JUSTIN O’CONNOR. The domestic agenda for Australia’s anti-China rhetoric

May 18, 2020

Australia’s anti-China rhetoric is not just about foreign policy. In demonising China as a malign communist power it distracts us from looking at what ails Western liberal democracies, presenting us with a stultifying either/or.

Numerous articles in Pearls and Irritations have pointed to the double standards being applied to China and how the Australian media reproduce accounts from a small group of defence and foreign policy research institutes. These are echoed even in left-leaning outlets such as Crikey and The Monthly.

The reasons for the sudden anti-China surge range from attempts to wrangle bigger defence budgets, to an unthinking ‘loyalist’ regurgitation of a post-2016 Washington line. Realists argue Australia is a middle-ranking power and should not stick its neck out. They point to its vital dependence on Chinese markets. Hawks like Peter Hartcher and Clive Hamilton dismiss this position as morally craven – a noxious cocktail of self-interest and naivety allowing a malign Chinese influence into the heart of our political system, business elites and university campuses.

Clearly this relates to the real if as yet uncertain shifts that have accelerated under President Donald Trump and will require some fundamental rethinking about where, and what, Australia is to be geopolitically. But this is more than a foreign policy issue. What is at stake domestically in the sudden surge of anti-China rhetoric? In the US, it serves to cover up the federal government’s woeful response to the virus.  Despite President Xi Jinping’s initial fumbling, the US failed to heed clear warnings and squandered its precious window of opportunity before the pandemic took hold.

In Australia, where there is no need for such diversions, many still see China’s growing geopolitical status as something to be deplored, whatever its consequences. It has a venom that is often portrayed as racism, with obvious antecedents in Australia’s past. Yet while xenophobia is sometimes in play (most especially Clive Hamilton) I think the heart of this response lies elsewhere.

All anti-China commentators claim they have no problem with the Chinese people. It is the Communist Party regime with which they take issue and want to see changed. But this is not the simple division that it looks. Regime change is a systemic transformation of the lives of a whole population, and it always comes at the price of great disruption and violence – especially if imposed from the outside, as even a cursory glance at US foreign policy since 1945 will show. The Chinese Communist Party has deep roots in the Chinese people and their civilisational values.

This is not to say there are not real discontents and dissents, but these occur within a Chinese, not a Western, worldview. Predictions, in the early stages of the viral emergency, of regime collapse, of Xi losing the ‘mandate of heaven’, and the handling of the crisis as ‘a war of the Chinese people against the Chinese state’, were ludicrously off-target. Essential to the anti-China rhetorical position is the belief that, given a push, the Chinese people will rise up against the Communist Party and embrace democracy. This is a self-interested outlook: a desire for continued US global hegemony and the conquest of China’s state-locked markets by Western companies – wishful thinking that stretches right back to the Opium Wars.

There is also a sly rhetorical conflation between freedom as democracy and freedom as markets. Since 1978, and especially after 1989, Western nations were willing to champion the latter, believing the first would arrive as a matter of course. What has happened since 2008 is that opening up to the global ‘free market’ – conceived as the access of Western capital to Chinese resources, labour and services (especially health, education, finance, real estate) – has not worked entirely in our favour. It was only when China began challenging the US at its own game – i.e. increasing its financial, technological and developmental reach – that the US began to have a problem with its authoritarianism. China represents a limit to US-led global power, militarily and economically.

William Briggs has suggested that losing out on these fronts has resulted in a heightened ideological positioning of China as communist, though everyone knows it is capitalist. I’m not so sure. It is a truth universally acknowledged (more or less) that neoliberalism has come to some sort of end, encapsulated in the fact that it was to states and society, not markets and entrepreneurs, that we turned to in the COIVID-19 crisis. China’s ability to respond, after first failure, represents not just the draconian powers of an authoritarian state. Such a state could not act effectively without a clear mandate from the people, one possessed of a high degree of trust and solidarity.

We hear ‘Asian values’ being discussed, and that it is to Taiwan, South Korea and (more ambiguously) Singapore that we should look for lessons managing the pandemic. Yet the common factor here is less ‘democracy’ than Asian values, which express allegiance to forms of collective solidarity and social protection against which neoliberalism rails. As with China’s state-led economic growth, so too with the capacity to respond to this crisis. These are success stories that challenge the global narrative of all-conquering ‘free’ markets that has dominated for the last forty years.

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1920s as a response to the emergence of the Soviet Union, and its triumph in the 1980s was over the prone corpse of communism. It was communism’s unequivocal failure that provided the force to push through the neoliberal reforms that transformed societies across the world. China was the exception that proved the rule. Only after adopting capitalism, it seemed, could it bring its people out of poverty. Yet here it is, now, flaunting its communism.

Though it is useful when creating a ‘bad other’ that a nation is (in the words of one US State Department official) ‘non-Caucasian’, the visceral attacks on China are essentially anti-communist. This locks the debate into a simple either/or: either democracy or authoritarianism, which is it to be? What ‘democracy’ includes and what is to be understood by ‘authoritarian’ are unasked questions. Those who talk about ‘our values’ use the spectre of China to avoid confronting the reality of democracies under the sway of neoliberalism: the rampant inequality, the subservience of politics to business and finance, the reduction of societal purpose to economic growth. There is little talk about the capacities China has accrued by not following neoliberal prescriptions, and by drawing on its residual socialist and civilisational resources.

This is not to position China as any sort of example to follow. Its exponential economic growth after 1989 has undoubtedly been predicated on ‘free markets’ traded for a repudiation of democratic aspirations. But this was never going to involve a liberal democratic model, which almost nobody was calling for at that time. Rather, demands focused on how the Chinese people could take an active role in the post-Mao reform process, building on a century of revolutionary struggle. Post-1989 market reforms, drawing heavily on a Western neoliberal consensus, were forcibly pushed through by the Chinese Community Party at the expense of large sections of the population (though to the benefit of others).

China is now living through the contradictions and failures of its own home-grown neoliberalism. The answers it comes up with will not involve (neo)liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. It is unlikely that any answers will be transferable to nations like Australia, but they might be useful to consider in non-hostile fashion. The challenges we now face of climate change, entrenched inequality, artificial intelligence, food insecurity and a general social nihilism, demand we rethink our own system of turbo-charged financial capitalism hell-bent on catastrophe.

Rather than being locked into an anti-China binary of an either/or, we need space to explore a neither/nor. It is this rethinking of politically possible against which the current anti-Communist rhetoric is principally aimed. We should resist it at all costs.

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