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

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.


Justin O'Connor is professor of Cultural Economy at the University of South Australia, and is author, with Xin Gu, of the forthcoming Red Creative: Culture and Modernity in China (Intellect).

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

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    While more readily accepting Gavan O’Brien’s observations than those of others, I certainly wish to ask Professor O’Connor how he sees the accession of Xi Jinping as “President for Life” as a strategic ingredient.

    “The West” cohabitated strategically with the Soviet Union from 1919 to its end in c.1990. So I don’t see any particular strategic problem with the CCP claiming its (alleged) Communist identity. Same re Cuba, N. Korea and Vietnam.

    Personally I have a grave problem with Xi Jinping as China’s “Great Dictator”. Shades of fascist Europe pre-WWII.

    Is it sufficient – or appropriate – to simply (cavalierly?) note that Chinese culture has been used to authoritarian rule for some two millennia? I think Xi Jinping’ political position represents far more strategic danger than this overlooked subject purports.

  2. Gavin O'Brien says:

    A great analysis. China has never had democracy .Its people have always respected strong leadership throughout its long history.Western commentators discussing Asian affairs in general see them through Western eyes which prejudices their analysis and skews their conclusions. The current leadership is Communist in name only, having learnt from the disasters of Soviet style Communism that a form of Capitalism is the best way to advance the well being of the people.I agree that the Pandemic caught the local government wrong footed .The repression of the medical staff by panicked local officials did the rest. It took strong measures at national level to stem the rot. Vietnam’s response is a good example of strong central leadership. Like China, the Government has strong trust from its population, hence its success in controlling the Pandemic.

  3. malcolm harrison says:

    While agreeing with most of what Professor O’Connor writes, I would still like to see some evidence that the Chinese delayed at the beginning of the outbreak in China. I keep hearing this charge repeated with no accompanying evidence. I am not here disputing that it happened, but the time line does not support any significant delay, and anyway the word ‘delay’ is both vague and pejorative. I am still waiting for someone who thinks there was a ‘delay’ to also explain what that delay was. It seems to many people that the six week period from early December 2019 when doctors in Wuhan first noticed a cluster of extreme pneumonia cases to the last week in January 2020 when the WHO declared a global emergency, was full of useful revelation that political leaders in the west seemingly ignored.

    • justin O'Connor says:

      We need to wait for a full account. I think it is clear there was a delay – I call it fumbling – which of course relates to the way officials don’t like to stick their heads out too much (though they same increasingly applies in the US). But it was also an unknown quantity, and took sometime to recognise what it was or might be. Could have been quicker – possibly. But yes, once it was established as a killer and acted upon in China (most of) the rest of the world kicked their heels and prevaricated.

  4. Malcolm Crout says:

    OK, let’s ignore the invasion of countries like Tibet, set aside the ethnic cleansing, ignore the sidelining of Taiwan, pretend the Spratley occupation is a figment of Western imagination and ignore the ongoing human rights abuses in the hope that by some alignment in the heavens, the CCP see the light and set about reversing China’s awful track record. Let’s forget that China has manipulated their currency for decades, established persistent protectionist mechanisms, reneged on the Hong Kong deal and is embarking on an unholy alignment with Russia to exploit European instability and calling it a Belt Road or some other stupid name. Let’s not even discuss their expansionist and predatory activity in the Pacific and South East Asia.

    Now, exactly what are we supposed to like about China? …….. Crickets!!!!!

    • justin O'Connor says:

      Countries like Tibet – or Tibet? Which was invaded by the Qing long before the British invaded Australia. Sidelining Taiwan – the US has done the same to Cuba for many years. Is currently manipulation a crime – perhaps you need to read the history of the Dollar since the end of Bretton Woods. So too you might check out the Australian record on protectionism. The rest is just a rant, I’m afraid,

  5. J.Donegan says:

    Thank you Professor O’Connor for this very clear summary.
    Even if we leave aside the ‘usual suspects’ involved in “the current anti-Communist rhetoric”, I find it instructive that there is no similar amount of criticism (and invective) directed at Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos. Nor does there appear to be any of the same directed at those Governments where a Communist Party is either ruling or is part of ruling multi-party government – of which there’s currently about eleven.

  6. Andrew Glikson says:

    Through history empires needed an ememy in order to promote their interests. It is not the first time during the 20th and 21st centuries that much of the media, rather than acting as a mitigating voice to prevent the rise of fascism and war, has been recruited by vested interests as a conflict-promoting propaganda machine. Recall the lessons of the WMD story. By turning a blind eye to the likely consequences of the rising momentum toward a global nuclear war, much of the media has become complicity in promoting such an outcome.

  7. Sam Lee says:

    Peter Hartcher’s articles have a religiosity and/or instructed-rhetoric about them that remind me of Peter Dutton. Clive Hamilton just seems to have had bats pulled over his eyes by vested interests (ie, the “useful idiot”; doubly useful for discrediting his climate change work and disbanding those followers) and is now locked into a position where he loses face if he doesn’t double down.

    “Morally craven” is trading facts, reason, social and civic responsibility (ie, one’s morality and humanity) for influence and control.

    Western media read like an echo chamber or a single political party in 24/7 sloganeering / election campaigning.

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