Stan Grant’s recent article on China demonstrates that our media’s knowledge of China is less than adequate. We do not need to say anything about the other self-described ‘China experts’ in the Australian media who are far less qualified.
Let me start with an assumption that should be taken for granted: to safeguard Australia’s national interest in relation to China we should have a good pool of knowledge of China. Unfortunately, Australian media are remarkably lacking in expertise.
As a measure of our China knowledge it may be useful to have a closer examination of a recent commentary by Stan Grant for the ABC titled, “To understand China you need to understand whiteness, yet it’s missing from the conversation”.
The reason for this selection to show Australian media’s lack of expertise is manifold. Firstly, Grant is an articulate and experienced journalist with an international profile and respectable reputation. Secondly, Grant, unlike many, has working experience in China, having worked for CNN and lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2008 and then again from 2010 to 2013. Thirdly, Grant has been prominent in talking about China for the ABC, SBS, and thinktanks like the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, so he is widely regarded as a foremost China expert. He hosts Q&A on the ABC, which features China frequently, and the ABC’s China Tonight program.
In the above-mentioned piece, Grant states that race sits at the heart of understanding China. According to him, China describes AUKUS as “a race-based military bloc of white countries”. Referring to what China’s Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, said about “how it [AUKUS] appears to people in other countries”, Grant comments “What he means are non-white countries.” In fact, although the Ambassador did not name them, my guess is that his list of “other countries” would most likely include Russia and France, which are pretty much “white” countries.
Grant goes on to declare, “The Chinese Communist Party has a deep racial consciousness. It is there in the reminder to its people never to forget the hundred years of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers — of white powers.” It is common knowledge, however, that it was the “white” West that inspired Chinese Communist Party ideology and organisational mechanisms. Karl Marx was certainly white, and Lenin and his colleagues who led the October Revolution that inspired the 1949 Chinese revolution have always been considered white by Chinese people.
“The fall of the Qing Empire in the 19th century hastened a racial reckoning for the Chinese” is another statement by Grant about race. Anyone with an elementary knowledge of this period of Chinese history would know that the first President of the Chinese Republic, Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), was opposed to Manchu rule, and the Manchus were not white. If that was racism, it was not against the white race. In fact, the Chinese Republicans aimed to create a “white man’s” democracy. One of the landmark advocacies of the May 4th Movement in 1919 was to copy the “white” West.
Grant writes, “Chinese leaders have seen their struggle in racial terms. Mao Zedong styled himself as a revolutionary leader of the non-white world”, but, in fact, Mao tried to get on with America in the 1940s. It was only later during the Cold War that Mao was driven to lean towards the Soviet Union. And it was Mao who initiated the “opening-up” of China to the West by inviting Nixon to visit China in 1972.
It is true that Mao encouraged colonised countries in word and in deed to rise against their masters, for instance, in Africa. This was not about race but about class, the basic building block of Marxist revolutionary theory. It is interesting that, like progressive Lefties, do-gooders of identity politics and anti-communist Right-wingers these days, Grant does not address the issue of class. We all respect Grant for the part he has played in fighting for the cause of First Nations People, but he would do better to address the class issue as well as racism.
When talking about President Xi Jinping, Grant asserts, “his idea of Chinese power is ethnic Han superiority— persecuting non-Han, non-white people in his own country”. Surely Grant should know that there are “white” ethnic Russian people in the People’s Republic of China. It was the PRC that initiated a national minority recognition program that defined the nationality identities of fifty-five ethnic groups other than the so-called Han. For some national minorities, written languages had to be constructed by scholars so as to record their ethnic histories and cultures.
There has even been some popular backlash by the majority Han people against affirmative policies towards the so-called national minorities. For instance, exceptions were made to the one child per family rule for non-Han people, while the policy was strictly imposed on the Han. (Witness the fact that the two most powerful families in China now, those of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, have only one child.) There has been talk in recent decades of treating all ethnic groups equally, but the official policy of giving more assistance to national minorities has largely remained intact. For example, development assistance to minorities regions has required cities and provinces in other parts of China to transfer resources to Xinjiang, Tibet and other remote northwest areas, although admittedly this is partly a geopolitical strategy to stabilise the western regions.
Finally, Grant asserts, “In some ways, Xi’s China may represent the end of whiteness” but also adds, “If whiteness is power, Xi Jinping is its champion”. It is hard to see how these contradictory sweeping statements can shed any light on the understanding of China.
To his credit, Grant cites internationally respected scholars like Michael Keeva and Jerome Ch’en, and makes reference to Liang Qichao (1873-1929), one of the most important intellectual figures in the history of Chinese nationalism. However, Grant’s reference to scholarship is without any analytical nuance.
This short analysis of a text by Grant evidently shows that his knowledge of China is less than adequate. We do not need to say anything about the dozen or so of other self-described China experts in the Australian media who are far less qualified.