1870. Had the treaty been really based on Mr. Wilson’s program, as it purported to be, had it contained a League of Nations Covenant along the lines of the noble conception of its advocates, had one weight and one measure been applied to all alike, there would have been some hope of a European and world peace born in the hearts of men that day…. The Italians and Japanese and most of the small powers had no particular interest in the treaty. Fearing to be assassinated if they returned home after having put China’s name to such a document, the Chinese at the last minute refused to sign…. The ceremony was like a funeral; for a consciousness of failure was present among the signatories. And among some was a consciousness of shame. I talked to two of the principal signatories on the eve of the ceremony, and they told me that they felt they were going to do something dishonorable. Another signatory, representing one of the British dominions, told me on the evening of June 28 that it had been the saddest day of his life.” That is from a forgotten book by a US journalist with excellent connections, Herbert Adams Gibbons, Europe Since 1918, NY, The Century Co., 1923. Good writer too. The contrasting treatment of China and Japan was the sticking point then: consider what was done with Shantung, for example. In China — “The intellectual modernization of China goes under the name of the ‘Movement of May Fourth’, because on May 4th, 1919, students of the National University in Peking demonstrated against the government and their pro-Japanese adherents.” (Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China, University of California, 3rd edition 1969.)
As you know if you have seen or read Empire of the Sun, those foreign concessions in Shanghai and elsewhere persisted until the Japanese war was over and the Peoples Republic was proclaimed. Remember the signs: “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.”
An ethnic Chinese writer, Len Mei, in an e-book published in 2011, The Last Days of an Empire, has a point. (English is clearly not Len Mei’s first language, nor is it M’s. M also speaks three Chinese languages — Mandarin, Shanghainese and Jiangsu dialect — and now English, which only in recent years has he been confident enough to write unassisted. Bi- or multi-lingualism are not unusual in China.) “It is difficult to separate the China today from the China yesterday,” writes Len Mei. “China’s fall in the nineteenth century was so unfathomable, that in spite of thirty years of miraculous economic growth since 1980, she is still a poor country in terms of per capita income. Only her sheer size makes her an economic giant. After reading this book, you might realize how difficult the task to restore China to her previous prosperity. From my point of view, it would need at least thirty more years. Is China today different from China yesterday? The political system may be different. One can argue that the essence remains the same. The Communist China is by the name of communism only. The Chinese communists cling to communism because it is their mandate of heaven, their justification to hold onto their power. It is the same mandate of heaven that dynasties justified their rules. Nothing that communist government does today is relevant to the communism that it preaches.”
One can well argue about that last point of course, and Hastie does. It is also true that ideologically Xi Jinping has taken the country backwards, though not as far as the years of the Cultural Revolution of which he and Deng Xiaoping were victims. Hence Deng’s invention of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and his famed remarks about the relative merits of black and white cats. But true, China is an authoritarian place — as of course is Saudi Arabia, and North Korea is worse — and not likely anytime soon to adopt democracy.
What M knows from personal experience — and he was last in China just this year — is that the lives of his family in Shanghai and of the people around are immeasurably better than they were, materially and also spiritually, in that however much the government tries to control them travel and access to foreign ideas, including democratic ones, are far more possible now than they were at any time in M’s first 25 years. He can remember the final phase of the Cultural Revolution, and famine (in part man-made of course) when there was nothing to eat but cabbage. As a child M recalls enviously watching his neighbours eat.
M in China, 2019
Neither I nor M is saying everything is wonderful in China, or that we in Australia need not be cautious in our dealings with Chinese officialdom. Indeed in November 2018 M was in Taiwan and had this to say: “First time in Taiwan, enjoying it! Excellent food ( not expensive) nice weather, easy transportation,the people here so friendly and warm, today on the train a mother told her teenager son to give his seat to a lady who carried a kid and the lady never heard the mother and son’s conversation, I was impressed, people here got good traditional and courtesy, I think Taiwan people a different breed to Hong Kong and mainland Chinese, I feel more comfortable here, they are representing Chinese tradition and values, if I have to choose to live any Chinese city it would be Taiwan!”
And yes, I am cheering like mad, trembling, for the people of Hong Kong right now.
Interesting to read the conclusion of Ron Huisken’s 2010 study: “China takes itself very seriously and seems to be engaged in a quite stunning demonstration of Sun Tzu’s dictum that ‘to subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence’, inviting the world to overlook the evidence about the formidable hard power assets it is determined to acquire in favour of simply enjoying the fruits of its market and trusting in the sincerity of its rhetoric on being determined to become a benign and peaceful new-age major power without a realist bone in its body.
“One does not have to believe that China’s rise is an ominous development to see prudence in questioning its endeavour to ‘keep a low profile and hide its strengths’ until some date in the still distant future. Playing along with this strategy, but also, inevitably, being driven to hedge against less optimistic scenarios, is a recipe for a steady erosion of trust and confidence, and the emergence of a serious adversarial relationship in circumstances of already heightened military preparedness. China is well past the point where any reasonable doubt can be attached either to its aspirations to become one of the world’s dominant states or to its capacity to achieve these aspirations. It could be the case that the Chinese Government’s rhetoric about the sort of international actor it intends to be is wholly sincere. It is the case, however, that China’s system of governance inescapably erodes the credibility of that rhetoric. The policy prescription that emerges from this assessment is to become more persistent and resolute in requiring China to measure up to contemporary standards of openness and transparency, and to create opportunities for China to display its willingness to enter into obligations and commitments that genuinely constrain its policy options.”
How much of that still applies ten years on? See Ron Huisken, Australia–China relations: who’s in the dark? The Strategist 11 September 2018. Do compare some of my earlier posts such as Not forgetting China 30 years on.
Consider too Nicholas Jose, “Tiananmen remains unfinished business for China, and for Australia”, in The Strategist 4 June 2019. Nicholas Jose is fluent in Mandarin and was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987 to 1990. Chinese democracy advocate, Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison in 2017, was a personal friend. “His ashes were scattered at sea, preventing the site of his remains from becoming a shrine. It is hard to believe that one individual could so enrage the powerful Chinese Communist Party. It is hard to understand why China would destroy one of its best and brightest for advocating non-violent reform in legal and constitutional ways.” In the mid 1990s, through Nick, I had the privilege of meeting Liu Xiaobo in Sydney.
Meanwhile the Chinese keep coming to City Diggers Wollongong and eating all our fish and chips! How dare they? No, they aren’t really eating all of them, and they are paying. Helping to keep my meals cheap in fact by keeping the club going.
Wollongong City Diggers, 9 August 2019
Oh, and this has been written (despite the US branding HP) on my Chinese computer…
Reading: I would still recommend the Chinese histories of Jonathan Spence — very readable and full of interesting ideas and personalities. More recently, I recommend Are We Asian Yet? History vs Geography, Australian Foreign Affairs, Issue 5, February 2019. Note that the seventh issue of Australian Foreign Affairs (October 2019) will explore Australia’s status as the most China-dependent country in the developed world, and the potential risks this poses to its future prosperity and security.
To judge from page 6 of the Sydney Morning Herald 12 August, it appears there is a campaign on. The Peril riding again perhaps? I think I will leave that alone though.
But do read Peter Hartcher.