DENNIS ARGALL. Absenting Ourselves From the World.

Jun 21, 2019

This is mainly about China, but more. We have excluded ourselves in many ways from the engines of modernity in Asia and more widely by our recalcitrance on so many issues and our unwillingness to engage with the new. We are not of such weight for others to care. We demonstrate an incapacity to maintain a progressive society in Australia. That fact and its consequences for our standing are the greatest threats to our national security. We need to be aware of and sensitive to large issues affecting China.

Recent events in Hong Kong may have serious impact in China. The news will not fail to arrive throughout China. It is difficult to know what the consequences will be.

A break-up of the Chinese state would be dangerous for the world, destructive of peace, the environment and climate, destructive of the world economy. Many of those who speak ill of China these days seem to have attachment to fissiparous causes that would eat China from the edges or in social fabric. Some are caught in the disease of military competition. Some seem driven simply by psychological impulses, apprehensive of Yellow Peril:

A lot of interpretation of China and future China is projection by people from inside their heads, imagining China in their own form or that of other great powers, such as the US or Russia. This is naive and dangerous. It is also odd to consider the future in terms of a zero-sum game, a world in which there is no gain, just a win-loss between competitors.

There are lots of accessible facts which could illuminate the perspectives of the willing.

To begin, a simple comparison of Chinese life in the winter of 1978-9 with the winter of 2018-9— see these two videos:

—Democracy Wall 1978, also a glimpse of life in the streets in Beijing very much as we saw it back then, discussed in my previous essay at


—Xi Jinping’s New Year Address, 2018-9. To whatever extent one discounts such a presentation as government propaganda (like the Queen’s Speech) it’s impressive and reflective of what is officially labelled Xi Jinping Thought. I am not and have never been an apologist for China; I am an advocate of looking and thinking, starting from facts.

Xi Jinping comes from a family notably progressive in perspective, his father known for seeking political rather than military outcomes in the stabilisation of China’s west seventy years ago, purged first by Mao when Vice Premier in the early 1960s, important to the world for having pioneered China’s opening to the world in Guangdong and its Special Economic Zones in the early 1980s, and for having supported Hu Yaobang’s liberalism that led to Hu being purged by Deng in 1987 and the Tiananmen situation of 1989, Xi Senior purged then again. The family home invaded and smashed and a daughter murdered by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution in1966, Xi Junior sent to the countryside and thereafter held back for a time as a ‘princeling’, a child of a former leader.

It is useful to look back at President Xi’s 2014 visit to Australia. After addressing the Australian Parliament, Xi went to Tasmania, to complete having visited all Australian states. The Hobart Mercury’s banner headline read “Welcome Mr President” and at Constitution Dock a Chinese icebreaker, decked out in red bunting, was docked near a visiting Australian submarine. Mostly the hysterical shift reflects US perspectives and shoves and the internal momentum of Australian Defence Force integration into US operations and perhaps the Yellow Peril mind state, which has been with us throughout Australian history. I note that the countries of Southeast Asia have adopted more subtle approaches to the issues in the South China Sea which directly concern them.

Nothing comparable in recent Chinese history stands between the events of 1989 and those recently in Hong Kong. Beijing has created ill-will and fear in Hong Kong by kidnapping writers and publishers from Hong Kong. That overshadows the relevance of an extradition arrangement to deal with major crime and corruption. (I suggest the changes at Sydney’s Barangaroo development, caused by decline in the big Chinese gamblers, can also be sheeted home to Xi’s anti-corruption machine.)

That there are at least some young people in China of kindred spirit to the young people in Hong Kong is evident in Geremie Barmé’s translation of a speech by a Chinese high school student, published recently:

Look in that text for the ‘Three New Dreams’. The ideas exist, now as in the 1980s. They will not be allowed to well up in China. I note recent surveys indicating that an increasing number of Australians are fed up with politics and just want to get on with their lives. So also a high proportion of people in China.

The peril in contestations, in Hong Kong, the UK Conservative Party and too many other current turbulences is that the headline focus is on the swirl, rather than outcome. Whether the ruckus is generated by the leaders, the media, social media, or popular restlessness is not clear, they intertwine. But because of this state of affairs we are surrounded by great inefficiencies in the way of achieving economic decency, social equity and environmental survival.

From 1980, as mentioned in the essay to which I linked above, we sought to assist China create systems of government and regulation to enable transition to modernity. Those efforts in retrospect were modest pieces of string compared with the extraordinary tapestry of infrastructures being built under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). See this statement from the April 2019 leaders meeting:

and the list of deliverables from that meeting:

The particulars extend to achieving sensible tax systems through a very large number of countries, of relevance nationally and in the facilitation of trade. Here is a commentary on that from the Philippines:

and as primary source, here is the action plan agreed at a conference in Wuzhen, China, in May 2019.

This next is the conference statement… get used to the acronyms: BRITACOF, BRITACOM, BRITACEG.

There were Australian officials there.

And yet media and public discussion focuses simply on the assertion that China is seeking to push countries into a debt trap—without dignifying such discussion with comparison with US or European colonial entrapment of poorer countries, even though perhaps subconsciously, expectations of China are driven by those more familiar bastardries.

We have excluded ourselves in many ways from the engines of modernity in Asia and more widely by our recalcitrance on so many issues and our unwillingness to engage with the new. We are not of such weight for others to care. We demonstrate an incapacity to maintain a progressive society in Australia. That fact and its consequences for our standing are the greatest threats to our national security.

This commentary by Geremie Barmé

on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s speech at Peking University in 2008 is a more extensive and eloquent discussion of my concern expressed previously that we should as friends be able to speak about things that are of concern; discordant notes in relations. But we have now taken ourselves away into a corner from which we yell: from friendship to a place without influence or basis for good engagement.

I am indebted to Gavan McCormack for pointing me to Barmé’s website. I am indebted to Doug Townsend, former Australian Ambassador to Kazakhstan for information on BRITACOM etc, with which he is involved.

Dennis Argall is a former Australian Ambassador to China who also worked in other areas of government and for the Australian parliament.

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One thought on “DENNIS ARGALL. Absenting Ourselves From the World.

  1. Ha, ha. I often wonder if Kevin Rudd has reflected on whether Australia is a “true friend” of the US, able to “speak about things that are of concern; discordant notes in relations”.

    If Australia cannot (or is unwilling to) critically scrutinise US unilateralism (e.g., walking away from Paris Climate Change treaty, the Iran treaty, undermining the WTO), how can Australia credibly purport to be a “true friend” to China?

    China did indeed have true friends in Australia, and they included Bob Hawke.

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