China playing mind games in the grey zone
11 Dec 2020|

Amid the cranky grey-zone conflict with the People’s Republic of China, members of Australia’s elites are displaying eagerly their whateverist credentials.

The first iteration of whateverism emerged from a notorious editorial jointly published by the People’s Daily, Red Flag and the People’s Liberation Army Daily in 1977: ‘We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.’

The more recent iteration says, ‘Whatever the PRC might do wrong, the United States or Australia does the same, or worse.’

Beijing arrested Australian writer–entrepreneur Yang Hengjun and journalist Cheng Lei for no clear reason yet divulged, and has detained Yang for two years and Lei for four months, in grim circumstances, without access to family or friends. Only Yang has been allowed to see a lawyer, this September after 22 months.

This has been balanced, in such whateverist thinking, by Canberra raiding the homes of Chinese journalists—albeit they weren’t arrested and continued to live in Sydney for some weeks before choosing to return home—and cancelling the visas of two academics, again without detailing the reasons.

While Beijing rounds up most of its Uyghurs, splitting millions of families and consigning many children to state institutions, Washington under President Donald Trump separated 4,368 children from their parents, until stopped by the courts, after holding the families as illegal immigrants. Canberra has also treated illegal immigrants shabbily.

The attack on Australia by Beijing’s wolf-warrior diplomats was led by foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who tweeted a concocted image of a child-slaughtering digger, and Global Times editor Hu Xijin, who said Prime Minister Scott Morrison ‘should kneel down to the ground, slap himself in the face, and kowtow’.  Hu added that Morrison’s government was ‘akin to a mafia’ and ‘wants a spanking’.

Australian media frequently in turn criticise the Chinese Communist Party and its united front influence efforts, and Morrison described Zhao’s tweet as repugnant, outrageous and appalling. A chairman of a large Australasian company lamented that the Australian government has ‘effectively punched [China] in the face in public’. Thus Zhao’s and Hu’s outpourings are interpreted almost as a cry for help.

Virtually all Western online platforms, such as Google, Facebook and YouTube, and mass media sites are banned from China, where no criticism of Xi Jinping or his party is permitted, everyone who posts must provide all their personal details, and surveillance is ubiquitous.

In Australia, libel laws seem to protect the powerful, media mogul Rupert Murdoch is branded a monopolist, and the government has surveillance powers against suspected terrorists.

Surely, these whateverists claim, we need to call time on disagreeing (after all, it balances out really) and work out how better we can adjust to whatever modest requirements Beijing might seek in return for the massive economic benefits it generously provides us. Both countries, surely, are suffering from being pushed down the wrong track by hawkish nationalists?

Australia’s 14 great sins listed by the Chinese embassy provide the whateverists with a helpful guide. Those among our elites anxious about our need to find an acceptable way to ‘reset’ the relationship with Beijing have suggested, in social media posts and elsewhere, how many wrongdoings we could and should confess. Maybe we should admit to committing three, suggest some helpfully; others feel we should more honestly stick up our hands to half a dozen or more. Like Kevin Rudd during his 2007 campaign, they’re ‘here to help’.

Many of those who urge such confessions and backtracks have been solicited over the years by friendly Chinese diplomats, business types and others.

The latter share, with remarkable consistency, talking points that may be parlayed, or interpreted, as especially valuable information or perceptions that should be conveyed widely for the good of one’s own country, corporation or other organisation. Such privileged people have been granted, they may be led to feel, rare and valuable insights.

Here are the 10 core talking points:

  1. If there’s a falling out between the PRC and your country, the latter is chiefly to blame, while problems emanating from China are to be acknowledged merely in passing, if that.
  2. To criticise the PRC is to be racist, or to dog-whistle to racists. This emanates from the CCP’s claim, for its state, on the primary loyalty of all people of Chinese ethnicity.
  3. The PRC and CCP cannot and must not be separated out from ‘China’ and the Chinese people whom the party-state rules. Although a 71-year-old dynasty, the PRC seeks to wrap around itself the history and culture of the multi-faceted Chinese civilisation.
  4. Even comparatively mild questioning of party-state strategies or leaders—or raising concerns that Beijing resents—is to be branded as ‘vilification’.
  5. The surge of the PRC, especially economically, is inexorable, and thus realpolitik requires acknowledging not merely China’s rise but also its regional and global dominance as the US withers.
  6. Anyone who criticises the PRC is doing so because they’ve fallen under the thrall of the US.
  7. Chinese people all align with the CCP’s tightly scripted version of the country’s history that dwells on its suffering.
  8. Taiwan is an inalienable province of China whose ‘return’ to full Chinese sovereignty is inevitable.
  9. China can only be governed effectively by a firm central autocratic ruler.
  10. Most importantly, in discussion or debate about your country’s relationship with the PRC, focus on the former. Do not raise or encourage questioning of the conduct of the CCP or its leaders.

What are the special ingredients that enable well-schooled Chinese officials to reel in international elites so effectively, that magnetise cosmopolitan folk—not only in Australia, but in many other countries—who are usually so sceptical and worldly-wise?

They are surprisingly straightforward, they even appear rather 20th century, and they are thoroughly integrated:

  • Flatter the recipients to make them feel they are treasured, honoured and fully recognised for their achievements when visiting the PRC. In comparison, they may lament, especially if they are retired from their substantive positions, that they and their knowledge and skills are comparatively neglected back home.
  • Foster among those with limited China experience an unrealistic sense of the potential weight of their roles there. A meeting involving foreigners will routinely be branded as ‘global’.
  • Provide them with red-carpet treatment while travelling, such as upgraded flights and hotel suites, dedicated drivers and cars to obviate the need for taxis or public transport, and official companions who speak fluently the visitor’s language. Foreigners being targeted through such invitations are usually quarantined from non-curated access to ordinary Chinese people.
  • Give them a sense of becoming ‘insiders’ granted access to privileged information and, especially, perceptions about their home countries and organisations.
  • Provide constant access to China. Gaining a visa to visit China is becoming increasingly challenging. Denying it is used to send a message, as when federal Liberal politicians Andrew Hastie and James Paterson were told when their applications were rejected that they should ‘genuinely repent and redress their mistakes’. Politicians, academics, journalists and others who seek to visit China are led to presume—including by their own Australian employers and colleagues—that they need to self-censor any remarks about the PRC to ensure access.
  • Promote the notion that top-level visits can solve all problems. Engineered breakdowns in relations with the PRC are routinely blamed on the failure of leaders from foreign countries to secure face-to-face meetings in Beijing. Naturally, this is especially deemed disastrous by diplomats, for whom such encounters comprise significant career achievements.
  • Keep elite targets well away from people who possess authoritative autonomous understanding of the PRC.