Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 07:02 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 07:02 | SYDNEY

Sinophiles and Sinophobes


Graeme Dobell

9 April 2009 12:36

The Australian discussion about China may be at a new stage. Certainly the tempo is up. The terms of the debate seem more intense and complex (if not any more sophisticated). Let’s lay out some of the strands of this discussion to see how they interweave (and which bits need to be treated in isolation).

We are seeing a vital discussion about Chinese investment in Australian mining morph into controversy about whether China is investing in Australian politicians. The Chinese reach for soft power influence is being spiced with alarm about Chinese cyberwarfare.

The soft power discussion will shortly take a turn towards the hard/military end of the spectrum with the release of the Defence White Paper. Hugh White’s imminent Lowy report previewing the White Paper will probably be more explicit than the official document about the implications of rising Chinese power for Australia’s defence planners.

The politics of all this is probably the easiest to deal with. The Opposition depiction of Kevin Rudd as the Manchurian Candidate and China’s roving ambassador harks back to a time when Australia was scared of China and didn’t even have diplomatic relations with the dreaded Reds.

Not much is new in politics. The Manchurian jibe recalls Prime Minister Billy McMahon chiding Labor’s Gough Whitlam for going to China in 1971 and being ‘played like a trout’ by Beijing. Unfortunately for McMahon, Whitlam’s public visit coincided with Kissinger’s secret visit so Nixon could go to China. The politician caught on the hook ended up being McMahon. The Reds-under-the-beds attack has been of limited use ever since.

John Howard exemplified the pragmatic conservative’s modern approach to China. Keep the bulk carriers sailing and don’t pay too much public attention to issues of difference. The approach was nicely summarised by John Garnaut and Peter Hartcher:

Howard's formula was simple: concentrate on trade. Everything else - the sensitive issues of Taiwan, Tibet, defence, human rights, democracy, Falun Gong - was shut out. The result? A trouble-free relationship and $25 billion worth of LNG contracts for Australia.

The efforts of spies and aspiration for soft power make Howard’s simple segmentation harder to maintain. China may now pose the biggest espionage threat to Australian military and commercial technology. And even Prime Minister Rudd has to be more careful about the Manchurians tapping into his computer. The Australia Tibet Council has just released a study setting out its claims about the ‘alarming extent of Chinese Government attempts to influence Australian politicians, media, NGOs and universities.’

Australia is just one among many targets/partners. China is on track to have 500 Confucius Institutes operating in 100 countries, teaching Chinese language and culture. This is a nation reaching for its conception of soft power. The problem for Beijing is that the essence of soft power is to get other people to want what you want.  

Insistence on broad conformity in line with Party platitudes is about exercising power, not persuasion. The Hong Kong perspective from David Bandurski is that China doesn’t really understand the nature of the instrument it’s trying to wield.

If China indeed hopes to improve its international reputation and boost its soft power, it will have to act in a spirit of openness and exchange, not with a hard-minded insistence on facts that do not admit discussion or challenge.

Photo by Flickr user Frank Peters, used under a Creative Commons license.