JOCELYN CHEY. Mad, bad and dangerous? Australia in Chinese eyes.

Once upon a time, Chinese people regarded Australia as a friendly, safe, stable country with a beautiful natural environment and reliable system of law and government.  No longer.  In 2018, Chinese parents prefer Britain or Canada when considering where to send their children for education.  Chinese scholars note that Australia has been involved in every war launched by the United States.  Since they do not regard Donald Trump as a responsible leader, they think it quite likely that he could launch a military attack on China.  In that case, they believe that Australia would side with America.

The biannual conference of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies in Beijing 21-23 June provided a venue for discussion of the current state of bilateral relations with over two hundred participants and a range of experts from both countries.  Professor Zhang Yongxian of Renmin University, Beijing has been monitoring them relationship over many years.  He placed three markers on the trajectory of its decline in the last decade, starting with Rudd’s speech at Peking University in 2008, when he said that Australia wanted to be a zhengyou or “true friend” to China.  The term denotes someone who dares to point out mistakes even if this is jeopardises a friendship, so basically a critic.  That a foreign leader would use such a term did not go down well with the audience.  Next, Abbott told Japanese Prime Minister Abe in 2014 that he admired the skill and “sense of honour” of Japanese soldiers.  To Chinese, this remark apparently ignored the atrocities the Japanese inflicted on Chinese civilians during the Second World War.  Thirdly, Turnbull said in 2017, using both English and Chinese languages, ”The Australian people stand up,” quoting Mao Zedong’s words that originally marked the end of the Japanese occupation of China.  To Chinese people, this clearly indicated that Australia regarded China as an aggressive power.  They noted also that Turnbull and Bishop had both described the Chinese government as a “regime,” a pejorative term implying oppressiveness or illegality .

Quite a few Australian conference delegates gave their perspectives on the current state of bilateral relations.  It was good for them to hear about the Chinese pubic response, particularly as Professor Zhang’s remarks did not touch on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea or on Australian domestic security and political interference concerns.

Zhang added that he had several questions about Australia’s attitude to China that worried him.  Why did the press accuse China of being lawless and unjust when CRA executive Stern Hu was sentenced to jail for corruption in 2010?  How widely were the racist views of the One Nation Party shared by the Australian public?  Were the two countries’ economies really complementary, as claimed by the Australian government? (The general view in China is that Australia is increasingly economically dependent.) Most Chinese people felt proud to host the Olympic Games in 2008 and loved its grand opening ceremony, so why was it interpreted by Australian journalists as aggressive and threatening?  Was this and other reporting on China a negative reaction to the tightening of censorship?

Over the last week Turnbull and Bishop have tried to moderate the debate over the “Chinese threat.”  Both turned out for the annual networking event of the Australia China Business Council in Canberra on 19 June.  Bishop stressed that Australia’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China was, in diplomatic terms, the highest level of a relationship between governments.  She described that relationship as “robust … where we can manage our differences.”

Gerald Thomson, Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy, elaborated further when speaking to the Australian Studies conference, stressing that Australia was committed to a long-term relationship with China and did not see China as a threat.  He noted how broad and deep the relationship is and how many institutional links have been established, including between universities in both countries.  While the US plays a central role in Australia’s prosperity and stability, Australia did not agree with everything, did not want a trade war and had told the US that it regretted their withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Commission.  Thomson said recent tensions between China and Australia were “partly” due to Chinese actions and admitted that on the Australian side some messaging had been poor.  He regretted that the relationship had become disconnected from its fundamentals.

Australia-China relations have surely never been more critical.  However one looks at them, one must conclude that it is time that they were fundamentally re-set.

Jocelyn Chey’s last diplomatic posting was as Australian Consul General to Hong Kong 1992-95.  She was the founding Director of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University 2016-17.


Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and UTS. She formerly held diplomatic posts in China and Hong Kong. She is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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5 Responses to JOCELYN CHEY. Mad, bad and dangerous? Australia in Chinese eyes.

  1. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    Bob Hawke did a remarkable thing when he allowed Chinese students to stay in Australia permanently following the Tiananmen crackdown. As I understand it, Bob Hawke was highly regarded by CCP party leaders.

    Australia could indeed have been a “true friend” of China. Yes, by all means, tell China the truth, just as Lee Kuan Yew did, but privately (not for the sake of Australian domestic politics nor to please Americans).

    There are plenty of other countries who are happy to berate China publicly. What could Australia hope to achieve by being another such country?

    I might be biased, but my impression is that Chinese leaders do listen to constructive criticism. (Whereas Americans have such high opinions of themselves that they don’t care to receive external criticism.) That’s why China sought advice from the World Bank! And that’s why China wants the AIIB to be run professionally, like the World Bank. And that’s why China contributes to United Nations peace-keeping.

    But China has her own ideas, of which the Belt & Road Initiative is one such idea. Is it bad for China to initiate something new? Must any Chinese initiative be viewed with suspicion?

    A final point. The way I see it, China’s future development path is not fixed. There is every prospect that China will one day be as democratic, and perhaps even more democratic, then the West. But it will happen at China’s pace. The West ought to be patient. And democracy in China will undoubtedly have “Chinese characteristics”. To insist that China practices democracy just the way that the West does seems … undemocratic!

  2. Avatar Ted Egan says:

    And we’ll have to watch China’s “pubic” response

  3. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    Would China like us to look to them as our new ‘great and powerful friend’? In exchange for ignoring their human rights record and expansionism.

    We’ve signed up to this kind of deal before. My fear is that we will again.

  4. Avatar Malcolm Crout says:

    All good if you are happy for Australia to become a vassal state of communist China. I doubt it with their appalling recent history of environmental damage and human rights violations. Not to mention the hoovering up of sections of Melbourne and Sydney, including parts of Canada and the USA and yet their own citizens cannot hold ownership of land in their own country.
    Make no mistake, their intentions are not peaceful coexistence, but overall domination. Is this what you are talking about?

  5. Avatar Hal Duell says:

    Mad, bad and dangerous, or just self-deluded fools? Take just two issues, trains and broadband.
    China is currently linking all Eurasia using a multi-vectored approach including refurbishing existing train lines and possibly upgrading them to high-speed lines in the future. Australia in contrast seems either unwilling or unable to link Mt. Isa with Tennant Creek.
    And then consider the national broadband network, which by all accounts is overpriced, inefficient and behind schedule. I wonder if back at the beginning, had China’s Huawei been given the contract, we might today have a built and functioning NBN? And please no carping about spyware. Whatever gets built, it will be full of spyware. It’s called the surveillance state.

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