CHEK LING. The mutating ‘China question’

What a shemozzle! The cash cow has turned into a contagious apparition!

In the dreamscape of White Australia, is the Chinese. And this might explain in no small part why our politicians, our cultural custodians, our foreign editors and even some vice-chancellors have handled the mutating “Chinese question” as they have.

On 12 May 2020 Trent Zimmerman spoke in Parliament for a full five minutes, lauding the great character of Chinese Aussies, current and past, and repeatedly saying that he was merely confirming what Scott Morrison had said earlier in their party room.

Ah, the outbreak of the White Australia virus had to be contained: no overt racism is to be condoned, in public. And no doubt the Chinese voters and donors have to be appeased too, particularly in marginal seats like the one that Gladys Liu holds, she who raised $1M for the Liberal Party before she claimed her candidacy. Ah, how “John Chinaman” has evolved!

In Malcolm Turnbull’s memoirs, he spoke highly of Scott Morrison’s marketing flair, but judged that he was not particularly keen on international relations.

Perchance this explains how Morrison wandered into his “independent” inquiry into the origin of Covid-19? He had had a bit of a setback with Trump. Unlike Tony Blair, who lost his voice when meeting George W for the first time at the White House, Morrison, the seasoned marketing guru, asked Trump if he, Morrison, could bring our very own earthly-enriched Hillsong pastor to Morrison’s meeting with Trump. Trump did not oblige. The press at home had a field day: Morrison failed to take his mentor to meet Trump! So, could it be that Morrison was avenging this little fiasco? To show Trump that he, Morrison, like the legendary Aussie digger, could punch above his weight? An ocker David, if you will, spitting at the Chinah Goliath. And of course, Morrison had seized the crown, apparently having masterminded a coup in which he was until the last moment the undying lieutenant of Turnbull. Out, damned spot!

During the siege Scott texted Malcolm to say that he had been praying for him. Mathias Cormann, a trusted family friend, pleaded with Malcolm to yield to the “terrorists’, once, twice, and again: to resign and hand the crown to Dutton. Malcolm ultimately had to choose between a Dutton or a Shorten prime ministership of this great, free, country. He did the honourable thing for his party, and when caucus met to spill his position a second time that week, he did not nominate. Malcolm has since concluded that had Cormann been “numerate” he and his two co-conspirators could have voted against the spill and won the day for Malcolm.

To spit at China to curry favour with that all-smashing hegemon of the most powerful nation on earth might have been too tempting an opportunity to pass up: just possible. After all, Abbott had bellowed about sending troops to the Ukraine, perhaps to look into the origin of the missile that killed 38 Aussies on MH17 in 2014. And back in April 1967 Menzies announced deploying a fighting contingent to Vietnam, obsequiously endearing himself to Uncle Sam, but without first consulting the South Vietnamese President!

Yes, political leaders have to do what they have to do, in war as in peace.

But why goad a fraught China?

Scott Morrison is said to have majored in geography. Malcolm however has memoired that Scott, then Treasurer, was not fond of international meetings. This might have been a factor.

But there is a more basic factor at play. For decades and decades China, shorn of the costumes conceived by the romantic dreamers for The Yellow Lady in the Orient, had been almost absent from the history taught in our schools.

Thus in the dreamscape of White Australia, until in October 1949 we got discomfited by Mao Tse Tung’s declaring that the Chinese people had stood up, China was the sick man of Asia.

But ever-ingenious, in 1951, we embarked on the Colombo Plan to train up the best and the brightest in the soon-to-be abandoned white colonies in Asia. They would be imbued with the best of the West, bulwarks against Mao’s march southwards, as he evangelised his universal love for mankind. Eek! The Red Peril! Just 50 years after we’d put down the Yellow Peril!

Perhaps we were precipitate. Chairman Mao turned out to be a mad peasant! His Great Leap Forward starved tens of millions to death; then his 10-year Cultural Revolution, crafted to get rid of his Long March rivals in the politburo, went viral: closed down schools and universities, and produced a whole generation of barely educated youth. At last in 1976 Mao died! In 1978 Deng took the reins, and burnished his capitalist roader moniker with some abandon: What does it matter the colour of the cat, so long as it catches the mice? Mao had twice had Deng expelled from the politburo, the second time during the Cultural Revolution for being a capitalist roader. Deng opened China up for business, this time without the help of foreign gunboats. Yes, open windows will let in a few flies and insects, Deng said. But he too was not for turning.

Corruption grew, and had become a plague by the time Xi took over. All the same, as Bob Carr wrote recently, 850 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. And we marvel at China’s burgeoning middle class, yearning for the fopperies of the West.

Thank God for all that! And on earth, credit to Gough too. His “traitorous” overtures to neighbourliness have earned us a warm welcome to ship our coal, beef, wine and so many other things to Deng’s open docks in old Canton, where once boxes of confiscated opium were thrown into the sea! Shanghai docks opened up too, and elsewhere!

China became our cash cow.

Then in 2003 the minerals boom took off. Hawke and Keating had already opened up Australia, for competition, for growth and endless growth! And the resource-hungry China repaid Gough’s kindness in container-loads of dollars.

Hubris got the better of us. We squandered our minerals boom on unsustainable personal consumption, unlike Norway which now has the world’s largest sovereign fund, husbanded from its North Sea oil royalties. Howard and Costello may now be a little wistful, but at the time we had China, and a minerals boom that would go on forever!

That boom is losing its head of steam now, but China continues to spoil us with cheap consumer goods, investments in our economy, millions and millions every year in student fees and tourist splashings. They love us. One day when they become affluent, like us, they will be like us! They will take on our values! Freedom is human nature!

This adolescent vision of the benign panda in our dreamscape has at times been disrupted.

This time, having blown the bugle, Morrison can’t back down. So his bodyguards in the media talk up any semblance of a good outcome from his goading of China. Aussies, poorly educated in the history of our relations with China, if at all, have, like the Red Guards of the Great Helmsman, chanted and hollered. We have every right to ask China why it gave us this virus, eh?

And as if not wanting to miss the tide, our ever-confident Senator Concetta Ferravanti-Wells, once Minister for International Development and before that Assistant Minister for Multiculturalism, hollered warnings for “reparations” from China. God have mercy! Is our Connie entirely ignorant of the reparations which the Brits extorted from the sick man of Asia, all for having had to send gun boats to teach China how to trade with the West?

Aye, the best of times, the worst of times: the cash cow has turned into a contagious apparition!

We’ve been dreaming dreams well past sunrise.

 

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Chek Ling spent his entire career in the oil, water, and electricity sectors, after arriving in Melbourne in 1962 to study electrical engineering.

In 1984 Geoffrey Blainey sparked his interest in the place of the Chinese in Australia. That interest continues, alongside his thoughts on how to strengthen our polity.

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