In the Year of COVID-19, the relative isolation of Adelaide, Hobart, Darwin, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth, not to mention all the small cities, towns and hamlets in Australia’s far-flung regions, rapidly became an asset. Remoteness, in other words, turns out to be an advantage in a country that, in Geoffrey Blainey’s words, suffered from “the tyranny of distance” in its formative years. For Melburnians and non-Melburnians alike, compelled to endure the nightmare of a stage-four lockdown or not, the tyranny of proximity and not the tyranny of distance drives our instincts to survive. If we are to learn anything from the Year of COVID-19, beyond a fanatical commitment to stringent hygiene protocol, it is this.
This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance, first published in 1966, emerged at a pivotal moment in Australian history. Blainey made the case, in the chapter titled “Antipodes Adrift”, that the early British settlers of our continent developed “the kind of community one would expect to find within a few miles of Land’s End”. The problem was, however, that this community happened to dwell on the other side of the world, in the beginning an eight-month voyage under sail. The introduction of the steamship cut that down to ninety days by 1850, while the advent of the Suez Canal route reduced the time of the journey to something like forty-five days by the 1870s. Nonetheless, the next great advance was not until the start-up of regular flights and the “Kangaroo Route” in 1935. For the first century-and-a-half of British settlement, then, Australian society was affected by the anxiety of existing at a great distance from its civilisational wellspring.
Remoteness, maintained Blainey, was not only a matter of geographical separation from Britain, but also of our long-distance governance of Australia’s underpopulated and undeveloped tropical north. The resultant unease of possessing the sensibilities of an Isle of Wight but located on a mostly empty continent in the faraway South Pacific revealed itself in any number of ways, not the least being a hybrid Anglo-Australian patriotism (as implied by the national flag), military expeditions in defence of the empire (Sudan, the Boer War, First World War, Second World War), a British-centric immigration policy and an interdependent economic relationship. Blainey, unsurprisingly, nominated 1941 as the year which marked “Australia’s transition from its traditional role as echo and image of Britain and an outpost of Europe”. December 7, date of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, might have been a day of infamy for America but it was a moment of salvation for Australia. Thereafter, it was the US and not the “Old Country” that prevented our incorporation into Imperial Japan’s Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Australia’s transformation from an “echo and image of Britain” was in fact gradual, spasmodic and, in some ways, marginal. The signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951 confirmed a shift that had commenced ten years earlier. Even so, the UK remained our main—though no longer sole—source of immigrants from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Our troops were part of the Commonwealth forces that fought in the Malayan Emergency (1948 to 1960), a successful British-led counter-insurgency movement that defeated the military wing of the Malayan Communist Party. We can add that Australia’s involvement in the defence of South Korea from the invading forces of North Korea and its Communist China ally (the so-called People’s Volunteer Army) was an Anglo-Australian partnership, albeit with the US as the overriding force. The British, unlike the Australians, did not participate in the Vietnam War. Moreover, the UK’s decision to join the European Community in the 1970s signified a fundamental change in the Anglo-Australian economic relationship. As Blainey points out in updated editions of his book, by the time the technicalities of the tyranny of distance between the UK and Australia were resolved—improvements in telecommunications, relatively inexpensive international flights and so forth—fewer and fewer Australians were regarding Britain as “the Mother Country”.
Nevertheless, from the 1950s onwards a rising generation of tertiary-educated Australians agitated against any remaining way in which Australia seemed to them “an echo and image of Britain”. Our constitutional monarchy, for one, was in their sights. Early Baby Boomers and their older brothers and sisters took to heart Donald Horne’s lament in The Lucky Country (1964) that most Australians were too second-rate in their thinking, too cosy, dull and provincial, to imagine their country as “grown up” and capable of determining its own destiny on its own terms. The professorial Horne added to the charge by mocking his compatriots for misinterpreting his use of lucky in the title of his famous book: he meant stupid-lucky in the sense that, as “an echo and image of Britain”, we had never learnt to think for ourselves. Horne’s denunciation of post-war Australian society was, in a double sense, an extension of A.A. Phillips’s “cultural cringe”, first expounded in a 1950 Meanjin essay. In the first instance, Horne was lambasting Australians for their cringing bondage to Britain which (allegedly) explained their inability to contemplate his brilliant and innovative idea of an Australian republic. Horne, paradoxically, betrayed himself as a victim of the cultural cringe he railed against. He wanted to “fix” an unbroken constitutional arrangement because he worried what it said about Australia: an inferiority complex, surely, that is almost the definition of a cultural cringe.
Malcolm Turnbull also exhibited symptoms of a cultural cringe in his role as a head of the botched 1999 pro-Republic campaign. His 1993 book The Reluctant Republic reads like his own case of chronic inferiority battling it out with his insufferable self-righteousness: “As long as we have the British Queen as our Head of State, other nations, not just in Asia, will regard us as somewhat less than independent.” Did we really need to change our constitution, one older than those of China, Germany, Russia, Japan, France, Indonesia, Malaysia and most other countries, in order to mitigate the confusion of foreigners?
None of this is to argue that Australians should be Anglophiles in the sense of being “an echo and image of Britain”. The UK and the Commonwealth of Australia are two separate nations with their own distinct interests, which sometimes coalesce and sometimes diverge. Brexit was relevant to us because it holds the promise of advantageous arrangements for Australian businesses, workers and travellers, with Westminster regaining the autonomy it surrendered to the European Union. Constitutionalist monarchists need be neither Anglophiles nor Anglophobes. Sir Anthony Mason, Chief Justice of Australia from 1987 to 1995, apparently turned republican one evening after watching the Bodyline television series, an illustrative example of an Australian “cultural cringe” masquerading as grown-up sophistication à la Horne and Turnbull.
Australia’s progressive intelligentsia did not get their republic and yet, as Nick Cater outlines in The Lucky Culture (2013), our “bunyip aristocracy” ticked off many of the items on their let’s-be-adults-about-this agenda. In particular, the tumultuous Whitlam era from 1972 to 1975 was a veritable whirlwind of “growing up”, from instituting no-fault divorce laws and slashing tariff barriers to changing the national anthem from “God Save the Queen” to “Advance Australia Fair”. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam launched Australia on a course that in most (though not in all) ways has continued to this day. According to Whitlam, Communist China was no longer to be feared or ignored but engaged in a mutually beneficial way. You could conclude, after reading sinologist Stephen Fitzgerald’s obsequious “The Coup That Laid the Fear of China: Gough Whitlam in Beijing, 1971”, published in 2012 by the Whitlam Institute, that Whitlam actually knew little about the People’s Republic of China. Such details were beside the point in his grand vision of a break with Britannia and sparkling new commitment to Asia. Some, of course, might see that as an obvious case of Australian “cultural cringe”.
Australia’s political class, whether Labor or Liberal/National, followed Whitlam’s lead for half a century, making him—as he always hoped—a genuinely transformative prime minister. His political nemesis, Malcolm Fraser, did not return Canberra–Beijing relations to the antipathy of the pre-1972 era; instead, to the chagrin of Opposition Leader Whitlam, Fraser purloined his predecessor’s unbridled enthusiasm for the PRC. On the occasion of Mao Zedong’s demise, September 9, 1976, members of both sides of the political aisle lined up to sign the condolences book for one of the most brutal dictators in the twentieth century. In striking contrast, there were no official sympathies the year before at the death of Chiang Kai-shek, our erstwhile ally through the Second World War and for the first two decades of the Cold War. Our political class was enamoured with a Big Idea that had three key elements: Australia would engage with the PRC and expunge forever its (supposed) reputation as “an echo and image of Britain”; we would, through our Aussie-style pragmatism, temper the darker instincts of the Chinese Communist Party; and, finally, as a long-time ally of the US and a newly converted admirer of China, we could play the role of honest broker between Beijing and Washington.
Our rapprochement with the PRC during the Whitlam–Fraser years (1972 to 1983) was so unequivocally a “good thing” that not even the crushing of the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement registered on Australia’s political radar. Why fuss when Deng’s pro-market reforms were going to create in the PRC a sizeable middle class with liberal or democratic sensibilities that would not tolerate the dictatorship of the party? But then, on June 4, 1989, came the Tiananmen Massacre. Prime Minister Hawke shed some tears, but within two years relations between Beijing and Canberra were back to pre-massacre normalcy; maybe even better considering the inexorable rise in bilateral business. Bob Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, demonstrated derring-do when he agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama in 1991, although such “intrepidness” would not be repeated by an Australian prime minister until 2007. Keating, nevertheless, was in his own way more committed to generating a “special relationship” with China than Whitlam because, by the 1980s and beyond, a fourth element had been added to the original Big Idea: unbounded economic opportunity.
Keating, along with other seers of his era, wanted to position Australia as the fulcrum of an Asia-Pacific economic community, with Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea on one flank, and Canada, the US, Mexico, Peru and Chile on the other. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, especially the annual meeting of leaders, was a manifestation of that grand vision. The sky was the limit if only the “recalcitrant” leaders of these nations could be persuaded to discard their traditional paranoia and parochialism—just as Keating and a new generation of open-minded, imaginative and progressive Australians had done when they shook off outdated, backward thinking—in order to see the “big picture”.
Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), encapsulates Keating’s thinking at the time: “For Australia the stakes were massive—enmeshed in an open trading community like the world had never seen, the nation’s prosperity was guaranteed for a century.” Keating, in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre, was not unsympathetic to human rights abuses in the PRC. His mention of them at a state dinner in Beijing prompted Premier Li Peng, “Butcher of Tiananmen”, to abruptly take his leave. Keating, during the same trip, insisted on a meeting with Chen Kaige, director of Farewell My Concubine, a Chinese film-maker then under house arrest. Keating, according to Watson, was moved by Kaige’s plight but optimistic about the capacity for “freshness and renewal in societies”. The Chinese Communist Party, presumably, would one day shake off its outdated, backward thinking.
Paul Keating was, in effect, wagering that mutual self-interest among the disparate Asia-Pacific nations would override all other factors including the customary geopolitics of the region. His vision was at once idealistic and cynical. Tim Harcourt, an economist at the UNSW Business School, captured the sentiment when he asserted in 2011 that Blainey’s “tyranny of distance” had given way to the “power of proximity”. Our geographical proximity to the burgeoning economies of Asia, with the post-Mao juggernaut leading the way, had made us a “lucky” country all over again, only this time we deserved our luck. Thanks to the market-oriented reforms of the Hawke–Keating years, which involved eradicating whatever remained of our post-war tariff regime and “opening up our country” to all comers, Australia was well positioned to “integrate” with the twenty-first-century economies of the Asia-Pacific region. This was not the dumb luck that Donald Horne had derided half-a-century earlier but the deserved good luck of progressive thinking.
At what point did Australians wake up to the harsh truth that Paul Keating’s wager had not come off? When did most Australians finally admit to themselves that inviting the PRC into our midst was “opening up our country” not only to surprising levels of investment, inexpensive mass-merchandise and an unprecedented demand for our wine, fruit and nuts, beef, wheat, barley, coal, gas, iron ore, educational institutions and the rest, but also to genuine peril? Possibly the growing evidence of concentration camps—sorry, Vocational Educational and Training Centres—in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region alerted some to Beijing’s totalitarianism. Maybe the penny dropped when Beijing began moves towards terminating its “one country, two systems” promise to Hong Kong’s so-called Special Administrative Region. Perhaps others finally grasped the irredeemably malevolent nature of the Chinese Communist Party with the release in 2018-19 of the report of the Independent Tribunal on Forced Organ Harvesting in the PRC: “The Tribunal’s members are certain—unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt—that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims.” Then again, other Australians might have twigged when the Turnbull government, after a bipartisan parliamentary committee investigated the CCP at work in Australia, introduced legislation in December 2017 prohibiting foreign interference in our domestic politics.
Paul Keating, predictably, was not a man for turning. In November 2019, speaking at an event hosted by the Australian, Keating fulminated against everyone, from the media to our national security agencies, for failing to appreciate the legacy that visionary statesmen like him, who understood the “bigger game”, had bequeathed Australia. The bigger game, in short, was the rise and rise of the PRC and the concomitant shift of focus in the world to the Asia-Pacific region, a reality that had not been communicated properly to the people of Australia: “The Australian media has been recreant in its duty to the public in failing to present a balanced picture of the rise, legitimacy and importance of China.”
Implicit in Keating’s denunciation is the same elitist assumption that informed Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country almost six decades ago: ordinary Australians are derivative, parochial and second-rate in their worldview; an original conceptual thinker—with a little help from a speechwriter or two—is required to light the way ahead. Keating noted, almost in passing, that CCP “reformers” had been superseded by “traditionalists” in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre (or “Tiananmen demonstrations” as Keating prefers it) but the hope of “a multi-party, Western-style democratic structure” emerging in post-Mao China was always a delusion on the part of “people ignorant of China’s long history or the recent history of the Communist Party”. Keating, borrowing from Henry Kissinger, then makes the familiar “civilisational” apologia for the imperialist-Leninist tyrants who hold sway in the PRC: “China’s political culture has deep roots and is suffused with its own distinctive philosophical concepts of life, of hierarchy and authority—a Confucian China with modern characteristics.”
Tim Harcourt, in the Year of COVID-19, was sounding a little less enthusiastic about the power of proximity in a recent article in the Australian. He admonished “the pro-China business community”, who believed that Australia “should do whatever the Chinese want as they are our biggest customers”, although he also criticised the “national security lobby” who advocated “for our national sovereignty whatever the price but don’t really know the price or want to calculate it”. Harcourt can rest assured that the likes of Andrew Forrest and the mining lobby, China experts such as Kevin Rudd and Steven Fitzgerald, tertiary education bureaucrats like the University of Queensland’s Peter Høj, representatives of the real-estate industry, BRI signatories such as Victoria’s Dan Andrews and so on ad infinitum will remind us of the price at every opportunity. The great problem for the pro-Beijing appeasers is that ordinary Australians, of whatever political persuasion, are no longer listening to them. The “bigger game”, contra Keating, is not the power of proximity but the tyranny of proximity.
If Keating attempted a similar message of appeasement today, less than a year after his November 2019 speech, he might be laughed off the stage. The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a national sentiment obsessed with “the tyranny of proximity”. This expresses itself most literally in Melbourne’s stage-four lockdown, unprecedented cross-border prohibitions, a preoccupation with social distancing and a growing desire to de-couple from the PRC. We might claim, in this context, that the paranoid belligerence displayed by the Party Politburo with regards to the coronavirus is akin to the Soviet government at the time of the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. There is the same fear that the outside world is endangered by the perilous behaviour of a totalitarian entity that cannot do the right thing in the first place, and then reflexively engages in a cover-up and scapegoating to cover its tracks. The CCP’s first official report on the genesis of the disease, “Fighting COVID-19: China in Action”, on June 7, says it all. Nowhere in it is to be found a sense of guilt, remorse or self-criticism, only self-righteousness and triumphalism followed by an unctuous call for global harmony: “The sun will shine after a storm. As long as the world’s peoples can cherish hopes and dreams, can embrace the idea of a global community of a shared future, and can unite in pursuit of a common goal, we will be able to overcome all our current difficulties and challenges, and build a better world for all.”
It seems likely that COVID-19 has crystallised a long-standing unease amongst ordinary Australians about binding ourselves to the trajectory of the Chinese Communist Party. China’s responsibility for and handling of the pandemic are a literal reminder of the danger that the imperialist-Leninism of the Party Politburo poses to us all. That does not mean we are parochial and narrow-minded, as Paul Keating would see us, but simply keen to avoid the fate of the citizens of the PRC. Though Keating fails to mention that the CCP was responsible for the Great Famine and three decades of economic inertia, he is not wrong to assert that a later version of the very same totalitarian organisation has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of dire poverty. The Chinese people have been offered an “affluent life”, though not the “free life” and, given the belligerent paranoia of the party and its intrusion into every corner of PRC society, they understood it was not an offer to be refused. What a growing number of ordinary Australians began to fear, even before COVID-19, is that the CCP might be replicating a parallel modus operandi in Australia.
Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (2018) warned us that agents of the party are bribing our politicians, co-opting our entrepreneurs, subverting our universities and insinuating themselves into everything from charity organisations to our neighbouring nations in the South Pacific. The persecution (and later expulsion) of undergraduate Drew Pavlou by the University of Queensland, in response to his 2019 campus protest against the oppressive practices of the Communist Politburo, should have been a wake-up call for young and old. One of our G8 universities was now offering its charges the choice between the “prosperous life” and the “free life”. The Morrison government, as recently as August this year, announced a billion-dollar Cyber Security Strategy to put (metaphorical) distance between the people of Australia and Beijing’s 100,000-strong Cyber Corps. In mid-August the Defence Department warned of “highly active” spies who posed an “extreme threat” to the RAN’s $900 billion shipbuilding project in the Adelaide suburb of Findon. A report from the ABC disclosed that back in 2016 Beijing opened a new consulate-general office, with ten staff—in the Adelaide suburb of Findon. It is the same site as the Overseas Chinese Association, an instrument of the CCP’s State Council, which has the purpose, according to Clive Hamilton, of “mobilising the Chinese diaspora to serve Beijing’s goals”.
Nevertheless, how many ordinary Australians, without the onset of COVID-19, might have continued to agree with Keating that criticism of Beijing constitutes little more than the “pious belching” of journalists? Certainly the scales would have fallen from the eyes of some after reading the Sydney Morning Herald report in March 2020 about the Greenland Group, a Beijing-backed property giant, which bought and stockpiled three million surgical masks, 500,000 pairs of gloves, bulk supplies of sanitisers, antibacterial wipes, thermometers, hazmat suits and other anti-coronavirus items, before shipping them off to the Socialist Motherland. It did not help that the Global Times, mouthpiece of the Party Politburo, responded with outrage and scorn to Canberra’s call in June 2020 for an independent and international inquiry into the genesis of SARS-CoV-2. The imposition of tariffs on our barley, threats to boycott Australian beef and wine, recommendations that Chinese nationals (students and tourists alike) shun “racist” Australia and so on have only confirmed the view of many that President Xi Jinping’s boast, in his 2014 address to the Australian parliament, that a “vast ocean of goodwill” existed between the PRC and Australia was a lie.
A half-century of appeasement has resulted in Communist China generating a Communist Politburo with the dream—and potential wherewithal—of spawning a new rendition of Pax Sinica. Mao’s regime stood on the shoulders of the Soviet Union in order to secure its frontiers, access financial and technical assistance and, not least, attain nuclear weapons capability. Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping repeated the feat, only this time by standing on the shoulders of a very different giant. Australia, along with the West in general, has allowed itself to be robbed blind, through job relocation, technology transfer and outright theft of intellectual property, so that we might be disparaged by the mouthpiece of the Party Politburo as gum on their totalitarian boot.
Keating, as it turned out, did not even get it right when he warned Australia against seeking “Chinese strategic containment”. We can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that our goal is not merely containment but something far more sweeping. Ordinary Australians wish to be separated from the CCP by all means possible, a process which in a sense began with the barring of Huawei from our shores but, doubtless, will ultimately involve proscribing TikTok, WeChat and every other digital Trojan horse used by agents of the regime to enter and control our sovereign space. Australians, deep in the Year of COVID-19, want Xi Jinping and his CCP to be quarantined from our lives. The tyranny of their proximity has proven too much to bear.
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor, has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and tweets at
@dosakamccann. He contributed “Emperor Xi Has No Clothes” to the May issue.