Tony does China

There’s an old Confucian warning that goes: “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”. It is sound advice, and I am sure Kevin Rudd is familiar with it. Yet I can’t help wondering, with his own parliamentary career for all intents and purposes dead and buried, whether some sort of a political kamikaze strategy might nevertheless appeal at the moment. “To hell with Confucius,” he must be thinking, “what have I got to lose?”

I think even those who disagree with him on China issues will miss our old “zhengyou” somewhat. If nothing else having him on the scene provided all sorts of great China-related comic material which his replacement simply won’t be able to match. Certainly his portentous “New Sinology” theme, launched to great fanfare in a speech only a few months back, won’t be the same without him. We’ll all just have to get by with the “Same Old, Same Old, Sinology” now, I suppose.

I still cannot believe he’s gone, and I’m not sure China can either. It seems like only yesterday there were huge political billboards of him towering over the skyscrapers of Hong Kong while below a band of enthusiastic followers wearing Kevin 07 t-shirts marched around in nerdy solidarity with their new leader-to-be. Now, like Lin Biao, his name appears to have been all but airbrushed out of history.

I don’t think there are going to be any ALP billboards in Hong Kong this time. For starters the Chinese guy who financed them must think he did his dough. Giant posters of red-haired foreigners also risks scaring the local kids – in Chinese folktales witches traditionally all have red-hair – so are unlikely to help gain many votes.

In fairness, last election’s ALP campaign efforts did shine a light on Greater China as a new Australian electoral battleground. Happily this time the territory is not being so easily conceded. In addition to well-manned booths in Hong Kong and Singapore there will be people handing out how-to-vote cards in Beijing and Shanghai. I might also add that, being Mainland China, handing out how-to-vote cards doesn’t happen every day. (Although to be clear to any officials who may be reading in Beijing – “hi guys!” – we’ll be doing it safely and legally within Australian diplomatic compounds.) We have also got a hard-working guy in Seoul. Next time around we might just make it to Pyongyang.

We are still deciding on an appropriate Mandarin name for Tony Abbott. The Chinese media to date has been using uninspired and largely meaningless transliterations like “A Bo Te”. There are a few other variations flying about, but my sense is he really hasn’t been properly christened yet. I am trying to promote in my own circle the more affectionate moniker, “Ao Bao”, which could mean, if you get the tones and context right: “Australian Protector”. I like it because it imparts both the sense of being strong on border protection but also hints at his fondness for budgie smugglers. I like to think it somewhat captures the essence of the man. Chinese really is a marvellously subtle language, I tell you.

What are Aussie expats in Asia concerned about? Well the currently government certainly ticked some off with vexatious tax rules for those spending 2 years or less up here. It has also been somewhat embarrassing in the wake of the great mining tax debacle hearing the Chinese talk about “political risk in Australia”. Such concerns were usually a one-way street.

But there are also broader cultural shifts which may impact on the way the majority of Australian China-based expats vote this time around. Over the first 20 years, broadly speaking, the bulk of intermediaries between China and Australia tended to be largely DFAT officials (more often than not, in my view, self-important left-wing Canberra public servants) or corporate elites. But in the last 5 – 10 years more and more small-to-medium-sized business owners, and others who tend to form part of the natural constituency of the Liberal Party, have come up. Rather than spending their time at Rudd-style talk-fests on “What China Means to Me” their concerns have tended to be more down-to-earth: taxes, and bureaucratic interference with business and family life. In truth these issues have long-been more reflective of the real concerns of local Chinese in Hong Kong and Mainland China as well.

What will decide the election? I notice that the question of where offshore processing should take place seems to be back in a big way. Up here there is a slightly different perspective. Given Prime Minister Gillard’s vagueness on the matter and the fact that she is fast running out of Asian destinations a few of us wonder half-seriously whether Hong Kong might be on the cards. Call it the “South China Sea Solution”, if you will.

I fear though Julia secretly has her eye on the Spratlys. I just hope someone tells her that about 5 or so nations already claim that territory. Otherwise at some stage in future there might very well be an Altona-accented scream down the corridors of power in Canberra: “Kevin, where the bloody hell are ya?”

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

Dan is helping coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts in Greater China for the Australia Liberal Party in the up-coming Federal election. The views expressed are his own.

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