A little over a century ago, the world plunged into war. The call to nationalism, national identity and symbolism was carefully promoted. The conditions that created that war still echo. We see, today, an integrated global capitalism in contradiction to a powerful nation-state system. We see fears, animosities and distrust between peoples and states rise as those 1914 echoes reverberate. Once more, the seemingly benign Tasmanian landscape and population offers itself as a case-study in microcosm of global political and economic upheavals and controversies.
What is engaging the good people of Tasmania is a ‘threat’ to all things Tasmanian that China is said to present. ‘Negative impacts’ of Chinese investment, Chinese tourism, the malignant influence of the Chinese Communist Party, are becoming the staple diet for many. It’s disturbing and made more so by a recent visit from Professor Clive Hamilton, while Tasmanian Greens leader, Cassie O’Connor, continues to fulminate against China. This has led to an interesting airing of linen among the Greens, with their national youth leadership denouncing O’Connor for her “straight-up racist dog-whistling” and “Yellow Peril 2.0 stuff”.
Sadly, Hamilton is never far away when the anti-China drum is sounded. Much has been said – probably too much – about his book and the message it promotes. He has brought debate to a very low ebb. It would be fitting if he were simply pointing to the dubious record of Chinese human rights, or the treatment of workers, or of its authoritarian and repressive form of governance. But no, this is a side-issue in his vitriolic attacks.
Silent Invasion, remains controversial. It not only attacks China as a state, but actively demonises the 1.2 million Australians of Chinese descent. He makes the claim that many of these Australian citizens are not ‘loyal’ to this country. He also casts suspicion over many of the 130,000 Chinese students before turning his fire on academics, scientists and researchers of Chinese ‘descent’. Having sought to give intellectual cover to the anti-China movement, he goes on and on in agitating a middle-class audience that appears more than happy to be agitated. Just a couple of days ago he spoke to a full-house in Hobart where he roundly criticised the State government for furthering trade arrangements with China, and then attacked the local Buddhist community, or in his colourful vernacular, the ‘red Buddhists’.
There is a tendency, in times of economic difficulty, to play ever more upon nationalist sentiments. Its most blunt expression being in the slogans of let’s make America, or Russia, or China, or Australia – insert country of choice – great again. National leaders, and populists react by promoting a national appeal which needs enemies. This is hardly new. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has written extensively of the attempt to reverse the trend toward globalisation that occurred at the end of the 19th century with economic nationalism leading to a stifling of free trade, militarisation, imperialism, and ultimately to war. Threats are found.
The ‘threat’ exercising so many in this country is, of course, China. Australia has a long and not terribly glorious history of building anti-China threat perceptions. Barely a day seems to pass without there being a story that ‘alerts’ us to some new threat from China. Former PM Howard not long back weighed in stating that China ‘could’ use its expat population to help grow its influence in the region. Media company Huawei, we are told, ‘could’ pose a threat to Australian security. Having said that, there is very little to defend about China, its economic policies, its internal politics, or its repressive treatment of its working class.
Now we have an ‘official’ sanctioning of negative behaviour in the form of the Foreign Interference Laws. It begs the question, why? What possible benefit is there to Australia, its people, its security, its economic well-being or its sense of multicultural harmony, in increasingly fervid displays of anti-Chinese sentiment?
What is also worrying is that this rhetoric is all but universal. Government ministers, Opposition figures, ‘progressive’ academics and right-wing demagogues all share this one call to condemn China for just about everything.
We need to return to the question, why? Who can benefit from such behaviour? Clive Hamilton’s work has been singled out, but it is not simply the ‘misguided’ actions of one man. He represents an entire mind-set that is being promoted at all levels in this country. The anti-Chinese voices become more strident with each passing day. Government, the media, some in academia, all speak of perceived threats emanating from Beijing. It is serious. Words become actions. Theory becomes practice. Few voices are raised against a wave of nonsense and hysteria that is enveloping public discourse and debate. The right-wing demagogue, the so-called ‘progressive’ academic, the media of all stripes are all more and more becoming echoes of one another.
What then lies at the heart of the problem. The ‘problem’ is the economic rise of China. US economic dominance is threatened. Australia is enmeshed in a dilemma that could become dreadful. Australia is tied, irrevocably it would seem, to the interests of the United States. On the other hand, our economic future is clearly to be found in quite another direction. Our leaders tread this tight-rope but seem to have no vision as to where it will lead. We talk, bravely, of an independent foreign policy stance but the tight-rope has no safety net and our leaders seem to have no will to find a way of getting off the wire. In the meantime, we have a rise in anti-Chinese hysteria, in fear mongering and in the engendering of hatred where there really should be none.
William Briggs recently completed a PhD at Deakin University. His special interests and expertise lies in area of International Relations, Global Political Economy and Political Theory. A book, based on his PhD research is due for publication early in 2019. Prior to this he worked as a teacher for many years and as a journalist.