Nine’s international editor’s demonising of a ‘genocidal China’ is downright dangerous

Feb 5, 2021

Using such a loaded term as “genocide” as a kind of throwaway is irresponsible, especially when it’s designed to sneer at nuance. Sneering at anybody wanting more nuance in analysing Australia-China relations is not only unwise but dangerous.

On 2 February, the Sydney Morning Herald published the article “Apologising for China’s delinquency? We’ll be sorry”, by international editor Peter Hartcher. Hartcher argued that Australia had for too long been apologising for behaviour in China that Hartcher regards as delinquent. He further wrote that:

“we might end up yielding our independence to a rising fascist power. The least we can do is to stop making excuses for our oppressor in the meantime.”

I profoundly disagree with that view. The government and mainstream media are too ready to condemn all China’s behaviour without listening to any alternative point of view. I think it extremely unlikely on current indications that China either wants to, or has the ability to, take Australia over or take away our independence.

It is rising, sure, but to call it fascist is unfair and a way of emphasising its nastiness. To call it “our oppressor” seems to me ridiculous. I respect Hartcher’s right to publish an article such as this, but I find it equally important to provide a balanced response. 

I find many points to critique, so have restricted myself to a few. 

The first point is the comparison with India. Hartcher thinks China has been given an easier run in Australia than the other rising power, India. He writes: “It’s true that India’s rise is in a much earlier phase than China’s, yet rising it is.”

My impression is the precise opposite of his. India, a democracy, has been given far more indulgence than China, an authoritarian state. Virtually the entire press has sided with India against China over recent conflict in the Himalayan region. This is a one-sided view and India’s point of view far from obviously the only one worth hearing. 

Second, Hartcher scoffs at the way China, alone among countries, uses anger as a mechanism to browbeat other countries such as Australia. What is “anger” in China is similar to the regular condemnation of other countries that emerges from Washington, London, Canberra and other capitals. Terms like “anger” are designed to make the Chinese look nasty and unreasonable.

Hartcher seems to only look at one side. His denunciation of anger leads on to criticism of Philip Flood, a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,  for “telling us that the ‘current low point’ in relations is caused by both countries and that Australia needs to approach China with ‘more nuance’.” 

My view is that to sneer at anybody wanting more nuance in analysing Australia-China relations is not only unwise but downright dangerous. I think Flood is dead right; a bit of nuance is not only useful but essential, especially in crisis circumstances such as those we currently face. To take the view, “I’m right and anybody who disagrees with me is some kind of fool” is exactly what we don’t need at present, especially from a journalist as influential as Hartcher.

And the reason Hartcher dislikes nuance is because he regards China as violent, aggressive and evil: “What sort of nuance would Flood suggest we use against a fascist power that is crushing human liberty at home – including a program of genocide in Xinjiang – and using brute force to make illegal territorial grabs abroad?”

Hartcher is taking all the most negative stereotypes and attributing them, without analysis, to a country he apparently hates. China’s government may be authoritarian and it’s true that freedom is more restricted now than a few years ago, but it is not fascist. One can argue that there are human rights abuses in Xinjiang, but the tag of “genocide” is completely unreasonable, as I argued in Pearls and Irritations on 25 January.

Hartcher seems to be thoughtlessly following the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who did his best to sow hatred of China during his last days in office. Using such a loaded and condemnatory term as “genocide” as a kind of throwaway is irresponsible, especially when it’s designed to sneer at nuance.

As for the use of brute force to make illegal territorial grabs abroad, what strikes me about China is that it has been  restrained in the use of force in territory not its own. The last time China sent combat troops abroad was to Vietnam in 1979, and they were withdrawn after a very short war in which the Chinese made no attempt to enter the capital Hanoi or overthrow the Vietnamese government.

Contrast that with other great powers, France, Britain and especially the United States, which have launched several long-term wars in the same period. And, at the behest of great powers, Australia has several times sent troops to take part in wars, even those that don’t concern us. 

Marketing and mythologies in our endless wars on behalf of others

Hartcher’s article attracted well over 700 comments from readers. Many were very positive, but quite a few were not.

“Demonising the enemy is not going to make one’s country great, already proven,” said one. China is not the enemy, as far as I’m concerned, but I agree that demonising it is not going to make us great.

Another commenter thought Hartcher might appropriately take over ASPI.

It’s time to decommission ASPI

Several advocated stopping poking China in the eye all the time, and continually blaming China for misdemeanours, when it is usually reacting to insults inflicted on it. Interestingly, while Hartcher clearly has his admirers, many readers of the Sydney Morning Herald are a bit more “nuanced” in their approach.

Hartcher’s article is aimed at turning opinion against China as a dangerous country with major similarities to Japan or Germany in the 1930s. That’s become a fashionable view in Australia and the Anglophone world, perhaps elsewhere too. It is wrong and dangerous. It shows the need to present an alternative viewpoint to that of the mainstream press. It pinpoints the need for journal sites like Pearls and Irritations to continue to flourish

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