Remarks on the Australia-China divide at the AsiaLink launch of Happy Together, by David Walker and Li Yao.

Jul 14, 2022
Australia and China painted shaking hands in agreement
Image: iStock

The juxtaposition and interweaving of life stories from Australia and China make for endlessly fascinating reading.

This beautifully written book (MUP, 2022) tells a story for the ages, as two people from vastly different cultures, and with vastly different life experiences, meet each other late in their professional lives, finding fertile common ground in their love of literature, and bonding in a way that could not better demonstrate the reality, and the vitality, of our common humanity.

Li Yao’s story, which centres on his and his family’s attempts to survive the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, makes for not just fascinating, but harrowing and deeply moving, reading. It ranks in my view right up there alongside Jung Chang’s now classic Wild Swans. Certainly, it resonated very deeply with me personally, because my first exposure to China was at the time the Cultural Revolution was in its last convulsive twitch.

This was in 1976, four years after the Whitlam Government established our diplomatic relations, and I was a young academic leading an ALP-sponsored delegation of lawyers and trade unionists and a couple of cultural warriors (including a very China-sceptical David Williamson).

Zhou Enlai had just died, and Mao would soon follow, but for the moment the Shanghai ‘gang of four’ remained in the ascendant, the disgraced Deng Xiaoping was the ‘arch unrepentant capitalist-roader’, and our Chinese minders were incredibly anxious not to get too close to their foreign guests.

I remember our interpreter, a middle-aged woman worn-down by years of tightrope walking, telling me very quietly and nervously that her lifelong passion had been Western classical music and she missed it terribly. She yearned to hear again, that wonderful Tchaikovsky score for the famous ballet, ‘Duck Pond’.

This was a time when bicycles still swarmed on Beijing’s boulevards and its hutongs and city walls were still largely intact; there were paddy fields across the river from the Shanghai Bund. As baseline-setting experiences go, this was hard to beat.

China’s physical and economic transformation over the last half-century, as I have personally witnessed in many visits, has been nothing short of miraculous.

What has also been close to miraculous is the extent of Australia’s engagement with China during those decades of transformation, as our futures became intertwined.

China became by far our largest trading partner, huge numbers of Chinese study with and visit us, Chinese-Australians form an ever-larger segment of our population, and since 1972 there has been close and mutually respectful political engagement both bilaterally and multilaterally, with even the 1989 disaster of Tiananmen navigated successfully.

But that has all gone spectacularly pear-shaped over the last five years or so. Although we are now seeing, under the new Australian government, the first stirrings of resumption of official and ministerial communication, one has to be even more of an incorrigible optimist than I am, to believe that when it comes to the 50th anniversary of recognition at the end of this year, we will be able to celebrate anything like a return to the warmth and normality of those past decades.

In looking for reasons for the deterioration, a great deal has certainly been contributed by China under the very assertive leadership of Xi Jinping.

There has been defiance of international law in the South China Sea, egregious domestic violations of human rights in Xinjiang and also in Hong Kong (with the tearing up of treaty obligations), discriminatory and overprotective trade and industrial policies culminating in punitive sanctions, periodic cyberattacks, some attempts to exercise undue influence over Australia’s governing institutions, and the detention of Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei and writer Yang Hengjun.

But we have to acknowledge Australia has not been without fault, from the tone-deaf language in Malcolm Turnbull’s speech on the Foreign Influence bill in 2017 through to Peter Dutton’s war talk this year, along with rhetoric from the cross-party parliamentary ‘wolverines’ group.

In 2020 there were over-the-top police and security-service raids on the homes of Chinese journalists living in Australia; very tough foreign-investment restrictions and foreign-influence laws, and the tearing up Victoria’s manifestly inoffensive Belt and Road Initiative MOU. Ill- considered braying for an inquiry into China’s Covid-19 response fuelled the narrative that we are just America’s ‘deputy sheriff’, leaving us exposed to even heavier Chinese counterpunching.

Getting out of the hole we are in will not be quick or easy and has recently been made even more complicated by China’s less than helpful response to Russia’s legally and morally indefensible invasion of Ukraine. But I have been arguing for some time it can be done by following five guidelines:

First, Australian leaders, as the Albanese government has certainly now recognised, should not add any more grounds for complaint to those already on China’s charge-sheet.

Second, we must moderate our official language, as again the new government has clearly started to do – emphasising the positives in the Australia-China relationship and remembering that even when our criticism of Chinese behaviour is entirely legitimate, in diplomacy, words are bullets.

Third, the optics of independence are vital. Our leaders should make it absolutely clear that any negative Australian position on China reflects our own national judgment and not the guidance of imperial masters in Washington, DC.

Fourth, Australia needs to acknowledge the legitimacy and inevitability of some of China’s international aspirations. That means not getting overly agitated that China wants strategic space, the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and a level of global policymaking influence commensurate with its new strength. We should also accept that some of China’s commercial concerns may not be entirely groundless. Many objective observers think Australia has overdone its anti-dumping complaints.

Finally, Australia should work hard to identify issues on which it shares genuine common ground with China, above all climate change, where again the new Australian government’s policy stance will give us new leverage.

The reality is that in recent years Australia has not properly managed the need both to get along with China and to stand up to it. As Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China, has said, we have failed to devise a middle way between sycophancy and hostility.

In all of this, David Walker and Li Yao remind us of the immense importance of human connections, of personal relationships, in recognising that our common humanity transcends political, economic, ideological and cultural difference. If only we could – helped by the magnificent national resource we now have in our 1.2 million Chinese-Australians – build many more personal relationships of the depth and sensitivity of that recorded in this splendid book, I think we could face the future with a lot more confidence.

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