Be honest with China

Rowan Callick | April 07, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

A CHINESE blogger has devised a marvellous map that charts the places that have "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people", according to officials or the state media.

Much of the world is cast into shadows in this map. Japan has been fingered 47 times, the US 23 times, India seven times and France five times. Australia has managed to avoid this fate so far.

But the debates within Australia about our relationship with China, with Chinese institutions and with Chinese businesspeople, are pulling us towards this shadowy zone of shame.

And, strangely, Australian politicians are joining in this emotive process, though not the Chinese ambassador, Zhang Junsai, whose response, published in The Australian on Thursday, has been calm and rational.

A few days ago I gave a talk on "China's new leap forward" at the University of Queensland, after which, at the end of a lively question time, a Chinese student told me she had read much of what I had written and heard what I had said that afternoon, and was compelled to ask why I hated China.

This rather stunned others in the audience, as they told me afterwards, because they felt I had gone out of my way to affirm confidence in China's future and to praise the management of the economy that had brought hundreds of millions out of poverty.

The unhappy student asked why I had cited a proposal made in Global Times, part of the People's Daily group, that China "ignore Germany and punish France". I asked in turn why the publication might have made such a suggestion.

She immediately replied that those countries' leaders had had the temerity to meet the Dalai Lama and thus interfered with "internal matters" of China alone. Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei said at the time - using the English formulation chosen by the Chinese authorities - that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had "gravely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people". The student's underlying unease, though, was with my analysis spelling out the remarkable extent of the continuing control of the ruling Communist Party on life in China, which I forecast would not diminish any time soon.

Her response is extraordinarily common in China, where criticisms of the political structure, the party that established it or the party's leaders are portrayed - especially by members of that ruling elite - as attacks on China itself. I hastened to inform the student in Brisbane that she was free to denigrate any political party or leader in Australia without being perceived in any way as anti-Australian. Indeed, not to denigrate any of them might be perceived as more anti-Australian.

The student is not to be blamed. She is a product of an education system whose history curriculum focuses almost entirely on the period between 1840, the start of the first Opium War with Britain, to 1949 when the People's Republic was established. This is portrayed as a time of national humiliation and of imposed "unequal treaties" as a result of incursions by greedy, racist foreigners. Undoubtedly, such poisonous characters played a part. But it remains a narrow prism through which to view even this period.

The boundaries of debate in China about current issues are also carefully defined. It is hard to shine a light on the structure of power without coming under suspicion of being subversive. Now this perverse pattern seems to be extending to Australia. People who raise questions about Chinese investment - and during the past week, about favours received by politicians from people of influence in China - are being attacked with purple metaphors, as racist pursuers of "the yellow peril" or of "reds under the bed".

Such generalisations are not applied to people who, say, disapprove of the Indonesian judicial system or of the British hold over the Australian assets of Rio Tinto. They are not branded as pursuers of "the Indonesian peril" or of "Poms under the bed".

Holding out China's Government and structure as peculiarly exempt from public criticism reinforces that sense of Chinese exceptionalism that Deng Xiaoping did most to undermine when he opened the country's economy to global enmeshment.

This culture of exceptionalism does the country no favours.

Some critics of China are racist. But in Australia today they are clearly in a tiny minority, as underlined by voters' rejection of candidates who play the race card. Most have a problem not with Chinese people but with an authoritarian, communist government.

China is a glorious culture and a great nation, and is increasingly important to us. It's all the more necessary, then, that we have robust discussions about how this vital relationship will develop. But sensible political leadership has been lacking, replaced by name-calling, even though we have a great asset in a prime minister who is extraordinarily China-savvy.

And if we focus too much on avoiding hurting the feelings of the Chinese people - meaning, in fact, their rulers - we risk ending up with a free trade agreement with China that is indeed an unequal treaty.

Rowan Callick is The Australian's Asia-Pacific editor.