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Australia should resist totalising China narratives



Page five news reports are sometimes straws in the wind. Though insignificant in themselves they may point to significant social changes that bear serious reflection.

Main image: Protestors attend a rally for the Uyghur community at Parliament House on March 15, 2021 in Canberra, Australia as part of March4Justice against gendered violence (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Two such events occurred last week. After a UNESCO World Heritage committee gave a provisional assessment that the Great Barrier Reef was endangered, the Federal Minister for the Environment suggested that the decision was politically motivated, so pointing the finger at China. Her response was a normal piece of deflection. Its significance was that the Minister believed that such a dismissal might be seen as credible.

The second event was the release of a Lowy Institute Poll showing a sharp drop in Australians’ trust in China. The assessment referred to attitudes to the Chinese Government and not to the Chinese people. Nor did the lack of trust extend to Chinese people in Australia nor to the desirability of trade with China.

It was consistent, however with growing mutual suspicion between the Australian Government and the Chinese Government displayed in mutual hostile criticism and restrictions on trade. In Australia the suspicion has been inflamed by a concerted and effective campaign to portray China as hostile to Australia both ideologically and strategically, and to cut relationships between the two nations. The energy behind this drive has come from security strategists and media commentators who have represented Australia’s choice as binary: to ally either with the United States or with China and to cut relations with the other.

This campaign has led to Australia limiting relationships between universities and China built through institutes and research partnerships, limiting Chinese investment in an increasing number of industries and resources, and investigating the dual allegiances of influential Chinese people in Australia. The corollary of these moves has been the Chinese pressure on trade with Australia by banning import of coal and other goods.

What are we to make of this? In the first place, the caution and growing suspicion in relationships with China corrects an equally one-sided insouciance in which the Chinese Government was seen as our friend whose behaviour could be overlooked because of our overriding economic interests. The attitude is captured in the application to trade of Richard Wilbur’s epistemological couplet:' We milk the cow of the world, and as we do/We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true’.

The Chinese Government is certainly not our friend. It has an authoritarian political system single-mindedly focused on perpetuating Party rule. It denies its people rights to privacy and to speak and organise freely that are taken for granted in Australia. It persecutes minorities, particularly Uyghur Muslims and Tibetans, and its foreign policy is governed by its own interests, and regards Chinese living overseas as subject to its wishes. These things need to be taken into account in our relationships with China. Wide eyed innocence and trust in the benevolence of our neighbouring giant is not a sensible option. Neither is it sensible in our relationships with any other large nation.


'Ultimately when as persons or as nations we make enemies, we encourage our fears. We give our enemies more power than they have.'


We should, however, resist the pressure to regard China as our enemy. The pressure to do so is powerful, given the cycle of retaliatory words on both sides that further poison relationships. The impetus to enmity, however, damages both sides. To treat people as enemies means that they become enemies, with the result that both sides will spurn the mutual exchanges that can help each. At the purely economic level the cutting of ties will sooner or later affect trade on which Australia relies, such as mineral exports, tourism and education. Enemies, too, inevitably move from interrupting mutual trade to impeding their enemy’s trade with their neighbours.

At a deeper and more serious level, too, making enemies impedes our understanding both of ourselves and of our enemies. If we abolish university and cultural links the knowledge of language and of culture will wither among decision makers and in the population at large. We then rely on the ideological images we have made of our enemies unchecked by the evidence provided by interlocking patterns of conversation and personal engagement. We are then unable to intuit what might be at stake for them in any issue or to anticipate possibilities of change. In the case of China we shall ignore the impact made by the great convulsions that shaped its history, and in particular by colonial exploitation. We shall fail to recognise our part in that history.

The cost of our enmities is chiefly borne by ourselves. They consume our judgment with a fire of self-righteousness. Such fire offers an advantage to politicians. All the failings and corruption of their own side can be hidden if they can focus voters’ attention on the sins of their opponents and can lead a crusade against them. Such zeal inevitably leads eventually to a meaner and more fractured society. We need only to think of United States Senator Joe McCarthy who thrived on waging ideological war on Communism, but ignored the spite, bullying and exploitation that his own campaign encouraged. In such a climate possibilities for our own society go unrecognised. So do our own defects. We can criticise contemporary Chinese colonialism, for example, while ignoring our own colonial history with its continuing effect on our treatment of First Nations people and refugees.

Ultimately when as persons or as nations we make enemies, we encourage our fears. We give our enemies more power than they have. We develop a sense of inferiority that leads us naturally to see them as more than human. During the Cold War, for example, people often attributed to Communists heroic cunning, self-sacrifice and malevolence, failing to see that they were weak and often generous human beings like themselves. In responding to the totalitarianism inherent in their ideology, people were often attracted to an equally authoritarian response. They failed to engage with their enemies because they feared that they would be bested by their single-mindedness. Ultimately, they risked becoming like what they feared. 

For these reasons we ought to respond to Chinese representatives as fellow adults and not as enemies. We begin by listening to them and trying to enter their world. We protest against their failures to respect human dignity and their unprincipled use of power. We also heed and reflect on their criticism of similar disrespect shown by ourselves. And we look for opportunities to relate in ways that benefit the people of both nations.  



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Protestors attend a rally for the Uyghur community at Parliament House on March 15, 2021 in Canberra as part of March4Justice against gendered violence (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, China, Australia, Uyghur, trade, international relations, colonisation



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Existing comments

Well said, Fr Andy. The issues at stake are too important for our response to be based on the shallow analysis that is now a regular feature of our news outlets. As you note, 'The energy behind this drive has come from security strategists and media commentators who have represented Australia’s choice as binary: to ally either with the United States or with China and to cut relations with the other.'

Denis Fitzgerald | 01 July 2021  

Very timely Andrew. I just listened to an episode of ABC Between the Lines with Tom Switzer whose program looked at the 50 year history of China opening up and Whitlam's, Kissinger's and Nixon's visits in the 70's. The 3 guests were very rational about relationships with China making clear the value and importance of strong communications and opportunities to cooperate on areas of common purpose including addressing climate change and preventing armed conflict. Last night on the Drum included some great perspectives too. Thankyou for your paper. I hope you will consider entering it as a submission to the national Inquiry www.independentpeacefulaustralia.com.au

Annette Brownlie | 01 July 2021  

How strange to have a thoughtful argument with China included in the headline. In particularly, it is refreshing to see the way you encourage respectful dialogue. It is a good path to constructive change.

Bill D | 01 July 2021  

History teaches us that nationalism has been the cause of many wars. While we cannot agree with the authoritarian Communist China, there are better ways of managing the relationship than what some people in the Morrison government are pursuing for their political purposes. Keeping a sense of balance is better than picking a fight.

JOHN WILLIS | 01 July 2021  

This is a profoundly wise and insightful article! Pure common sense –– and moving, too. Thank you, Andrew. What on earth would we have to fear if we took these sane human suggestions to heart, and acted on them?

Frances Letters | 01 July 2021  

"We can criticise contemporary Chinese colonialism, for example, while ignoring our own colonial history with its continuing effect on our treatment of First Nations people and refugees." We do not ignore our history - look at the number of books & articles, radio & TV programs, royal commissions, demonstrations & celebrations, school curricula .... our colonial history is very much in our public lives. The way we deal with our history is nothing like China, and we can be proud of ourselves for dealing with it. I agree with a lot of the article, and think that while we should detach our universities from Chinese government influence, we should make sure more Australians study Chinese language and history. Sub-titled Chinese movies and TV programs should regularly be shown on Australian TV. But we also need to remember Germany in the 1930s.

Russell | 01 July 2021  

Thanks Father Andrew for your analysis. Since 'First Settlement' , the Angelo population has had a fear of Asia, whether it be the "Yellow Peril" of the 1800's or the "Red Peril" of my youth . Unfortunately our 'dependence' on our 'great and powerful friend' has unduly colored our relationship with Asia in general and China in particular, with unfortunate endings as in Vietnam and Afghanistan . Ignorance is bliss, but it can be very dangerous. China endured several centuries of subjugation by the West .It has an abiding memory of exploitation, so its rise as a strong economic if not a military power should not surprise us . Communication, education and respect are called for, not loud jingoism from our leaders.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 July 2021  

Given the need to take account of the track record of a media commentator I appreciate the insights you provide. Wisdom is the interaction between information interpreted through the lens of history informed by awareness of the forces at play in the present. Thank you Andrew for your incisive article (s)!

Martyn | 01 July 2021  

Well spake, Andy... but I fear some disparity in the proposed closing dialogue meeting sequence. Today, quote Xi Jinping: Foreign countries that dare to “bully” China will see “their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion people,” I didn't interpret this implied welcoming some tit-for-tat, soul-searching introspective palaver being on the cards. Perhaps "protest...their failures in human dignity" isn't a good selection to bandy around given the Chinese translation of Hong Kong events. The President has spoken, his dignity (face/mianzi) in Chinese culture is complex; perhaps “prestige” but no translation I could attempt here can aptly cover all its abstract nuances. I have some reservations that Xi or his minions are likely to sit tight while some Westerner admonishes them unless they cordially write it down to nuisance value. The man rules a country of 1.4 Billion people, perhaps harshly, but I doubt he's open to advice or criticism leading to humility, however adult or respectful; then there's the real question: who or which influential Australian(s) could carry it off? And by that I mean achieve a positive, substantial change in the human rights, not just gifting an Akubra; job's done.

ray | 01 July 2021  

Perhaps, if, after Covid is a footnote of history, we have an upsurge of conversion to the Catholic Church, the extra communion wine will make up for the collapse of Australian wine exports to China. An upsurge of converts who hear Mass every day, of course.

roy chen yee | 01 July 2021  

Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

Jim Jones | 02 July 2021  

Congratulations Andrew on your thoughtful and measured analysis of current Australian-Chinese relations. Such a perspective is needed at present when some of our leaders have been suggesting that the relations between our two nations are so bad that conflict with China could be imminent. The current downturn in relations is largely due to the fact that Scott Morrison decided to endorse Donald Trump's intemperate approach to US-China relations when he was US president. Not only has this led to a situation where Australian-Chinese relations are very poor, but it has very adversely affected trade between our two nations. One irony of this has been that China is now importing many products from the US that it had been importing from Australia to the detriment of the interests of Australian producers and manufacturers. I think too that many Australian leaders who rightly criticise China for human rights abuses tend to take the high moral gound. They often forget that they could be seen as hypocritical as they have often supported unnecessary US wars and undemocratic regime changes throughout the world as well as supporting US client states when they commit genocide and human rights abuses eg Indonesia, israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Philippines . Australian relations with China - and other nations for that matter - could be very much improved if Australia became an independent and non-aligned nation whose leaders sincerely worked for world peace, human rights, social justice and fairness between nations.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 02 July 2021  

Simply Andy, thank you for your commentary and insightful approach to detailing with our fellow human beings in China.

Patrick Kempton | 03 July 2021  

People defaulting to 'war talk' about China should look again at the intense suffering on every side and all their peoples vividly shown in the great 1960s series 'The World at War'.

Charles Rue | 03 July 2021  

Reminiscent of Germany and the appeasement movement 80 odd years ago. Murderous dictatorship, ethnic cleansing, bullying and naive acceptance of a belief that diplomacy will dissolve the lust for dominance and world power. An old campaigner once said it was unwise to get into a fight. Better to walk away, choose the biggest fence paling available, return to the scene of dissent and get in the first big hit when the opponent is not expecting it!! Unfortunately it seems to be a potentially dangerous plan with an unpredictable outcome, particularly if the opponent is wide awake and also has a big fence paling.

john frawley | 04 July 2021  

Australia is becoming an outlier in supporting what other comments suggest, US policies on defence and trade regarding China, but has continued with the shouty Trump narratives months after Trump left the White House? Other nations have issues with China but they do not indulge in megaphone diplomacy nor throw their own interests under the bus in appealing to the powers that be in the 'Anglosphere'.

Andrew J. Smith | 04 July 2021  

Fr Andrew, China has intruded into Australia's Antarctic territory by building 6 or 7 bases. What if they load those up with Nuclear Missiles pointed at our heads like the SCS? They haven't gone into anyone else's territory in the Antarctic. Why have they done that? They will probably lie about their intentions because they are so good at the counter narrative. A few days ago Xi threatened to bash heads bloody on a Great Wall of Steel of anyone who criticized or interfered with China and or CCP especially in relation to its internal affairs (Xinjiang province and the Urghars), Hong Kong where the breached the democratic transitional time limits , Taiwan unification and also now echo the wolf warrior diplomacy of Nazi Germany. How could we be more respectful to a country that has imposed $20bn worth of unjustified tariffs, broken off diplomatic ties, lies about the South China Sea, kills Indian troops on their common Indian border, invaded Australia’s Antarctic territory without any consent, illegally fishes our Gulf waters under a Taiwan flag of convenience, has their CCP student thugs bash HK pro democracy students on our campuses and has unleashed their germ warfare covid 19 on an unsuspecting world? Should we be respectful because they are the biggest bully in the schoolyard?

Francis Armstrong | 05 July 2021  

‘Fr Andrew…. Should we….’ ‘Should’ or, in its other form, ‘ought’, betokens a demand for evidence of morality. Francis Armstrong doesn’t have a vote in Eureka Street but the intrinsic nature of the type of institution that ES is is that he should have a voice. The same understanding applies to the laity-in-Church, the right to a voice which demands of the shepherd simply what the sheep is due, an explanation of the moral sturdiness of its shelter, it being a legitimate expectation of the sheep that the sheepfold is not built on sand. The sheep do not vote because, like vineyard labourers, they are tenants of the sheepfold.

roy chen yee | 06 July 2021  

You express a typically generous and Jesuit note of caution here, Andy, encouragingly endorsed by the likes of Charles Rue and several eminenti, while others revert to sardonic escapism within the landscape of their personal theologies and/or ideologies. One such ideologue appears to be Francis Armstrong, who bobs in and out of ES conversations, always most arrestingly but also unnervingly. Just when one bends to enough of his rhetoric to 'see the light', he has an uncanny ability to change sides or, as he will, resist being 'boxed in', which he has done on several issues, including the Royal Commission, marriage equality and the like. Before he delivers another 'Yes, but; no, but' googly, it's as well to remind him of the trauma the Chinese people have suffered in the last century, which is beyond anything comparable affecting the Jewish people, the Germans and vast parts of sub-Saharan Africa. After the Rape of Shanghai, the Chinese endured a Japanese invasion the likes of which were so brutal that vast aspects of it still remain unrecorded. They responded with the Great Leap Forward: a nightmare journey in reverse gear. And, BTW, India strays frequently and unconscionably into Chinese territory. Just saying.

Michael Furtado | 06 July 2021  

Trust, but verify. Ronald Reagan’s famous call-to-disarm, translated from the original Russian, lost its sonorous quality but retained enough ambiguity to be remembered as the anthem that ended the Cold War. Churchill’s ‘Better to jaw-jaw than to war-war’ might have presaged Reagan; his words, with the language and tools of all warfare were all blown to bits on August 6th 1945. In the way that battleships became obsolete during WW2, Andrew’s argument is logical and pointed, but seen through a social lens, as if on a receding galaxy, it is incomplete. China now graduates eight times as many STEM students annually as America does. China is now light years ahead in the three critical areas that will define this century technologically: big data, robotics and artificial intelligence. The subject really is: what the hell are they going to do with them all? In South East Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries, only Thailand escaped colonialization. The clever country? Australia’s options in this century don’t have to be binary: either the US or China. It’s not what we say that’s pissing the Chinese off right now. It’s the way we’re saying it. And we have no real idea how to listen. We’re like one party in a sour marriage: haven’t even got to counselling yet, but determined not to listen, instead to splatter our grievances, already planning to leave the first session angrier than when we came in. How about we ask the Chinese a simple question: What do you want? There are many ways to frame it. Each one starts with a willingness to sit back and take it easy. Australians know how to do that. I used to work in commerce where I’d sometimes have to diffuse tense situations. I had a failsafe way to start off. Worked every time. Would you like a cup of tea?

Tom Manning | 08 July 2021  

MF you are too forgiving. Remember Tibet. The SCS. We have to be mindful of security here and now. And the Great Leap Forward is in the past. I quote on the Urghar debate in Xinjiang. "BY EVA FU Epoch Times. July 3, 2021 Updated: July 4, 2021 At the sound of gunshots, prisoners fell lifeless to the ground. Their bodies, still warm, were carried to a nearby white van where two white-clad doctors awaited. Behind closed doors, they were cut open, the organs carved out for sale on the transplant market. The grisly scene, which sounds more like the plot of a horror movie, took place in China more than 20 years ago at the direction of state authorities. It was witnessed by Bob (pseudonym), then a police officer who provided security at the execution sites where death-row prisoners were executed." “The harvesting of death-row prisoners’ organs was an open secret,” Bob, a former public security officer from central China’s Zhengzhou City who is now based in the United States, told The Epoch Times in an interview. Bob described being an unwitting participant in an “industrialized” supply chain that converted living humans into products for sale in the organ trade. The players in this macabre industry include the judicial system, police, prisons, doctors, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials who issue the directive." Whatever happened to China during WW2 and during the Boxer Rebellion does not excuse the abuses that are happening now. The Qin dynasty conquered Xinjiang which for 800 years was ruled by the Turks. Now their muslim religion conflicts with the uniformity of thought required by Xi, the current God here on earth.

Francis Armstrong | 09 July 2021  

Francis, for someone as eloquent and passionate as you, one expects you to observe the prudence of source-checking. 'The Epoch Times is a far-right international multi-language newspaper and media company affiliated with the Falun Gong new religious movement' (Wiki). And this: 'How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine. Since 2016, the Falun Gong-backed newspaper has used aggressive Facebook tactics and right-wing misinformation to create an anti-China, pro-Trump media empire'. (NY Times, 2020/10/24). Granted that China is aggressively nationalist and anti-democratic, she was also isolated for large periods of time during the last century and subjected to convulsive internal upheaval. Its often been said, by Galbraith and others (Pearl S. Buck), that even the yoke of imperialism might have constituted a mellower alternative the anarchy that reigned over most of China in her recent history. The epic Eurasian author, Han Suyin, herself reflected that the scourge of anti-democratic authoritarianism was itself a reaction to this recent history of extraordinary upheaval. That said, and unlike you, I am no apologist for one side or the other, but instead advise caution in dealing with stories that, to the best of our knowledge, do not survive the suggestion of fabrication. Go well.

Michael Furtado | 10 July 2021  

MF skepticism of the source document aside, the fact is the CCP is doing these things and Christians in China are just as much at risk as the Falun Gong and the Urghars of imprisonment because they adhere to a competing ideology. If guilty of anything, it is the donor match of their organs which opens up a lucrative market for the PLA Generals, not some trivialized, imagined wet dream of yours. You dismiss the ET as some Trump sanctioned propaganda sheet. You decry Trump as a blustering oaf, yet his successor is indirectly taking the knife to 56 million unborn feotuses a year because of his WHO subsidy. Dont look at what they say MF. Look at what they do.

Francis Armstrong | 12 July 2021  

Re China and Australia now, I am reminded of this fable. There is a dreadful flood. A scorpion wants to cross the river but no one will take him until he persuades a kind frog on the promise the scorpion will not sting him. Halfway across the river the scorpion stings the frog and they both begin to drown. When asked why he did it the scofrpion replies: 'I couldn't help it. It's just my nature'.

Edward Fido | 12 July 2021  

Scorpion not scorfpion!

Edward Fido | 19 July 2021  

A sting, by any other spelling, is just as lethal and painful, especially when it misses Andy's point about the need for jaw-jaw instead of war-war. That, coupled with the plethora of available racist and stereotyping references to Asian powers (just waiting in the wings to be employed as ammunition) that have flexed their muscles against East India Company crooks and rattlesnakes, will doubtless make for an interesting exchange until we are both exhausted, Edward. Perchance it would be better for us to stick to the well-trodden path of a shared neo-colonial past, including an exchange about the Doutres, a family that once ran La Martinere, Lucknow (and to whom I am related by marriage), and various Armenians we know in common, called Aratoon and Vertannes(ian). I think of that as much more pleasant and productive than to contest some points that divide us and which before long are bound to attract the rich, hot-under-the-collar, four-letter word invective you evidently picked up at Melbourne Grammar ;)

Michael Furtado | 19 July 2021  

I'm not allowed to use real four letter words in ES posts, as you know, Michael and shame on you for defaming a great school you neither went to nor seem to know anything about. That was an obvious ploy to detract from the subject under discussion, which does allow for differing opinion. The situation in China under the current dictatorial regime is not much fun for those citizens who oppose it in places like Hong Kong, let alone what used to be known as Chinese Sinkiang. As for the long, brutal repression of the Tibetan people and their culture, including the attempt to take over their religion, that is well documented. China is the financial and military supporter of the brutal, racist regime in Myanmar, where the leadership is using the riches of a country which could be a multiethnic paradise to enrich its members. The bravest opponents of the Chinese regime are its own citizens. The majority in both cases are Han Chinese. In our diplomatic intercourse with China we must never be coerced into supporting the regime's brutal internal policies nor what seems to be a policy of aggressive military expansionism which threatens its neighbours and the stability of the region.

Edward Fido | 20 July 2021  

Edward, you missed the wink at the end of my post, which was intended to support your unique 'ormulation' of the language of our shared culture. And what a pity Melbourne Grammar, which I'd have liked to have known better (though I learnt a lot in my school for drop-outs, instead) didn't teach you that. Perchance that proves my point about what the more severe among us would call 'gutter-talk' (although my own more permissive view is that there's a time and place for everything;) As for China: yes and no! Appalling treatment of the Tibetans, but Olde Blighty (a Bengali word) always recognised it as an outlying province of the Chinese, otherwise there wouldn't have been a contested McMahon Line (I claim epistemic privilege here as I grew up with one of Sir Henry's great=grandsons, who fought the border-wars as an Indian Air Vice-Marshall on that question). I offer no excuse for Myanmar, where my mother was born, except to say that Burma was shamelessly annexed by the Brits. Ditto with Singapore and there's plenty of evidence that Tianenmen Square was a hoax. Sure; that doesn't exonerate China but history has too many glass-houses for us to throw stones.

Michael Furtado | 21 July 2021