WILLIAM BRIGGS. What Drives Peter Hartcher

Peter Hartcher, the Sydney Morning Herald’s international editor, maintains an indefatigable but entirely unedifying assault on China. He is by no means alone in vitriolic attacks.

Journalists, academics, politicians, and governments daily join the fray. Hartcher has become something of a symbol for the anti-China propaganda offensive, and offensive it has truly become.

Hartcher’s major concern, it would appear, at least according to Hartcher, is that China is a ‘communist’ country. It is a claim, that is used by all and sundry to instil fear and hostility.Put a nasty label on people or counties. China is about as much a ‘communist’ state as is the United States or Australia. Sixty per cent its GDP, 80 per cent of its urban employment and 90 per cent of all new jobs are the product of the private sector. Private capitalists account for 70 per cent of all investment and 90 per cent of exports, not to mention the 66 per cent of all economic growth in the country. By contrast, we have heard report after report in the past couple of years of how the public sector was keeping Australia out of recession and of how, in the year before COVID 19, 80 per cent of all new jobs in Australia had come from the public sector. Statistics can mean as much or as little as the manipulator of statistics desires. What is plain for all to see, however, is that the Chinese economy is capitalist and a part of the global economy.

There is plenty for the Hartchers of this world to criticise in China. The 46-hour week, the 5 days annual leave for workers with less than 10 years’ service, the 40,000 workers who died as a result of industrial accidents last year, the brutality with which striking workers are treated. The Communist Party that he so reviles has done little to endear anyone to the cause of socialism. Mao had little time for theory that was not his own. Marxism, for Mao, was just another word. That great ‘Marxist’ successor to Mao, Deng Xiaoping was the one who gave the world the phrase that ‘to get rich is glorious.’ None of these things seem to interest Peter Hartcher.

What keeps him awake at night is the fact that China is a rising, economy and a threat to US hegemony. He abandoned any claim to objective journalism in 2016, when he launched his infamous diatribe against China and Australian political and business figures. The 2016 article in the SMH reminded his readers of Mao’s ‘Four Pests Campaign’ when the people were urged to get rid of rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. Hartcher then called for a campaign of our own. This ‘international editor’ warmed to his subject.

“Rats. We need to be alert to politicians compromised by China’s embrace. Dastyari is a case study. There will be more to come.

“Flies. Perhaps unwitting paid mouthpieces for the interests of the Chinese regime. Bob Carr is the head of the pro-China outfit called the Australian Chinese Relations Institute, set up with a $1.8 million donation from a businessman with links to the Communist Party.

“Mosquitoes. Businesspeople so captivated by their financial interests that they demand Australia assume the kowtow position.

“Sparrows. Front organisations, apparently innocuous friendship societies or NGOs, set up specifically to spread Beijing’s influence.

“Pests. Who needs them?”

Since then he has bombarded his readership with a ceaseless barrage of missiles that have one primary aim. That aim is to mould opinion. It is never subtle but plays an important role. We need to understand why?

If Peter Hartcher’s motives were simply a blind hatred of China and of what he misrepresents as ‘communism’ then it might be dismissed as merely unfortunate. He repeatedly declares himself not to be a racist. We can only accept this at face value. The results of his ‘work’ have clearly encouraged others to speak and act with racist intent. He has given others licence to behave badly. His regular columns, however, cannot be dismissed simply as personal. They serve a much broader and more dangerous purpose. It’s all about which of the ‘great-powers’ will assume dominance over a crumbling capitalist global economy.

Hartcher’s regular attacks add to the noise around the US-China dispute. But if it is simply about changing the guard, then why the fuss? This brings us to the centre of the discussion and with it some rather unsubtle messages that are being broadcast. It can be accepted that the United States, as global economic superpower, would not be prepared to give up its place of primacy. It can be accepted that it would seek to ‘call in favours’ from traditional allies to ensure that China’s rise is resisted. Some of the anti-China rhetoric is ridiculous and some of it justified. A blurring of lines is unavoidable. China’s domestic policies and the treatment of its working class is simply unjustifiable, but then many of America’s domestic policies and the treatment of its working class is hardly a blueprint for how to manage an equitable and just society. China is accused of seeking to manipulate political and economic decisions in other countries. They may, just possibly, have learned this from studying US foreign policy. What is certain is that an anti-Chinese sentiment has been engendered and that this has some echoes to historical moments that have preceded mass slaughter. The lead up to both world wars are cases in point.

The world is in deep crisis. After the pandemic we will be confronted with the rubble of the world economy. Before either of these crises, the USA was facing the crisis of a rising China and a threat to its supremacy. There is a very real possibility that these crises might lead to war. This scenario has been well documented. It is a possibility that must be faced and overcome. The partisanship being exhibited from the likes of Peter Hartcher simply makes that task more difficult.

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Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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