Pearls and Irritations China Series.

Dec 4, 2019

Spying. Lobbying. Corruption. Debt trap diplomacy. It seems Australia’s relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have sunk to an all-time low. It is therefore all the more important to understand that country. Criticisms of its present government and of the Chinese Communist Party are often justified but not when they are based on flimsy evidence, supposition and innuendo. This is no basis for a serious relationship, which Australia certainly needs.

Leading China experts from Australia and New Zealand have been invited to contribute reports on aspects of Chinese culture and history that impact directly on the bilateral relationship. Topics to be covered include: how the PRC is finding its place in the world; how Chinese society is evolving; and what are China’s enduring core values. The essays will be published seriatim on this blog over the next couple of weeks.

 The twelve nominated topics have been grouped into three sections, each comprising four articles.  The sections are China finding its place in the world; China in a time of change; and China’s enduring core values.

Key to the PRC’s international rise is how its national identity has been formed and what meaning is given to “nation” – clearly, this influences how China sees its place in the world. This view is largely shaped by its history and culture. When the country has such a vast geographic spread and includes so many ethnic groups besides the dominant Han, the Party and government give priority to national unity. Over the centuries China has often been labelled an “empire,” but it was not committed to maritime expansion like some European empires and the question arises whether the PRC has such ambitions or may have in the future as its economic power and influence increase.

Those countries and territories that border on the PRC feel its growing power and influence most intensely. The Chinese government and Party certainly regard Hong Kong and Taiwan as integral parts of the nation but it is not clear how they intend to handle these territories. China and Japan at present have relatively cordial relations but there are historical differences.  One major problem for PRC policy makers is what to do about political developments in the DPRK. Relations with Central Asian neighbours are evolving rapidly following the initiation of the “Belt and Road” project. The PRC and Taiwan have fairly consistent historical geographic claims, including in the South China Sea? Australian observers have been suspicious of China’s interests in the Pacific and wonder what the complexities of regional relations will mean for Australia in the future.

It is common and confusing to speak of “Chinese” or “Chinese people” without distinguishing those whose ancestors emigrated many generations ago, those resident on the mainland of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan or those more recently settled in various corners of the globe. In fact, they have very different perspectives and political views. As outward people movement from China increases, whether for business, study, tourism or other reasons, Chinese Australians also have complex identities in history. Many Chinese Australians find it insulting that their loyalty is called into question. It is important to understand what major social and political issues are of concern to them.

Commentators on the soft power activities of the PRC frequently focus on the United Front of the Chinese Communist Party, without understanding its background history and current goals. The PRC does legitimately seek to win friends and increase international influence through the exercise of soft power but questions may legitimately be asked as to how successful it is, how it uses cultural diplomacy and what is the role of the Confucius Institutes, particularly in Australia.

As the PRC experiences times of great change, the role of the Chinese Communist Party is evolving.  We need to understand the relationship between the Party and the Government and how Chinese people regard the Party. As the private economy and civil society grow, their interaction with the central government is changing but this does not necessarily mean they present threats to China’s stability.

The PRC is giving priority to the development of new technologies as part of its “Made in China 2025” campaign. Already we can see the national has technological strengths in automation, space technology, genetic engineering and other fields. Australia could benefit from closer cooperation in these and other fields, but should also be aware of potential threats to our security.

The Chinese Communist Party is also critically concerned about domestic security and focussed on national unity. This concern has roots in history and is supported by the general public, including Communist Party measures to maintain ideological correctness such as the “Social Credit” system. The so-called “Great Firewall” and censorship of the media and the Internet are more problematic.  Australian businesses and the Australian government need to take these systems into account when developing policies.

The PRC is often accused of contributing unduly to global warming and few people outside China know what actions the government is taking to address this, both domestically and through overseas aid and investment projects. The question arises as to what the implications of Chinese environmentally policies and practices are for Australia and the world and whether there is room for more cooperation in this area.

Turning to China’s enduring core values, we look at religion and where it fits in Chinese history.  Some scholars say that China has always been a materialist society, while others point to the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism on contemporary values and policies.  Christianity and Islam are “foreign” religions that have found a place in China, but both are increasingly strictly controlled and the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang is currently of particular concern. Many ask how this complies with the Chinese government’s commitment to international human rights conventions and have called on the Australian government to register concern.

China’s long history has shaped the thinking of the PRC government and people. The study of history occupies an important place in education curricula but Chinese understanding of heritage and tradition may be subtly different from what applies in other parts of the world and they are often applied consciously by the Party to boost soft power. It is commonly said that the Party and government leaders always take a long-term view and plan well ahead. Certainly, the government still relies on Five Year Plans.

The growing economy of the PRC is changing the class structure.  The government claims that China is still a developing economy but this is sometimes challenged in international circles. After decades of a “One Child” policy, demographic trends are changing and this has marked implications for Australian trade including the education and tourism sectors and consumer goods such as wine and dairy products. 

The PRC health system has been increasingly privatised since the introduction of market reforms in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this has led to many people losing confidence in it.  There are now opportunities for Australia to cooperate with China in medical and health fields and indeed this is essential if both countries aim to prevent global epidemics.

 Authors: Shirley Chan, Mobo Gao, Yingjie Guo, James Laurenceson, Colin Mackerras, Geoff Raby, Wanning Sun, David Walton, Jingqing Yang, Jason Young, Haiqing Yu

Jocelyn Chey, a former senior diplomat with postings in Beijing and Hong Kong, is Visiting Professor, University of Sydney, and Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University.

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