Rudd and China: diplomacy or fear?

Australians are routinely urged to understand China better. What understanding China means is being able to form an informed view about its history, its current policies, and its future direction. Understanding does not mean sympathetic agreement nor is it simply about amassing facts and learning the language – true understanding ultimately depends on the quality of one’s judgment. 

The failure to provide judgment is the central problem with Rudd’s recent speech entitled “Australia and China in the World”. At its heart it calls for: “A New Sinology capable of opening up new ways of understanding this great and ancient civilization, and what it might offer again in the future”. But the speech then studiously – frustratingly even for those genuinely interested in his views – avoids stating clearly where he stands on the larger questions. 

It is simply not enough to say that “…there are many conflicting views about China and its future—and those differing views are held by Chinese as much as they are held by others.” Reasonable people can, of course, differ in their views, but if one purports to be an expert on China, you cannot avoid forming a view.  

It is all very well to make pro forma statements that “China’s friends continue to have concerns about the handling of human rights in China and about the development of a truly transparent and independent legal system”. But the important thing is what you think the causes of these shortcomings are. After all, it is only by identifying the cause of a problem that you can hope to do anything about it. Is the problem a lack of international experience and training, perhaps? Or the result of Chinese cultural “values”? Do these shortcomings stem from the size and population of China – which implies that you would rule in broadly the same way if charged with running the country? Or is the central problem, as I believe, that despite some improvements, Mainland China (unlike Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) will never have a truly transparent and independent legal system and solid human rights record as long as the Communist Party rules? 

A great deal of the speech is devoted to Chinese history. But to conclude by saying “China’s stories about its past are made up of numerous overlapping and contrasting narratives” is a cop-out. The key point is that Beijing does not interpret its history in a very honest, balanced or human way. Russia is now able to acknowledge its crimes of the past in the Katyn Forest. Taiwan is able to erect memorials to past authoritarian excesses under Chiang-Kai Shek. But in Mainland China there are no great cathartic memorials – as there should be – to the far greater horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Instead the official past remains celebrated in the form of kitschy statutes to the ‘revolutionary martyrs’ and hokey parades in front of Mao’s corpse in Tian’anmen Square. To ignore this reality but instead focus on the burning of the Old Summer Palace 150 years ago and claim that this is “a critical part of understanding China today”, not only unwisely indulges ancient historical grievances, it completely misses the mark.

And what of the future? Rudd states that: ”…despite [its] long evolution of reform and foreign engagement, it nonetheless remains unclear how a re-emergent China will set its course as a major global power, and how its role will shape the future international order.” Yes, of course future is unpredictable – but certain frameworks of understanding can be provided and trends discerned. Is the widely-held assumption that increasing international trade and investment will over time lead to an ever increasing liberal order in China actually correct? Or should we instead now come to the conclusion that despite improvements in the last 30 years what we see in China is really good as it gets? Is what we have in fact now discovered not that the leaders of China, despite economic reforms and granting some additional freedoms for their people, at heart still continue to share with their confreres in North Korea and Cuba a belief that they are working on a different historical plane? Is the real lesson to draw, as I believe, that increasing material prosperity has and will continue to strengthen rather than weaken a belief in authoritarian technocratic rule and the party’s sense of its own legitimacy?

One wonders why it is not possible to discuss these questions in an informed but frank way. Why the constant skirting around key issues? Does diplomacy now require that an Australian Prime Minister cannot state the problems clearly and publicly talk about them honestly even at his own university in the capital of his own country at the opening of a centre devoted to the study of China? If that is indeed the case then it says a great deal about our real fears of China and the true state of the relationship. We seem to have no problem beating up on Japan about whales. 

Is the problem more banal – that Mr. Rudd simply believes in a false sophistication which thinks that being able to see everyone else’s opinion is preferable to being able to form your own? 

Or is he worried about his future career plans? As any student of China would be well aware there are risks in stating clearly what you think about the country. Beijing rewards those who form a particular ‘understanding’ of its behaviour and those who disagree tend to be punished. Just ask Liu Xiaobo. It cannot be an irrelevant consideration that it might not make sense for him to speak out too forcefully or some future business role in China might be jeopardized. 

At the very least there is all something very odd about a speech which again lauds the importance of being a ‘zhengyou’ – a candid friend to China – but is extremely careful to avoid providing any such candour.

Dan Ryan is a lawyer who has worked for over 10 years in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. 

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