COLIN MACKERRAS. The mess of Australia-China relations

The downward spiral in Australia-China relations must stop. The Australian government must take a lead towards a major and long overdue reset.

The Australian government has to understand that if it continually insults China, there will be a reaction. Take, for instance, the recent spat over COVID-19. In an interview with the ABC’s David Speers on “The Insiders” on 19 April 2019, Marise Payne called for an independent and transparent enquiry, Speers pressing her to say whether she trusted China or not. Three days later Morrison gloated of a telephone call to his “mate” Donald Trump, during which COVID-19 was also discussed. Later the media and the Government translated this into an enquiry into the origin and spread of the virus. On 18 May Xi Jinping gave a speech at the World Health Assembly, calling for an inquiry into the “global reaction” to COVID-19. The Australian government and mainstream media interpreted this as “vindication” of Australian leadership into an enquiry.

My take is different. Australia may have a right to take a leading role in calling for an inquiry that will make China more accountable, but it was entirely unnecessary, provocative, senseless and counterproductive. I think China was always happy for an enquiry, but believed, with good reason, that the Australian government was trying to humiliate China as the country that caused the virus to spread through its delinquent hiding of information. China was convinced it had spread information in a timely way and that it was Trump, Johnson and others that had wasted time and grossly mishandled the virus. China favoured a scientific, professional and equal enquiry, but not one intentionally directed against China. By offering $2 billion and vaccines for the common good, rather than as a commercial product, Xi Jinping was the one who gained the most credit.

When the Chinese suspended sales of barley, the assumption was that this was punishment for Australia’s leading the charge for an enquiry and standing up to China. China vociferously denied this and claimed it was a question of dumping. Senator Penny Wong’s implication on “The Insiders” on 24 May that the US was the one that stood to gain from any Australian market loss to China is reasonable. I agree with her suggestion that Morrison should ring his mate Trump to talk about that.

Meanwhile, I believe the more or less universal reaction against China’s wish to outlaw secession, sedition, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong is misplaced. Let’s remember that the system enshrined in the Basic Law of 1990 following the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 put one country first and two systems second. Given the picture in The Australian of 25 May showing demonstrators in Hong Kong the day before with banners reading Tianmie Zhonggong 天滅中共 , a Falungong-related slogan calling for the destruction of the Chinese Communist Party, and the growing momentum among protestors towards independence for Hong Kong, is it so unreasonable for the central Chinese government to ban secession by law?

The arguments about the extent to which “two systems” will be undermined by the new laws are complex and I can’t pursue them here. It’s not necessary to defend everything China has done to suggest that, looking from Beijing, large demonstrations month after month disturbing civil order and the economy look not like the simple and unquestioned right to protest but like a determination to overthrow Article 1 of the Basic Law, which declares Hong Kong to be part of the People’s Republic of China.

I strongly oppose the way many in the government and most of the mainstream media have used COVID-19 and the Hong Kong situation to whip up a new wave of Sinophobia. Some of it even suggests we don’t want so much trade with China or to take in so many of their students, because China is such a nasty and unreliable partner. The renewal of hostility, even racism, towards ordinary Chinese in Australia is very dangerous. The “fear of China” is nothing new in Australia, but history shows that cannot lead anywhere good.

The fact is that China matters to us. It is good to trade with China. The way the Australian economy is now, it will need China to recover, just as happened with the global financial crisis of 2008 and later, even allowing that COVID-19 has also severely affected China and its economy. Not only are Chinese students very good and serious-minded, but their influence when they return to China can only help us, provided they feel they are coming to a friendly country. Of course, we should take students from elsewhere, we should trade and welcome tourists from as many countries as possible, and we do. But to ignore, belittle or insult China is the height of folly.

Is there a way out? We can’t solve the problems, but we can alleviate them.

We should reset our priorities away from the United States and towards China. We should reduce our dependence on the United States. It is flatly contrary to our interests to be part of a new Cold War. It is not necessary to abrogate ANZUS, but it should be downgraded. We do not need to follow American policy just because of ANZUS. We do not need to kowtow to China, but we certainly need to treat it with respect and refrain from insulting it. We should recognize that if we are going to insist on our values, they have a right to insist on theirs, and we can deal with each other with that in mind. Those like Andrew Forrest with extensive business and other dealings with China are good and valuable citizens, not quasi-traitors, as some have recently implied.

We should definitely NOT join in international campaigns that are clearly aimed against China or interfere in China’s domestic affairs. China values its national security as much as we value ours, and they come from a very different history, one that showed their national security really was under threat because powerful countries were trying to bring down their government, either covertly or openly.

There are some things we should maintain and strengthen. These include trade, tourism from China, and cultural and educational exchanges. Once COVID-19 has been either solved or substantially mitigated, we should again welcome Chinese students and tourists, and of course those from other countries.

COLIN MACKERRAS, AO, FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University, Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, during the first working as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He is a specialist on Chinese history, theatre, minority nationalities, Western images of China and Australia-China relations and has written widely on all topics. His many books include Western Perspectives on the People’s Republic of China, Politics, Economy and Society, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2015.


COLIN MACKERRAS, AO, FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University, Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, during the first working as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He is a specialist on Chinese history, theatre, minority nationalities, Western images of China and Australia-China relations and has written widely on all topics. His many books include Western Perspectives on the People's Republic of China, Politics, Economy and Society, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2015.

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6 Responses to COLIN MACKERRAS. The mess of Australia-China relations

  1. Avatar Dr. Wolfgang Frick says:

    Professor Colin Mackerras succinctly described the current
    Australia China dilemma. As a life member and past president
    of the Australia China Friendship Society WA, which I joined in
    1970 I remember the support and advice we received from Colin
    as we lobbied the Whitlam government to establish diplomatic relations with China. Having lived, studied and worked in China
    and taught Chinese at tertiary level for 15 years,
    I feel great pain when I see how our politicians misinterpret
    China‘s actions and blindly echo a U.S. leader‘s misguided
    rhetoric of China bashing. All the years that Colin and many others have spent in building solid ties of friendship and trust with China
    seem to have been in vain because of our ill informed and loud mouthed politicians destroying them and thereby committing economic suicide. „Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisse!“

  2. Brilliant Professor Mackerras. We Chinese Australians can understand what you are trying to say and we thank you for that.
    I also agree with the responses from David, James and Anthony.
    However I would like to add that since the invasion by Japan during the WW2, I do not believe Australia is ever faced with any country who is silly enough to come and invade Australia. Many a time we blindly followed USA and UK into wars because of ideology and Anglo-saxon majority. Modern Australia in 21st Century is going to be such a successful and beautiful nation based in Asia Pacific that other nations admire. Why can’t we be like Switzerland and has a neutral and independent foreign policy and be loved by USA, UK, China, Japan, Asians and Anglo-saxons alike etc? Think about it.

  3. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Prof Mackerras sound advice should be heeded by PM Morrison however, I have doubts that the PM can command a ‘close rank’ solidarity from his MPs, to speak consistently about foreign policy on China.
    A culture perception of HK protesters by Overseas Chinese: The HK protester is like a child throwing a violent tantrum when Mum did not give into his wishes. Seeing the parents were unable discipline the child, Grandpa steps in with Family Rules and ask the parents to implement for the sake of the Family. Meanwhile outsiders continue to incite the child to rebel and turn them against the Family. In the end, the child loses everything. Great Chinese movie plot with moral & cultural message!

  4. Avatar James O'Neill says:

    It was, I think, the German leader Bismarck who said that, a country has neither friends nor enemies, only interests. It is a valuable lesson that Australian leaders have singularly failed to grasp. Professor Mackerras has an unrivalled degree of knowledge about China and vast experience of living there and also speaking the language. It is a tragedy that his suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears. Australia is in for a rude shock. Its ignorance and prejudice is personified by its attitude to the so-called New Silk Roads and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation both of which exemplify a changing world in which Australia has no role and even less accurate knowledge.

  5. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:

    From a strictly pragmatic trade perspective, Australia needs China more than they need us, despite gung-ho assertions to the contrary by some commentators and right-wing politicians. It is not even the right question. Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot (in terms of our vital trade relationships) for strictly ideological reasons? Or so as to ingratiate ourselves with the USA?

    Colin Mackerras should be listened to by all politicians within the Federal Government especially those of its members and agents, such as Hastie, Payne, and ambassador Sinodinos, who have been overly muscular on the China-bashing front. The Mackerras prescription above constitutes an entirely sensible – and probably necessary – way to reset the relationship into the future in order to maintain our own affluence.

    The anti-Chinese rhetoric alive now in Australia also to varying extents insults and hurts a substantial group of Australians of Chinese origin who are almost entirely exemplary citizens. This is not OK.

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