Ending our China policy fictions
19 Nov 2019|

Further graphic revelations have emerged about how the Chinese state under General Secretary Xi Jinping is using its power against its own people and in the world in ways that are against Australia’s—and many other nations’—interests and values.

Most are developments in well-known issues. On Xinjiang, the 400-plus pages of detailed Chinese government documentation leaked to the New York Times have made it crystal clear that the level of violence and illegality visited on China’s Uyghurs is deliberate and premeditated. It’s Xi Jinping Thought at its most essential.

The documents reveal Xi’s personal directions for internal security terror against his 13 million Turkic Muslim citizens in Xinjiang, with chilling lines about using the ‘organs of dictatorship’ and showing ‘absolutely no mercy’.

China has refused visas for two Australian politicians to meet with a set of pro-Chinese-government voices, saying that they were not welcome. While both have criticised the Chinese Communist Party’s actions, their comments were in line with Australian interests, and were, as Penny Wong said, examples of free speech.

On Monday, we heard that the Australia–China Human Rights Dialogue, which has been running since 1999, was suspended by Beijing in August.

And, on our media, we see paramilitary police using increasingly lethal force against protesters in response to Xi’s direction that ‘the most pressing task for Hong Kong at present is to bring violence and chaos to an end and restore order’.

The Chinese state under Xi is confidently wielding its power domestically and internationally. As the song says, he’s only just begun.

Most interesting is Canberra’s hand-wringing about how to repair the relationship with Beijing, with the focus on what our political leaders must do and say to ‘put things right’.

A parade of the old and the bold tells us how things should be, how to get back to the way things used to be: focus on mutually beneficial economic engagement, minimise strategic differences by not noticing them or talking about them. We’re told to ‘create space’ for China while not allowing it to dominate—with not much in the way of what that means apart from a whiff of appeasement.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to live in the world of the 1990s in 2019. The Chinese state that Australia engaged with then is not the beast that current and future governments need to deal with. Advice from that time is like a beetle frozen in amber from the distant past—beautiful and well preserved, but not a live option. The ghosts of Christmas past are not the guides we need to navigate Chinese power being used against us and our interests.

Xi is doing us a favour by ending the fictions that have defined the Chinese state’s relationships and engagement with many countries, not just Australia.

Given how Beijing has responded to mentions of its brutality against its people as ‘interference in China’s domestic affairs’, there’s no longer any point in engaging with the Chinese state in a ‘human rights dialogue’. It now doesn’t even have the value it used to have as a fig leaf to cover the fact that officials and ministers didn’t really want human rights getting in the way of ‘the relationship’.

We need to take the fact of Chinese action in other areas of the relationship to end more fictions that have outlived any utility to us—if not to Beijing.

Number one is the idea that success in dealings between Beijing and Canberra is measured by how happy Beijing is with Australia’s political leadership and our media reporting on China. That gives all power in the relationship to Beijing, enabling Xi to simply express emotion to teach us how we should behave.

It’s a demeaning and false measure of how nations’ political leadership and systems of government should engage when they have starkly different political systems, values and interests. Those differences will become starker as Beijing’s use of its power grows more confident and extreme.

Beijing was deeply unhappy about Australia’s decision to exclude its national tech champions—Huawei and ZTE—from building our digital nervous system in the form of a 5G network. That’s because the party will not now obtain incredibly valuable insider-driven electronic access to government and corporate information travelling over this network. And because Australia’s open statement of the grounds for the decision has sparked a deep international debate informing other nations’ decisions, Beijing’s unhappiness told us we did the right thing.

So too did its unhappiness about Australia’s foreign interests transparency law, passed after egregious interference in our political system by Chinese money connected to the Chinese government. Again, as with the 5G decision, Australia’s action has encouraged other states to look at their own legal frameworks.

Acting in accordance with Australia’s national interests will not make Beijing happy. Only acquiescing to Beijing’s directions and deferring to its interests when ours conflict will do that. And acting in accordance with our national interests can continue to show others that they’re in good company if they join us.

Instead of the ‘Beijing happy-o-meter’, we need to define our relationship with Beijing as Beijing defines its with us—through our decisions and actions and not our words.

Words are important, but only if they describe cogently and calmly the actions and decisions we’re taking. And it’s more important to be able to explain those things to Australians than to Beijing. That will communicate our views to Beijing in a way that no formal talks can replicate.

Number two in the queue is the idea that the Australia–China military relationship ‘builds trust and understanding between the militaries of Australia and China’. It doesn’t. And it won’t while the CCP uses the People’s Liberation Army to seize territory disputed by others, threaten freedom of navigation in international waterways, create a creeping military presence in Australia’s neighbourhood—and perhaps kill its own people on the streets of Hong Kong. Xi has set the scene for this with his words about ending chaos, and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe has too, saying in June that the massacre of Chinese citizens by the PLA in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was ‘correct policy’ needed to restore stability.

The military-to-military relationship needs to be rebased to the purpose of avoiding miscalculation and misunderstanding, while politely but firmly acknowledging that neither of us wants to help increase the other’s military power.

Number three is the notion that all research relationships with Chinese institutions and corporations that bring money and collaboration to Australian universities are great, because science is value-free and for the good of all humanity. Let’s replace this fiction with clarity that any research that helps advance the military capability of the PLA, or that helps Xi’s internal security organs brutalise people in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet or Wuhan, is simply not in Australia’s national interests—and put the necessary policy and regulation into place.

Lastly, we need to end the fiction that Australia and China have a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. The relationship has many elements—people-to-people connections, corporate connections and two-way trade, which has grown to $215 billion per annum while political differences have become more stark, showing us that politics doesn’t drive the iron ore trade.

But the relationship is not now, and will not become, a ‘strategic partnership’. To do that, our interests and actions on national security would need to align—and they are, in many core areas, diametrically opposed. Saying so won’t end the world, but it will help end the unhealthy fictions that have surrounded our relationship as China has changed and our public policy hasn’t.

Managing the relationship by our decisions and through our actions, calmly taken and clearly explained, will prove a much more sustainable policy foundation than any new set of talking points from our diplomats and former leaders.

The Chinese state’s actions and decisions have shown us the way ahead. Thank you, Xi Jinping.