In an often-confused world, some things have a ring of certainty. The steady rise in anti-Chinese rhetoric is an example. It is disturbing, and largely baseless, but is becoming one of life’s truisms. This is not to suggest that China is beyond criticism or that its internal politics are in any way defensible. A country that can treat its working class in so poor a fashion, that can ride roughshod over human rights, is difficult to defend. But then, Australia has allowed for a massive casualisation of the workforce and has been more than once criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee for its treatment of indigenous Australians and refugees. Glass houses and all that.
The ramping up of anti-China sentiment has led to fear and anxiety in this country. The annual Lowy survey has seen the proportion of Australians that ‘trust’ China fall from 52 per cent to 32 percent in just one year. Seventy per cent feel that there is too much Chinese investment, 50 per cent believe that China will pose a military threat to Australia in 20 years, and 49 per cent regard ‘foreign interference’ to be a critical threat. Those figures show just how powerful a prolonged political campaign can be. Those statistics were published before the latest round of anti-Chinese propaganda was unleashed.
China has most recently been likened to Nazi Germany by Australian politicians. We have had spy stories and a defector. Just how long Wang Liqiang’s story will run is questionable. The Australian recently commented that “Macquarie University China researcher Adam Ni expressed scepticism about Mr Wang’s story, saying he appeared not to know the names of key Chinese institutions.” Whether he is an ill-informed spy or not is hardly the issue. What is important is that our government, just last year enacted its foreign interference laws. The new laws also saw the establishment of a registry of organisations with ‘foreign’ links. The foreign interference laws are patently anti-democratic. They allow for the prosecution of anyone with links to a ‘foreign’ organisation, along with provisions that target whistle-blowers and investigative journalists.
Recent events are more than a little interesting. Just a fortnight ago, former Trump advisor, Steve Bannon, addressed the Australian Strategic Forum, declaring that people “in Australia need to understand that as the thing [US-China rivalry] goes forward and it evolves from an information and economic war, it is going to be a kinetic [military] war.” He stated that Australians “need to understand that they are the absolute tip of the spear”. Just days later Duncan Lewis, the former head of ASIO, warned of “unprecedented foreign interference” claiming that China was seeking to “take over” Australian politics. And then came Peter Hartcher’s Quarterly Essay, ‘Red Flag: waking up to China’s challenge’.
Within the space of a few days the focus of anti-Chinese sentiment has been ratcheted up to dangerous levels. There is a degree of breathlessness in all of this. The Australian-Chinese community were first accused, by Clive Hamilton, of being potential ‘fifth columnists’ and now they are being urged to effectively spy on each other. The echo of the Stasi and East Germany is easy to hear. But, regardless of the excitement that some in the media and in politics may feel and want to share with us, one, rather big question needs to be asked. What is really going on?
It seems that every time the word China is used, it must be prefaced with the word communist. Putting the two words together in the same sentence is ludicrous. This ‘communist’ regime has an economy that is very close to becoming the world’s largest. It has 285 billionaires with a combined wealth of a trillion dollars and Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, is the 20th richest man in the world, and as chance might have it, is a member of the Chinese Communist Party! Those who set about to stir up ‘red’ or ‘yellow’ perils know this and know that China is about as ‘communist’ as the United States. The label, however, in creating an atmosphere of fear, is what is important.
Australia trades with China and does so successfully. Australia’s chief ideological ally is the US. There is a lot of talk about balancing these relationships, but the US is not about to allow itself to be relegated from world dominance. Major powers never do. Bannon’s diatribe about the potential for war with China is more than just the opinion of a rather distasteful character. He represents the thinking of a great many in the US and it is reflected in the thinking of many in positions of power here in Australia. Australian Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, in early November publicly urged the US to play an even greater role in ‘balancing’ China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region. If push came to shove, then it is clear how Australia would respond, even if that meant destroying the country’s economy in the process.
China ascends. America descends. For too many this is an unpalatable truth, but, short of a war of annihilation, then the rise of a capitalist China and the fall of a capitalist America is pretty much a fait accompli. In the meantime, in a confused world, we can expect the certainty of continuing anti-China rhetoric and we can expect that next year’s Lowy survey will show an even greater fear of China.
Dr William Briggs is a political economist, affiliated with Deakin University. His special interest areas are in the fields of political theory and international political economy.