Australia’s Refusal to Kowtow to China

The Communist Party of China (CCP), noted Chun Han Wong in The Australian, is currently in the midst of one of its regular crackdowns, this time focusing on women organising demonstrations against sexual harassment, human-rights lawyers and Marxist students supporting workers’ rights. The Party’s objective, according Yaxue Cao of the Washington-based advocacy group called China Change, is to ensure compliance and capitulation: “Their goal is to make you feel helpless, hopeless, devoid of any support, and break you down so you begin to see activism as something foolish that doesn’t benefit anyone, and gives pain to everyone around you.” Australians are not faced with the same dire situation as the captive citizens of the People’s Republic of China, and yet there is, surely, something disconcertingly analogous now at work. Xi Jinping clearly has it in mind to “break us down” with his war on our economy and his regime’s increasingly shrill rhetoric. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. At some point, inevitably, Australia will have to bend the knee to the Red Emperor or count the enormous commercial and financial cost of going our own way.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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How, exactly, did we get ourselves into this predicament? Most Western politicians, diplomats, businessmen and Sinologists assumed that the rise and rise of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and the so-called “capitalist roaders” in the CCP would initiate a new liberal era in the PRC. Compared to the radical Maoist austerity imposed upon the country during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), they had a point. During the last ten years of Mao’s life almost the only books on sale were his own writings and the works of Lu Xun (1881-1936). The contrasts between Mao’s China and post-Mao China are boundless. During the Cultural Revolution, for instance, playing a Western-style guitar in a public place was forbidden, whereas today’s Chinese pop stars sing with a Taiwanese accent because artists from Taiwan were so influential in the 1980s when the PRC first opened up to contemporary music. The popular television dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao (If You Are the One) is proof enough that Deng’s social reforms, beginning with Boluan Fanzheng (Beijing Spring) in 1977, transformed the material conditions of the Chinese people beyond recognition.

Although Deng Xiaoping and his capitalist-roader successors promised the people of China the material life, the free life was never on the official agenda. The Party Politburo made this clear on numerous occasions. Obviously, the crushing of the Democracy Wall movement in October 1979 and the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989 should have been evidence enough that the CCP was incapable of sharing political power let alone tolerating dissenting voices. Accordingly, Deng’s 1982 Constitution was as misleading as Stalin’s 1936 Constitution, including the fact that the function of (and therefore possible limitations on) the Communist Party were not codified. The Soviet Constitution was actually more “liberal” than the new PRC Constitution; some mention, at least, was made of the supposedly federal nature of the Soviet Union, along with the hypothetical right of its constituent states to secede. Not that it mattered. The despotic character of both the USSR and the PRC remained entirely unaffected by the advent of state-of-the-art constitutions.

The Communist Party must always be the final arbiter of all things in the People’s Republic of China and now, by extrapolation, Australia. Nobody in the 70-year history of the PRC has been too important or too famous or too popular to survive for long without the imprimatur of the Politburo. The swift undoing of Liu Shaoqi is but one example of a prominent individual, in this case a politician, destroyed by the regime. In literary terms, the most prominent figure the Communist Party persecuted was Hu Feng (1902-85), the logical successor to Lu Xun. He, too, was a devotee of realism, writing his own independent voice about the lives of ordinary folk. Lu Xun, however, had the good fortune to do so before Mao Zedong launched his 1942 Yen’an Forum of Art and Literature, which stipulated that left-wing or progressive writers were required to adopt the correct political line – as designated by the Party – in their work. In 1954, Hu daringly published “Report on the State of Art and Literature in Recent Years”, a critical evaluation of the doctrinarism imposed on China’s writers and artists by the Communist regime. In 1955, Hu (and 92 of his Leftist associates including Peng Boshan, Minister of Propaganda in Shanghai) was arrested. China’s erstwhile literary giant was finally released from jail in 1979. He remained, they say, unbowed though his physical and mental health had been destroyed.  

The significance of Liu Shaoqi and Hu Feng is this. Deng’s regime rehabilitated both of them, but only on the basis that neither had ever been anti-Party agitators. In other words, the inviolability of one-party rule – with the CCP at the centre of all things – remained a given. During the period of the Cultural Revolution and even before, according to this narrative, certain anomalous (and never fully elucidated) excesses had occurred. Liu and Hu, then, were the unfortunate victims of irregular circumstances that would not be repeated in the future since the Gang of Four and their nest of ultra-leftist wreckers had been purged from the Communist Party. Political contrarianism, in the post-Mao era, has been bound by these parameters. Take, for instance, the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. There have been many accolades over the past four decades for these innovative writers and directors and yet, in the end, they do not go beyond the political paradigm established by the Communist Party at the time of the 1980 rehabilitations of Liu and Hu. Peng Xiaolian’s Storm Under the Sun (2009), a documentary about the persecution of Hu Feng and his friends, is a case in point. A clear picture emerges of the cruelty meted out to China’s premier literary figure and his protégées, and yet the ultimate source of this horror – the enduring dictatorship of the CCP – is nowhere challenged. Few, understandably, have been keen to mention the elephant in the room, and simply hoped against hope that the arc of history would not be on side of the Party. And then, in 2016, General Secretary Xi Jinping decreed that henceforth only films upholding the “dignity, honour and interests” of the PRC and promoting “core socialist values” would receive public release.

The DNA of the CCP is belligerent paranoia. The belligerence part of the equation might be explained by its millenarian mission to revenge the ignominy inflicted upon the Middle Kingdom by the West and by Japan during the latter period of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and its lingering aftermath (1912-45). The paranoia part is explained by the fact that the Communist Party has never subjected itself to the protocols of a popular mandate or, if you like, democracy. The CCP regime, to put it another way, insists that it rules at the behest of Marxism-Leninism’s historical imperative. This, as it turns out, is just another way of saying “mandate of heaven” à la every Chinese dynasty since the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). The Politburo might rule for the people, but it is never of the people. As a consequence, it must be punitively vigilant about its continuing place at the centre of all things. Combine belligerence with paranoia and you have a fairly accurate portrait of every leader of the CCP from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. Some will insist that Deng was a corrective to Mao and that he possessed little of Xi’s hubris. And yet even a relatively generous account of Deng’s role in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, as per Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon (2016), suggests that China’s then-paramount leader – along with the other so-called Eight Elders of the CCP – was easily persuaded by hawks in the Politburo (and elsewhere) to safeguard the regime by waging war against the defiant kids-on-deckchairs taking up too much of Beijing’s civic space in the spring of 1989.

The permutation of Deng’s market reforms and political dictatorship has led some observers to label the PRC a “fascist state” while others, perhaps borrowing from Trotsky, describe it “state-capitalist’. More usefully, perhaps, we might call it Leninist, since China’s various tycoons, such as Alibaba’s CEO Jack Ma, thrive at the behest of the Politburo rather than the other way around. Leninism, as I argued in “The Return of Lenin in Progressive Guise” (Quadrant, January-February 2020), has a record of co-opting and exploiting domestic (and foreign) capitalists for its own long-term political programme. The very flag of the PRC spells this out. The larger golden star signifies the communist revolution or the CCP while the four smaller adjacent stars represent the various classes in China, including not only the “working class” and “peasantry” but also the “urban bourgeoisie” and “national bourgeoisie’. During the period of “New Democracy” (1949-52), when the CCP regime was consolidating its power in urban centres, the Party exhibited flexibility towards private enterprise, before changing course in the Five-Anti Campaign (1952). Mao himself made an ominous pronouncement: “[W]e must probably execute 10,000 to several tens of thousands of embezzlers nationwide before we can solve the problem.” Millions of China’s capitalists were suddenly enemies of the state, terrorised by a torrent of mass-hysteria whipped up by the state-run media. Hundreds of thousands of businessmen reputedly committed suicide en masse: some, doubtless, voluntarily.

There are obvious differences between Mao’s New Democracy and Xi’s China Dream, and yet they share one key point: The Communist Party must be the final arbiter of all things under heaven. On November 3, 2020, General Secretary Xi abruptly decided Jack Ma and the tech giant Ant Group were not to proceed with what would have been the largest initial public offering (IPO) in history. Ma, who could hardly be more deferential to Communist Party if he tried, was summoned to Beijing for urgent consultations with the Politburo. Three weeks later, the Hangzhou-born billionaire reappeared in public suitably sanguine about the new laws and restrictions Xi Jinping had imposed upon entrepreneurs of his kind. Jack Ma could have the material life – for now – but not the free life. In the PRC, even billionaires must bow and scrape – scrape, in this context, meaning self-abnegation – if they know what is good for them. Billionaire real-estate developer Ren Zhiqiang did not know what was good for him when he publicly criticised President Xi’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Ren was arrested in March this year and in September sentenced by the People’s Court to 18 years in jail for embezzlement. Because the CCP is literally above the law in the PRC, he was stripped of his Party membership before going to trial. Naturally, Ren “voluntarily” confessed his guilt and will not appeal against his sentence.

In April 2020, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne also questioned (albeit implicitly) President Xi’s handling of the original outbreak of COVID-19 by calling for an independent and international inquiry. Given that COVID-19 might be more accurately described as SARS-CoV-2 or Coronavirus 2, and that the PRC was the source of SARS-CoV-1 or Coronavirus 1, and that there is no reason to believe newer strains of SARS-CoV-2 or even a SARS-CoV-3 do not await us in the future, Payne’s call did not seem to most Australians, including Prime Minister Morrison, especially contentious. This was to overlook several key things. Firstly, the arrest a month earlier of Ren Zhiqiang. Secondly, the CCP regime’s insistence that it did everything right at the outset of the pandemic, as subsequently detailed in its official report titled Fighting COVID-19: China in Action, published in June. Thirdly, as Stan Grant explained in his recent ABC opinionative piece: “The Communist Party asks, why should it be lectured to by the likes of Australia, a country whose prosperity is tied to China?… China sees itself as the “Middle Kingdom” – the centre of the world – and expects other nations to pay tribute.”

Beijing now considers Australia, to employ Grant’s actual words, a part of its “sphere of influence”. When Scott Morrison backed Marise Payne’s call for an international inquiry into the genesis of COVID-19, he would have been mindful of the anti-CCP feelings of the vast majority of Australians at the time. As a pragmatist, though not a pragmatist without principles, he had to balance that concern with the formidable $172 billion annual trade built up over the years with the PRC. Given that Beijing, according to the latest reports, is currently engaged in not only a Stalinist cover-up of the origins of the pandemic but is pointing the finger at India as the source of the new coronavirus, Morrison did the right thing when he called out the CCP. He was obviously hoping that Australia could express an independent opinion without jeopardising the export of our barley, sugar, copper, wine, wheat, coal, timber, beef et al to the most populous market in the world. The evidence that the Morrison administration underestimated the wrath of Beijing – that is to say, misunderstood the belligerent paranoia that defines the Communist Party – is not hard to discern. Coalition spokesmen have strenuously avoided responding to the vitriolic propaganda (or “tongue war” as Mao would call it) directed our way by Xi Jinping and his diplomatic and media mouthpieces.

At the 2020 Australian Strategic Forum, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg even praised Beijing’s containment of the coronavirus pandemic (though subtly side-stepping the controversy of its genesis) and affirmed Canberra’s keenness to re-engage in “respectful and beneficial dialogue” with China. The Prime Minister’s address to the UK Policy Exchange, delivered virtually on November 23, insisted that Australia was not bound to a “binary” relationship with the United States and had no desire to add to the “new tensions” between Washington and Beijing. The Global Times, which entirely reflects the latest thinking of the Politburo, noted the “positive comments” in Morrison’s speech, and yet reports soon surfaced of eight shiploads of Australian coal lying off the coast of China after being refused permission to unload their cargo. And then came the news that Beijing was imposing punitive tariffs on Australian wine, effectively scuttling $1.26 billion worth of business or, to put it another way, 40 percent of our entire wine exports. Coalition spokesmen responded to China’s hostility, as they have after every punitive economic action taken by Xi Jinping, with relatively muted expressions of “disappointment” and “confusion” and the need to seek further “clarification” from the authorities in China. Beijing, on this occasion, helpfully clarified matters by advising the Morrison government to “reflect upon its behaviour”.           

Scott Morrison has been too optimistic in his conviction that Australia’s national security could be maintained without impinging upon our lucrative trading relationship with the PRC. Morrison, in his “suburban everyman” mode, has portrayed the (mutually) advantageous dealings between our two countries as something of a blokey no-brainer: “China’s economy is stronger because they have access to high quality energy, resources, agricultural goods and increasingly service from Australia. And our economy is stronger because we have access to high quality goods made in China.” Morrison, to put it succinctly, is not anti-China. When a PRC apologist such as Kevin Rudd berates Morrison for being “hairy chested about China”, he could only be referring to one thing – national security. Since 2013, Morrison has been a key member of three consecutive Coalition administrations and has rarely taken a backward step on matters of national security, including the protection of our 5G network, regulations against Beijing’s meddling in our domestic politics and a pushback against Chinese investments in Australia that potentially contravenes our national interest.

In contrast, the “sophistication” of Kevin Rudd, not to mention Paul Keating, Bob Carr and a host of others pro-Beijing holdouts, means accepting – along with Jack Ma and the captive population of China – that in order to partake in the material life we can no longer aspire to the free life. The era of “Australia being Australia” – the expression Morrison uses to encapsulate our democratic traditions – must come to a close. To this end, the Communist Party, in November 2020, published a 14-point guide to help us better reflect upon our past behaviour. Not only must there be no more violations of trust, such as Foreign Minister Payne’s “provocative and confrontational” call for COVID-19 inquiry, there can be no more talk from Australian about the concentration camps in Xinjiang or the extinguishing of the last vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong. Australia might also consider withdrawing from its Five Eyes security arrangement with the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. A few days later, Beijing was warning Canberra that its newly strengthened ties with Tokyo must be shelved or there would be “countermeasures”. The imposition of the 107-212 percent duties on our wine might have been one of those countermeasures. Morrison is finding out the hard way that safeguarding our political independence while maintaining optimal relations with the CCP regime was always an impossibility. Something had to give. As the title of Stan Grant’s article for the ABC suggests: “Australia’s trade clash with China is a lesson in what Beijing’s power really means”. The question is whether we genuflect to Beijing, as Rudd, Keating, Carr et al are advocating, or accept that even a $51 billion trade surplus with the PRC does not compensate for the loss of our sovereignty.

Grant argues the Morrison government should have expected Beijing to be “insulted” by our new military pact with Japan in the light of the history between the two East Asia powers: “The Japanese invasion and occupation of China during the 1930s and 40s is a scar on the soul of Chinese people. Millions were killed. China still demands a full apology from Japan.” Grant is right when he says the CCP sees itself as the great redeemer of the Middle Kingdom – and, increasingly, the entire world – and answerable to no other under Heaven. It does not follow, however, that the CCP is the great redeemer of the people of China or in any sense emancipatory. Frank Dikötter, in Mao’s Great Famine, estimated that some 45 million Chinese died on account of the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) alone. If there is a great scar on the soul of the Chinese people, not to mention the Tibetans and the Uighurs, the Communist Party put it there. Australia should go its own way, sign off on a military pact with democratic Japan if it chooses, call for an international COVID-19 inquiry when it sees the need, and source manufactured goods from somewhere other than China (Australia, for instance).

The real danger for Australia is not simply Beijing’s war on our trade or its toxic diatribe – “Australians will know what it is like to walk in the dark” – but how steadfast we remain in the midst of this Red Storm. Hugh White, author of the ill-conceived How to Defend Australia (2019), does not help matters with his latest attack on Prime Minister Morrison: “He seems to think that Australia can set the terms of the relationship unilaterally.” This, as I have argued here, has everything entirely around the wrong way. Beijing might not believe in Western values but that is no reason for us to renounce ours and kowtow to an organisation that has sought to diminish or destroy every independent voice it has encountered on its way to prospective global domination.

Daryl McCann’s most recent contribution on China was “China and the Tyranny of Proximity” in the October issue.

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