Opinion: Why the West should be wary of China

STRAINED RELATIONS: US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2017.
STRAINED RELATIONS: US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2017.

LIKE many Australians, I’m watching with fascinated unease at the rise of China, and the impact that an increasingly hostile dispute between it and the United States is having on the world as we know it.

Obviously, there’s not much that any of us in regional Australia can do beyond watching from the stands as the world’s two great powers face off in a trade and cyber-security battle that is also a contest between two radically different systems of human organisation.

Three months ago in November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters that “Australia doesn't have to choose and we won't choose”, when it came to picking a side in the unfolding China/US conflict. 

Such blithe optimism flies in the face of reality.

Talk of a new Cold War is no longer seen as fringe thinking, especially since the Canadian arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December, and the apparently retaliatory arrests of two Canadians shortly after. On trade, all eyes are on March 1, when the US is threatening to lift tariffs on Chinese exports from 10 per cent to 25 per cent if the two countries cannot cut a deal in the meantime.

Think back to March last year, when Clive Hamilton’s then-controversial book on China, Silent Invasion, was finally published after fear-driven rejections by two would-be publishers.

Critics leapt to attack Hamilton’s investigation as an exaggerated over-reach. His central thesis, that the Chinese Communist Party was covertly working to undermine Australian democracy, was dismissed by various commentators, including former prime minister Paul Keating, who called Hamilton a “nincompoop”.

Former Keating minister Graeme Richardson called on Hamilton to be shoved “out the back with the other irritating flotsam and ­jetsam polluting our ­thinking”.

At the time, China critics were routinely dimissed as racist, but the sheer weight of evidence about China’s global ambitions – some of it from the mouths of Chinese leaders themselves – has taken that card out of the deck.

To be fair to China, it should be hardly be a surprise that at least some of the current crop of leaders are expressing anger toward the West. Historically, Western incursions into Chinese society have caused great dislocation among a people who stress the need to maintain “face” as one of their most important cultural values.

I remember the shock I got when I learned the truth about the British opium wars with China that took place in the 19th century.

British opium farmed in India had been pouring into China from the 1700s, joined by American opium from Turkey in the early 1800s.

Given China’s cultural associations with opium, I had assumed that it must have been the British trying to shut down the trade against Chinese determination to keep it open. I felt the scales fall from my eyes when I realised it was the other way around, and that British opium farmed in India had been pouring into China from the 1700s, joined by American opium from Turkey in the early 1800s.

The mass addiction of the population led to a ban on opium in 1839, ushering in the first and second opium wars, which both ended in defeat for China.

These and other military losses – including battles with France and Japan – led to the Chinese characterisation of those times as the “century of humiliation”, a term coined in about 1915 and which has increasing resonance today, as China responds to Western criticism of its actions as another attempt to rein in its legitimate ambitions.

In such situations, it’s always worth putting the shoe on the other foot, and wondering how it would feel if we were in the position of the people we are criticising.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Fairly or not, the reparations that were made at the time of the great humiliation should be the end of the matter, but the capitulations of earlier generations tend not to be forgotten by their descendants – hence some of the anti-Western sentiment coming out of China at the moment, even without the US-led trade and cyber-security concerns that are the leading drivers of the present conflict.

From a democratic perspective, though, it’s the totalitarian, surveillance-state model of Chinese governance that poses the biggest barrier to any real and complete engagement with the West.

From the time of China’s re-engagement with the world, Western leaders had hoped that the rise of Chinese private enterprise would lead to a falling away of the Communist Party, and its replacement by a democratic government. But with President Xi Jinping gathering increasing power around himself – and with the party using various methods to secure near total compliance from the private sector – the differences between the two modes of political organisation could hardly be starker.

No-one is saying that the West is perfect. Far from it. But from the birth of democracy in ancient Greece through to the 18th century Enlightenment and the post-WWII world order, the dominant ideal has been the freedom of the individual.

Presently, though, the West’s arguments with China are more about trade and technology theft than they are about human rights.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the student democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which began in April 1989, culminating in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters when the tanks rolled in on June 4.

Last month, Human Rights Watch issued its latest, grim assessment of Chinese government repression, noting that few other governments “spoke forcefully” against the worsening situation, “even in the face of Chinese government harassment . . . in their own countries”.

History shows that appeasement never works. Sooner or later, Australia, along with the rest of the West, may well have to make a choice. A stark one.

  • Ian Kirkwood is a senior journalist with ACM. Joanne McCarthy is on leave.
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