What’s wrong with Kevin?

“If you know the enemy and know yourself,
you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

A “zhengyou”, Kevin Rudd famously told Beijing University students back in 2008, “is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firmer basis for a continuing, proud and sincere friendship”. 

“It is a true friend”, he continued, warming to his theme, “who offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint to engage in principled dialogue about matters of contention.” 

I reckon it’s a safe bet that zhengyou is probably not the first word he would now use to describe some of his former cabinet colleagues. The term – Chinese scholars agree – is generally not thought to apply to those who publicly call you “disloyal”, “demeaning”, “dysfunctional”, “psychopath”.  

Equally, it is also seen as stretching the definition of zhengyou-type behaviour to argue that it includes leaking against your own party, undermining colleagues, or referring to your own leader as a “childless, atheist, ex-communist.” Just in case anyone is wondering, Kevin. 

In retrospect I think there might have been more to that early Beijing speech than initially met the eye. Did it perhaps contain a subtle message that he, like the Chinese government, was in need of someone to help rein in his authoritarian side? Or a hint perhaps that “The Harmonious Society” of the Rudd cabinet was not quite all that it seemed? 

Who knows what to believe? The Australian public are constantly lectured about how they need to “understand” China better, yet what the last few weeks have indicated is how little we really understand about our own leaders and what goes on in the halls of powers. 

The vast disconnect between Rudd’s public persona and how he is viewed by people who have worked with him is emblematic of this lack of transparency and the increasing gulf between perception and reality. The current story, if I have it straight, is that Saint Kevin, Man of the People is in secret Kublai Kevin, an oriental despot. “And all who see him should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his blow-dried hair!”, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have put it. 

Now I’m certainly willing to believe that Rudd is not the greatest guy to work with, but the problem with the current tale is that little hard evidence has been released to back it up. Generic insults or evidence-free anecdotes by people who may very well have other reasons for making their claims are an unsatisfactory basis for convicting someone.  It certainly wouldn’t be enough in a court of law. What irks was not just the sudden nature of his assassination, but also the fact the public were not presented with any hard evidence that Rudd’s character was really as bad as it is said.  

It seems bizarre that to date the most concrete thing we have is still only that “Happy Little Vegemite” YouTube video. Now I’m no great Rudd fan, but as someone who from time to time had to give speeches in Mandarin I’m frankly inclined to cut the guy some slack. It can be quite a pressure-cooker experience preparing to deliver your lines, let me tell you. As the Good Book says: “Let he who is without sin, pronounce the first Chinese tone”. 

Because of the lack of evidence I think time will show that the recent leadership vote ultimately settled nothing. The only way the air can really be cleared is for those who have a Rudd story to lay it out in full detail. Tell us specifically what he did to you. The voting public are adults, we can take it. If his behaviour really was bad as we’re led to believe then I’m sure we’ll all agree he deserved to go and the national healing will commence. If not then – who knows? – unlikely as it now seems Kevin may yet stand a chance of being rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping-style ("He’s from Sichuan and here to help!") and the faceless men may still, as they say in China, lose face. Either way the process can only be good for Australian democracy. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Dan Ryan is a lawyer who has spent over 10 years in China

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