China, M&M, Hastie

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.

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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 justfy 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Australian media owners and journalists unite to call for laws to protect a free press

Thanks AdNews.

Media owners have united in an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison asking him to defend press freedom in Australia.

The “Journalism is not a Crime” letter was published in News Corp Australia newspapers, including The Australian, and Nine newspapers, including The Sydney Morning Herald.

The letter, also signed by some of the nation’s most prominent journalists, including Karen Middleton, David Marr, Kathrine Murphy, Laurie Oaks and Malcolm Farr, calls for legislation to “recognise and enshrine a positive public interest protection for whistleblowers and for journalists”….

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Sydney Boys High 1985

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I couldn’t recall Scott Morrison, our PM du jour, from my teaching at Sydney Boys High from late 1985. Still true, but I have found some evidence. Yes, he was a prefect — and the Principal there in the front row had been my Maths teacher in 1958-9.

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Why think of this today? Because last night I saw someone I do remember from SBHS 1985, a member of the Year 11 class that became the memorable Class of 1986. I might even suggest this person is rather more interesting than SM, but maybe that would be churlish. It was on last night’s The Drum on ABC News 24.

Host: Julia Baird
Panel: by Brooke Boney, Simon Holmes à Court and Samantha Maiden
Guest: Dr Sacha Molitorisz and Pete Goss
The panel discusses $4.5 billion funding for non-government schools, a no confidence motion against Peter Dutton and Australians losing trust in the government.

Sacha looked rather different in 1985 — but then, so did I! Fascinating research he’s been doing:

My expertise spans ethics, media and law, and my goal is to find answers to the question of how, in a digital age, we can shape a more ethical media landscape. At the Centre for Media Transition at UTS, my research (and teaching) areas include digital privacy and trust in news media. In 2017, I completed a PhD into the ethics of digital privacy; previously, I studied law and English Literature.

Bunnies, keep your pants on!

Great one-point win on Saturday over the St George-Illawarra Dragons, in which this man was bloody marvellous. Next week a chance to get into the Grand Final!

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The previous 48 hours, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph, were dominated by other matters. So much more important than natural disasters in South-East Asia or the Carolinas, or evn then the war in Yemen or the latest from Syria. But I digress.

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Rather taken with the approach by today’s Sydney Morning Herald though.

The high-profile Souths player at the centre of the sexting scandal is unlikely to be stood down before the preliminary final against the Roosters amid claims the lewd video chat was consensual.

While other media outlets have chosen to name the player, Fairfax Media has decided not to following legal advice….

In a bizarre twist, the woman involved in the sexting scandal has identified herself as a Roosters fan who hails from Sydney’s eastern suburbs. There is no suggestion she is trying to sabotage Souths’ run at the premiership.

She is presently holidaying in Johannesburg, South Africa, but investigators hope to interview her via a telephone hook-up in coming days to get her version of events.

The NRL, which was first made aware on Thursday of the woman’s allegations, says it is too premature and the facts too blurred to decide if the Souths player should be stood down.

Is this harassment? Gross indecency? A honey trap from a scorned admirer? A legal issue or a moral one? It remains murky at best….

So much news about the news

Here I am at City Diggers contemplating the front page of this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald.

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Probably most amazing, when you think about it, is that The Herald, The Age and stablemates still exist! I for one am glad they do. The story is Fairfax and Nine are merging. Here’s what the deal involves and what it will mean for you.

Fairfax journalists will inevitably fear for their future, given the company’s form in retrenching thousands of journalists in recent years and increasing competition from other digital media.

Even if Fairfax’s newspapers continue, for the foreseeable future, many will rightly fear that a pooling of journalists and other staff with Nine will inevitably lead to more job losses.

A loss of journalists will mean fewer people reporting on the important issues facing Australia each day, and many fear will mean a loss of diversity in media coverage.

Former Prime Mnister Paul Keating is withering:

…if in the announced arrangement, Channel Nine has a majority of the stock, Channel Nine will run the editorial policy.

The problem with this is that in terms of news management, Channel Nine, for over half a century, has never, other than displayed the opportunism and ethics of an alley cat.

There has been no commanding ethical or moral basis for the conduct of its news and information policy.

Through various changes of ownership, no one has lanced the carbuncle at the centre of Nine’s approach to news management. And, as sure as night follows day, that pus will inevitably leak into Fairfax.

For the country, this is a great pity.

But probably inevitable. Wonder what will happen to the regional Fairfax papers, such as our own Illawarra Mercury.

And then we hear Lee Lin Chin is departing SBS! Alas, alack, and oh well-a-day!

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Could all these events taken together portend the end of civilisation [correct spelling!] as we know it?

See Lee Lin Chin: Looking back on some of the ‘Queen of Australian TV’s’ memorable moments.