The Year of the Ox more productive than Year of the Rat, but reset in Australia-China relations still unlikely

Mar 3, 2021

Oxen are more useful to humanity than rats. Here’s hoping that the year of the ox, which started on 12 February, will be better than the year of the rat. But, in terms of China’s relations with the West, and specifically Australia, it hasn’t started well. Several factors, especially differing concepts of human rights and the near-collapse of educational exchange are keeping the toxic atmosphere of 2020 very much alive. 

On 22 February, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi gave a talk to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the first time a Chinese official had done so at such a level. He said China wanted a “people-centred” attitude towards human rights in which the main specific rights are “peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom”.

The same day Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin commented at a news conference: “China pursues a people-centered vision, regards the rights to subsistence and development as the primary, basic human rights, and works hard to promote the comprehensive and coordinated development of economic, social, cultural rights as well as civil political rights.”

I think this vision is quite sensible. It is perfectly reasonable for the Chinese government to be immensely proud of eradicating absolute poverty, claimed as achieved late last year. Raising hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty is indeed a contribution to international human rights. I value the human rights of individuals very much, but it seems quite reasonable to give an even higher priority to the livelihoods of many millions. Sure, it doesn’t excuse breaches of the rights of individuals, but it gives another perspective on human rights that Western governments ignore with their relentless criticism of China’s abuses.

In his speech, Wang Yi defended China’s policy in Xinjiang, adding that it was much safer for everybody than it had been during the days when terrorism had run riot. In an obvious reference to the United States and other Western powers, he stated that: “Human rights are not a monopoly by a small number of countries, still less should they be used as a tool to pressure other countries and meddle in their internal affairs.”

Just as Wang was making his speech, the Canadian House of Commons passed a non-binding resolution, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstaining, condemning China for “genocide” in Xinjiang. There’s been some discussion of this term on this website recently. I have expressed a strong view that this is not an appropriate word. Wang Yi took up the issue in his speech: noting that the increase of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang was much faster than the growth in the overall population, he firmly rejected the term “genocide” to describe what was happening.

In an editorial on 23 February Global Times, which also expresses an official view, reacted sharply to such provocations:

“Canada, the UK and Australia, three members of the Five Eyes alliance, have recently taken action to put pressure on China. They have formed a US-centered, racist, and mafia-styled community, willfully and arrogantly provoking China and trying to consolidate their hegemony as all gangsters do. They are becoming a racist axis aimed at stifling the development rights of 1.4 billion Chinese.”

The wording seems overblown, but I can see why the Chinese are angry. If you continually insult people, they will react. And I think the Chinese have had enough of being insulted by the West. It may well be true that the US and UK are keen to maintain an Anglophone hegemony and that Canada and Australia are happy to go along with that.

What’s striking in the Global Times statement is the omission of New Zealand, which is usually linked along with the four just-mentioned countries as the “five eyes”. New Zealand, although criticizing Chinese human right abuses, has taken a much milder and more independent line. In January, New Zealand upgraded its China free trade agreement, signed in 2008, while Australia’s, which came into force in December 2015 under the Abbott government, seems to be withering. On 28 January, New Zealand’s Trade Minister Damien O’Connor criticized Australia for lacking in respect in its attitude towards China.

One of the areas where the disintegration of Australia-China relations has been highly destructive has been Chinese students enrolling for courses in Australia. Official Australian data put the number of Chinese students enrolled in Australian educational institutions in 2019 at 260,000, the highest ever. In 2020 the numbers dropped due to Covid-19 and the government’s unseemly haste in blocking students from China.

The pandemic has severely affected international student numbers in Australia, but vaccines may to a large extent solve problems of international travel. For students from China, however, the prospects are not good. In Australian universities, it is no longer fashionable to push for higher Chinese student numbers. Chinese official sources are anything but encouraging.

Meanwhile, on 4 February, Global Times came out with an article claiming Australia was not safe for Chinese students, due in part to rising racism. It said: “With rising reports of racist attacks against Chinese students in Australia, education insiders advised students to choose their study destinations with caution and urged Chinese education authorities to issue an alert for safety risks.” It also carried several stories of Chinese students being physically attacked.

In The Australian (17 February), Ben Packham reported that “in the first decision of its kind, five applicants for Australian Research Council grants were blocked from receiving funding of up to $500,000 a year on the orders of former education minister Dan Tehan”. Of course, the grounds are national security, the same as the Chinese themselves use for limiting academic freedom in Hong Kong.

Here is not the place to analyze rights and wrong. However, I’ll just make two points. First, we can expect far fewer Chinese students in the short- to medium-term future and maybe longer. Second, academics from China and those undertaking joint research with them are going to feel a chill that could put them off even trying to do international cooperative research, let alone apply for grants. As one who has always favoured educational exchange, I greatly regret both trends.

As is no doubt clear from what I’ve written I’m very despondent about Australia-China relations. Both sides seem to have reached a stage that they can’t be bothered with the other, and that can spell only mutual dislike and distrust. I think that’s flatly contrary to the interests of both countries, especially Australia, which has much more to lose than China.

However, I don’t want to finish without referring to a positive item. On 24 February, the Australian Academy of the Humanities announced its intention “to help strengthen ties between Australia and China through a year-long project to map Australia’s research and training capacity in China studies and identify areas for improved knowledge-building and capacity.”

The project would be funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations. Misgivings about the National Foundation have been expressed on this website, and I have to say that I share them. Moreover, a project of this sort will need more than a year. However, the Australian Academy of the Humanities has an excellent reputation, and anything that improves knowledge and understanding of China in Australia is a step in the right direction. I, for one, hope that it will help towards a reset of relations.

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