A series of posts on this blog in the last two weeks have highlighted aspects of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that are often overlooked in discussion of the bilateral relationship. We have to get used to living with the Chinese elephant in our neighbourhood.
A close encounter may be uncomfortable but if we understand the beast better we will be able to find a way of getting along with it. This series has focussed on both the positive and the negative sides of the relationship, and on some aspects of China that seem alien and therefore impact on our overall conception of the PRC.
The first four essays in this series dealt with the emergence of the PRC into the modern world, starting with some reflections by Yingjie Guo on the forces that have shaped China’s national identity. Xi Jinping defined “Chinese-ness” in terms of values and, probably deliberately, obscured distinctions between citizenship of the PRC and ethnic Overseas Chinese. The “tug-of-war” between flexible citizenship and dual allegiance affecting Chinese Australians was described in some detail by Wanning Sun who also pointed out that they feel unfairly treated by the media. As the ethnic Chinese Australian community grows larger and larger, this view may well impact on bilateral relations. David Walton discussed PRC relations with its neighbours and how these illustrated the same tensions between economic dependency and politico/security policy that characterise Australia’s concerns. Mobo Gao took four cases to illustrate the hard and soft power of the PRC: “debt diplomacy” and the “Belt and Road Initiative,” and the PRC United Front and Confucius Institutes – all topics arousing a variety of opinions in the press and in scholarly debates.
The next four essays covered topics relevant to internal developments in the PRC. Geoff Raby outlined the history and development of its ruling Party, the Chinese Communist Party, described how it promoted patriotism and nationalism and predicted that it had a secure future. James Laurenceson discussed PRC determination to become a world leader in science and technical innovation, where the R&D budget of a single company, Huawei, is larger than Australia’s entire spend. Active engagement with the PRC was essential, he concluded. The “social credit” system being rolled out currently in the PRC derives from PRC advanced digital systems. Haiqing Yu argued that it was more widely accepted by the PRC public than foreign commentators believed and that people were prepared to trade lack of lifestyle choice for higher technical standards. China being key to global progress towards improvement of the environment and response to climate change, Jason Young outlined the PRC range of environmental policies and practices and their very mixed results. These impact not only on PRC citizens but on the international community.
The People’s Republic of China today is very much shaped by the unique history of the Chinese Empire. The final four essays related to China’s enduring core values and looked at whether these were being modified in times of social change. Colin Mackerras discussed Chinese materialism and the practice of religion, tolerated insofar as it did not threaten state power. I, Jocelyn Chey, identified social values largely derived from Confucianism that still influence business, government and everyday behaviour, and posited some explanation for Chinese preference for long-term forward planning. Mobo Gao contributed a second essay outlining rapid economic and social development in the PRC and commented on the trade and investment options that this opened for Australian business. As an example of this economic development, Jingqing Yang described reforms of the PRC health care system and concluded that there was tremendous potential for cooperation as well as commercial potential in this field.
Naturally this series of essays has not been able to cover all topics of relevance to the bilateral relationship. It was an editorial decision to limit the series to twelve essays only. It was also never the aim of the editors to enforce a uniform view from contributors but to allow each author to speak for him or herself. Even with these considerations in mind, it should be clear to the reader that Australia and New Zealand has many experts in various fields of China Studies. Some footnotes have been included at the end of each essay that will point the interested reader to further works for follow-up reading.
In the past year, official relations between the PRC and Australia have sunk to record low, but in this conclusion to the essay series, I would like to contribute a small reflection sparked by my recent visit to Beijing for the launch of the Chinese translation of my autobiography. During the week I spent there I had the chance to meet a number of Chinese scholars who work in the field of Australian Studies and who are frequent visitors down under. I also chatted to all sorts of people that I met on the street, in parks and on public transport. When they discovered that they could converse with me in Chinese and found out that I came from Australia, each and every one observed that they had either visited or had friends or relatives who had studied, travelled or done business in Australia. “Hao defang” – it’s a good place, they added. In the 45 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations in December 1972, these people-to-people connections have so greatly expanded that I believe they have become the glue that binds both countries together.
(See Jocelyn Chey’s introduction to the China Series: JOCELYN CHEY. Pearls and Irritations China Series.)
Jocelyn Chey is a former senior diplomat with postings in China and Hong Kong and presently holds honorary positions at the University of Sydney, Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.