PAUL PERVERSI. Understanding anti-China Bias and other prejudices

Recent articles in Pearls and Irritations, such as those by Paul Malone, James Curran, Ramesh Thakur and Mike Scrafton, have highlighted the nonsensical nature of much analysis, reporting and opinion, particularly in relation to a trenchant and sustained bias against China. A fascinating question is to ask what is behind this trend.

Several answers on different levels are possible. One is outlined here.

As in many instances of prejudice, three interrelated underlying forces can be identified: fear, ignorance and projection. Each are briefly discussed below, in turn, although with the word constraints of this article, the discussion must remain somewhat general.

Fear seems to be one of the most enduring drivers of media coverage. Just sticking to ethnicities, I am old enough to remember the sequential threats posed by Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese and Lebanese, all these involving knife attacks, for some strange reason. Then there were African gangs, then Muslims, who usually seemed to be of Middle-Eastern background, all alongside the perennial focus on Indigenous people. I apologise to any maligned minority group that I may have forgotten to mention, there are probably many more. That’s not to mention so many other fears, either political, economic, health-related, crime-related or environmental.

The point is not that there aren’t things at times to be afraid of but that a continual discourse of fear, most of it irrational, is not helpful for sensible approaches to social issues. It fuels irrational responses, including racism. The anti-China trend is straight from this playbook.

Whilst ignorance is not a direct cause of fear, it certainly feeds it. We all know people vehemently against some group, who abruptly change tack when they come to know more about members of that group, through sharing the workplace for example. It is simply human nature. In the case of China, Chris Bowen estimated that only 130 Australians of non-Chinese background could speak Mandarin proficiently enough to do business. This claim was deemed an ‘educated guess’ by the ABC’s Fact Check. Probably few of those 130 can also read Chinese and even fewer of those are in leadership or other influential positions.

Dispelling ignorance about China is a major problem, not the least because Chinese culture is so different from Western culture. What hope is there for enlightened opinion if there are so few people who are even able to pick up a Chinese newspaper, read it and interpret it accurately in context, nor even able to have a conversation with ordinary Chinese people in their own language?

When people are ignorant, there is a tendency towards projection. If we don’t know about others’ motives, in the absence of alternative information we tend to assume that they must be similar to ours. In relation to anti-China, there are now commentators questioning why we automatically assume certain things. We may ask ourselves certain questions. For example, why does China’s positioning of its naval forces directly off its own coast imply aggression or military posturing and not simply securing safety of shipping lanes or defence? Why is a warning from a Chinese ambassador about possible consumer backlashes in China a threat and not a piece of friendly advice?

The Guardian reported a few years back that America dropped more than 25,000 bombs in 2016, mostly in Syria and Iraq, and had special operators in 70% of the world’s nations. If that’s how powerful countries operate, then surely China must operate that way as well, right? For people projecting their own values, the answer must surely be yes.

It is tempting to think that these personal factors could not be so dominant in professional commentators, such as personnel in the mass media, academia, bureaucracies or public policy advisory circles. In my opinion, there is no reason to assume that fear, ignorance and projection aren’t equally prominent there, especially when they are swept along through public discourse.

So what can be done to counter fear-based narratives based in ignorance and projection? It is positive to note that there are commentators attempting to disrupt these narratives, but by definition they are outside the dynamics pointed out above, and thus may be perceived of as out of touch by the general public. Perhaps ignorance is the central factor in the above argument, but it is hard to see how such a deficit of understanding could be broached. The cycle of fear dominates: because we are afraid, we read the worst into every event, which raises our fear further, and so on.

One heartening observation is that the cycle of fear moves through target after target and seldom seems to consolidate into anything meaningful in the long run. On the other hand, the targets in the past have not typically been extremely powerful, wealthy entities, as is China, even though at the time they may have been portrayed as far more dangerous than they actually turned out to be. Furthermore, it is not too hard to find evidence that the anti-China focus of the media may not accurately represent how the average Australian or powerful elite really feels about things, when push comes to shove.

Of course, the above is not the only possible interpretation. Some may also point to the decline of journalistic resources and the strategies of grandstanding and self-promotion to stay afloat regardless of content quality, for example. Or some may claim that this is all just an irrelevant public sideshow for the benefit of entertainment, Trump-style, designed to garner public support for various vested interests. Nevertheless, if fear, ignorance and projection are strong factors, then they should be openly called out and resisted. It is encouraging that this is regularly occurring in Pearls and Irritations.

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Dr Paul Perversi is a teacher who has lived, worked and travelled extensively in China for eight of the past twelve years. He holds a PhD in Health Informatics from Deakin University, where he studied collaborative group reasoning in healthcare.

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30 Responses to PAUL PERVERSI. Understanding anti-China Bias and other prejudices

  1. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    Australia was once a wonderful country, opposing Apartheid, supporting Israel (then vulnerable to aggression), opening doors to Vietnamese refugees, giving Chinese students an opportunity to remain post-Tiananmen …

    That said, I don’t think Australia has ever done enough to address the deprivations that indigenous Australians experience (then and presently). Admittedly this is a difficult challenge. But I think giving indigenous Australians a universal basic income would overcome many deprivations and is something Australia can easily afford.

  2. Avatar Richard Barnes says:

    I have no independent knowledge of China. But it seems unlikely that the CCP, the United Work Front and the Belt & Road Initiative are primarily focused on helping the non-Chinese world, any more than US foreign interventionism was and is aiming to help the non-American world. Australia, as a middle power, must aim for good relations with, but clear-eyed independence from, both major powers.
    It is a huge mistake to conflate criticism of any country’s policies with racial prejudice against its peoples.
    I wonder whether a contribution from Clive Hamilton in P&I would be a helpful addition to the discussion.

  3. Avatar Jozef Imrich says:

    My wife and I visit your blog peppered with many pearls of wisdom early and often. We comment rarely as we know that writing in commentariats is similar to composing postcards as it requires lots of effort. Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

    This thread of comments reminded me of ‘we the media’ trailblazing efforts by Margo Kingston’s Webdairy circa 2003-2015 ( https://webdiary.com.au/ ) when most of the conversations seemed to turn into Left Versus Right Tink Tank ideological battles.

    Not all left wingers are ruthless communists and not all right winners are brutal fascists. Indeed, “more care must be taken to distinguish a government from its people.”

    Whether novel corona virus 2019 originated in Chinese chemical factory or wet meat markets or some other parts of the world is immaterial as we will never discover the whole truth. However, the homocidal (sic) ways China chooses to pursue its national interests might move the current debate where it truly matters – Hong Kong – new innovation in manufacturing and fairer international level playing fields …

    (https://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-path-self-destruction-starts-hong-kong-156641)
    Blogs like ‘Pearls and Irritations’ serve Australian National Interests as they air ideas and question the complex world of policy and law making as well as create place where sunlight serves as best disinfectant to topics that so many of us have little time to study in depth ….

    “Because the horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.”

    [Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek, Harper’s Magazine, November 11, 2011]”
    ― Slavoj Žižek

  4. Avatar Dufa Wira says:

    “…if fear, ignorance and projection are strong factors, then they should be openly called out and resisted. It is encouraging that this is regularly occurring in Pearls and Irritations.”

    I agree. Thanks for writing this elegant essay.

  5. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Another way to ask what is going on is to put myself in my mind as a citizen of China not a Canberran. The US has 6,000 nuclear weapons and China has 200. The US has used nukes and threatened to use them again against China. Experts say that nuclear weapons will be used if not eliminated. The nuclear states refuse to consider elimination. I would assume perhaps wrongly that the new submarines would be used against China. I would educate my children abroad and invest in Tasmania. If WA barley farmers and others exporting see the US taking their markets would they still love the US umbrella ? The US farmers could lobby to stop a war against the place where they ship wine, barley etc.

    • Avatar Peter Small says:

      Michael,
      Barley growers, in fact nearly all farmers understand better than most the importance of trade, the importance of respecting the buyer and trying to give the buyer product quality and price. Most farmers I know are appalled by the ineptness of our political class, our policy makers. Marise Payne is a disgrace. Who does she take her orders from Scott Morison, ASIO or the CIA. I watched her on the Insiders several weeks ago and she was determined to ferment strive and in whose interest? Its the American alliance we fear, and as we all know when Trump comes to an accommodation with China we will all be left like a shag on a rock and not just barley growers! And as Professor Gary Banks former chairman of the Productivity Commission wrote in a letter to the Editor. Fin. Review 20/05/20 Australia is not beyond reproach on Trade. Nor on human right nor anything else we pontificate to the rest of the World about.

  6. Avatar Sue Butler says:

    Ideas that take hold of a society are never entirely eradicated, particularly if there is no reason to make a cultural change. We just lazily drift on with the same set of assumptions. The White Australia Policy is no more, and yet it lingers in The Australian subconscious. We have made a distinction between trade and any more significant engagement. Trade we welcome. Some meeting of hearts and minds with the Chinese is still unthinkable. We thought we could maintain this comfortable arrangement which doesn’t require us to do any thinking, but as the world changes we need to make a bit more effort.

  7. Avatar Richard England says:

    What bully does not claim his violence is just?

    What despicable coward does not heed the bully’s threat, “You are with me or you are against me” ?

  8. Avatar Hal Duell says:

    The truly scary aspect of all this China bashing is what happens to Australia when the US reaches an accommodation with China? I suggest the recent agreement to sell US barley to China is a harbinger of just that.
    Wake up, ScoMo. And where, oh where, is the ALP?

    • Avatar Sandra Hey says:

      With all due respect to your comment on ALP currently missing in action? With 2 years to the next election, no point in giving the Morrison Government and it’s media arm (News Corp) any opportunity to deflect away from how inept this Morrison Government is. There is an old saying “patience’s is a virtue” also a strength in Chinese philosophy, originates during a period known as the Hundred Schools of thought, which was characterised by significant intellectual and cultural developments.

    • Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

      “Where is the ALP?”
      Where is it regarding the existential threat of global heating toward +4 degrees Celsius and the demise of much of life? (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/18/climate-crisis-heat-is-on-global-heating-four-degrees-2100-change-way-we-live). How consistent are the opening and export of huge amounts of coal from the Galilee Basin (Adani) and the release of methane from LNG with its former core principles? While its leader claims “I am a conviction politician”, how can the betrayal of “The greatest moral challenge of our generation” (https://theconversation.com/its-ten-years-since-rudds-great-moral-challenge-and-we-have-failed-it-75534) engender any confidence? Is there any fundamental distinction between the ALP’s foreign policies and that of the right wing? What does the ALP really stand for as distinct from the conservatives, except for wishing to win government?

  9. Avatar paul walter says:

    All about a new scapegoat, to get attention off the sinister clowns Trump, Morrison and Dutton.

  10. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    Hi Peter. Much as I enjoyed Alf Rattigan’s no-nonsense naval style and his entertaining memoir, we need more than a re-birth of the farmers turned politicians turned economists, as Tom Fitzgerald called Bert Kelly, Peter Walsh and John Hyde. We need to rebuild our manufacturing and it will need some protection, though not such a complex web as unravelled by Rattigan in his chairmanship of the Tariff Board. There is no reason why Australia should have high energy costs. We should be making the cheapest and the best steel and aluminium in the world. We have all the resources.

    • Avatar Peter Small says:

      Yes Jerry, of course we should be making the best steel and aluminium in the World but not behind a sweet of tariffs. We should have competitive advantage with these two products plus a heap of others, but do we?

  11. Avatar Peter Small says:

    Can we expect you Ric Hingee to take a similar position and stand up to the biggest bully of all, The United States of America?

  12. Avatar Peter Small says:

    Interesting article by Paul Pervers but there is another dimension to this debate that I fear is equally worrying. The regrouping of the protectionist lobby. As we no longer have Alf Rattigan, Peter Walsh and Bert Kelly protecting our interests in Canberra, all of us need to be on red alert. The ill considered outburst by the Foreign Minister Marise Payne calling for an inquiry into COVID-19’s origins, reported as the trigger for Chinese retaliatory action against our malting barley, may be no more than a diversion from the real reason for the Chinese anger,- Australia’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.
    We must remember tariffs, in this case steel and aluminium, make Australian manufactures already battling high energy and input costs noncompetitive. And tariffs on any imports makes us all poorer!

  13. Reply to Ric Hingee
    Paul is stating the facts. You should carefully read Chek Ling’s article ” Unleashing the White Australia virus.” on P&I 19 May 2020.
    How much do you know modern China? Have you been to China last 10 years as Paul has?
    It does not matter what you background is, if you are just as ignorant as some of my Chinese Australians who are just as bad in joining in the anti-China bashing media.
    We condemn all bullies and bad behaviours. A small bully is just as bad as a big bully. Can you tell who is the big bully in this world? Out of 239 years of the establishment of USA, sadly to say that she has started 222 wars and latest few are in Middle East. How many wars has China started? You need some historical lessons. I am a peace maker and you can start with reading this article as well. ” ANTHONY PUN and KA SING CHUA. Don’t be duped by biased media, reporters and political commentators” in P&I on 19 May 2020.
    Nothing personal regards

    By Chek Ling | On 20 May 2020

    • Avatar Ric Hingee says:

      Sounds a bit personal to me. You know nothing of my background but suggest that I might be as ignorant as “your Chinese Australians”. My tertiary qualifications are in economics, political science and international relations and I worked for many years in the Commonwealth Department of Trade and in the Trade Commission, ADAB and APEC. It gives me a reasonable insight into the political strategies and bullying tactics of countries like China, the USA and Russia. I am also the brother-in-law to one of Australia’s top diplomats, John McCarthy, and regularly discuss foreign affairs matters with him even though we may not be in agreement on some issues.

      • Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

        Sir,
        Please address the issue, not the person. How eminent your qualifications and working experience are has no bearing on the argument. Remember that you are writing for an erudite audience.
        Sincerely,
        Teow Loon Ti

        • Avatar Ric Hingee says:

          You were the one who brought up the word “ignorance”. Qualifications and experience need to be then taken into account. An erudite audience would expect that and I suggest you are claiming to be part of such an audience

  14. Avatar Ric Hingee says:

    Paul Perversi sounds a bit like a China apologist to me. There appears no dispute that China is acting in a bellicose and belligerent way and is using intimidatory tactics on various countries around the world, and particularly Hong Kong at the moment. I also have no doubt that it is using the same tactics on various regulatory bodies such as the WHO. It has more or less weaponised trade and has no need to use bombs and artillery as referred to by Perversi. Coming from a Chinese/Danish background myself I am well aware of both prejudice and of the bullying tactics used by many countries and a proportion of their residents, but China is excelling in this over recent years. The only way to prevent bullying is to stand up to the bullies and it is high time that nations around the world combined to take China to task, just as WHO members are doing in relation to an independent Coronavirus inquiry.

    • Avatar Hans Rijsdijk says:

      Interesting response. Isn’t this exactly along the lines of Perversi’s arguments above?

    • Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

      Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. The weaponization of the virus follows the “Good old” medival blood libel narrative, including during the crusades when wars and the Black Plague killed as much as 50% of the population in Europe. We are in the midth of the 2nd Cold World War, the first casualty being the truth. There are no angels left except for vested interests, their media mouthpieces and the hypocricy of “good” and “evil” countries. On the one side there is a Chinese empire-building ambition of the “belt and road” strategy and the “re-education” of minorities, while on the other hand is the bombing of 6 million people in Vietnam and more than a million people in the Middle East (Iraq) in the name of freedom and the spreading hundreds of military bases around the world. With missile launch time on the scale of a few minutes, the current situation can easily deteriorate into a nuclear war.

    • Avatar Andrew McRae says:

      ‘Bellicose… belligerent… intimidatory…’

      Could describe Australia’s manner of dealing with East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Nauru. Just ask some Pacific island nations what they think of Australia. Or consider the USA’s manner of dealing with Middle Eastern or Latin American nations, and its military personnel and/or bases in about three quarters of the world’s countries; and there’s its interminable boycotts and embargoes on nations like Vietnam and Cuba.

      A bully is OK as long as it’s our bully, eh.

    • Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

      Sir,

      By the way, Hong Kong is part of China.

      Teow Loon Ti

    • It’s a pity that Paul Perversi’s article didn’t distinguish prejudice against the Chinese people, which should be deplored, from justifiable criticism of, and resistance to, the cruel and bullying behaviour of the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party against other countries and their own people. A common attempt to justify cruel and bullying behaviour by powerful governments against the less powerful, is to accuse critics of these powerful governments of racism. A blatant example has been the reaction to critics of the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians. I do not assume that Paul is using this tactic, but am asking that more care must be taken to distinguish a government from its people.

  15. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    All presuming prejudice, which is simply asserted.

  16. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    Sir,
    In Leicester Square Park in the heart of London stands a beautiful statue of William Shakespeare with a caption saying, “There no darkness like ignorance”. Perhaps our MP George Christensen might consider a visit to the park instead of the bars of Manila. And while he is at it, he might consider taking along Peter Harcher who still analyses China in the light of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
    Sincerely,
    Teow Loon Ti

    • Avatar James O'Neill says:

      Regrettably Mr Hartcher is not alone in his ignorance and prejudices about China. It is a further measure of the continuing decline of the SMH that they continue to publish his bigoted and ignorant trash.

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