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Bull in the China shop



In the last few weeks the threat of a Khaki election has loomed large In Australia. The invasion of Ukraine and tensions in relations with China have focused attention on which party can best ensure national security. This question will surely be pressed during the election campaign.

The consequences of the polemic directed at China after the Prime Minister attacked the Labor leader on his alleged weakness towards China are much to be feared. Although some early indications suggested that the appeal to fear manifest in much of the rhetoric has not swayed voters, and some public servants and politicians have urged against politicising Australia’s relationships to China, the recourse to such demonising of nations should be condemned. It has nothing to do with politics in the proper sense. More important it is harmful because it fosters division between nations and leads to discrimination and abuse of people within the Australian community. Australians of Chinese origin are more vulnerable to local abuse than those of Russian origin because they are more visibly identifiable.  

Although it is common to describe this campaign as politicising issues of national policy, it is political only in a debauched sense. Politics in its origins is about ordering the affairs of a city in a rational way that enables citizens to flourish. It is essentially ethical in its conception. Early political thinkers would have described the art of stoking resentment and dividing the city, not as politics, but as demagoguery. It appealed to base emotions and not to reason. It encouraged rule by the mob and led ultimately to autocracy and kleptocracy.

In targeting other politicians for being soft on China the campaign does not contribute to necessary political debate about how to balance the complex sets of relationships between China and Australia in a time of tension. It is not an invitation to conversation but a divisive and self-serving campaign designed to deflect anger and resentment away from the failures of politicians and political parties on to China and on to all people and things Chinese. Popular disrespect for China and Chinese people is both its goal and a means to electoral success. It is not the side effect of a necessary conversation.

In Australian slang, such use of patriotic or altruistic sounding words for selfish ends is often called bullshitting. It trades in untruth and shows an unacknowledged contempt for the persons against whom and to whom it is directed. In partisan debate about international relations the consequences of that contempt are always borne ultimately by the people whose perceived nation of origin is the focus of the campaign.


'If party political programs of targeting nations or national or religious minorities are to be effective they must promote prejudice against local people who are identified with the reviled nation.' 


Harsh and dismissive rhetoric focused on nations and their people is deplorable because they are not abstractions but are gatherings of human beings, each of whom is their own centre. National leaders and governments may represent their people, but their people are not personally responsible for the policies and actions undertaken by their rulers. They may share responsibility for electing governments and be duty bound to criticise immoral conduct by their governments. But they ought not collectively be blamed for what their governments and officers do. For this reason we should avoid saying that China or the Chinese threaten Taiwan or that Russia or the Russians make war on Ukraine. Or, for that matter, that Australia or the Australians treat people who seek protection barbarously.

In the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine responsibility is in general rightly attributed to Vladimir Putin as the leader of the nation. In China, too, the bellicosity of government policy is generally ascribed to the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. To think and speak of China or Russia as the agent makes it easier to imagine all Russians as active supporters of violence, as quite different from ourselves in character and temperament, and so as vicious and terrifying. This view of people is then expressed popularly in cartoons that represent Russians or Chinese as ape-like and malevolent. As a result if we meet Russian or Chinese persons in the street we will need to overcome our initial prejudice if we are to relate to them as human beings like us.

If party political programs of targeting nations or national or religious minorities are to be effective they must promote prejudice against local people who are identified with the reviled nation. That makes personal people’s fear and resentment and attracts them to the party that feeds these responses. Inevitably this hostility will find expression through resentful people who speak and act abusively and discriminate against people thought to belong to the targeted group. We need to think only of the experience of people of German descent in the 1914 war, and more recently of Muslim Australians and of young Sudanese Australians, after they have been targeted.

Already Australians of Chinese descent have reported being abused. If political campaigns excoriating China gain ground in coming months, anyone whom prejudiced and resentful Australians perceive to ‘look’ Chinese or to be speaking Chinese will have grounds for fear whatever their racial and national origin. It is they who stand who stand to be broken when the bull set loose by demagogic operators rampages through the China shop.




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

Main image:   (/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Politics, China, Russia, Election, Fear



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Existing comments

Typically, reactions can be candidly observed but there's usually more to the picture, a lead-up, a ground-swell; demagoguery is a political manipulation of both desires and prejudices but the demagogue doesn't necessarily have control of the sentiments... they just read them and use them to their advantage. Both Russia and China have been in the political swill barrel for a while and for China there's been a series of events like Hong Kong protests and treatment of Uyghurs to generate some emotions and desired outcomes; ostensibly the blame is laid on Chinese government but, as Andy indicates, the scratch wounds of excoriation often extend further than intended; Chinese-appearance expats linked. In Australia we're (reliably?) versed in how the Chinese authority manipulate national sentiments by control of information and censorship of "subversive" literature; is it fair to believe that the populus would be significantly less nationalist if our choice of freedoms were available to them? Do we need to judge a population less harshly because they are of an objectionable opinion purely because we believe they would not be otherwise? Perhaps if you're a fisho exporting seafood to China at $100+ per kilo you're more likely to overlook the prejudices for a $70 premium, or maybe you've enjoyed cheap lobster mornay while exports stopped?

ray | 03 March 2022  

Agreed Fr Andrew that local Australian Chinese should not be held responsible for the excesses of the CCP. Since 2017 Chinese ownership has jumped from 17 million ha to 52 million ha (520,000 km2 -perspective Britain is 242,495 km²). And 700 gigalitres of our water. Yet we cant own land, ports or infrastructure in China.

Aside from their backscratching alliance with Russia, their complete disregard for human rights in HK & Jinjiang, do we want the CCP controlling our infrastructure? eg. Alinta & AGL? Bellamy milk? VDL dairy? Sanctuary Cove? Our ports? Airports? Mariners cove Surfers? They also own a significant percentage of Kidman despite being forbidden to do so by SM.
These are political decisions.
On one hand China politically freezes us for having the temerity to question whether Covid was a deliberate ploy, in response they impose 20 bn worth of beef, barley, lobster, wine, milk, coal tariffs on us. On the other, they move into Australia's Antarctic territory and build 7 bases without permission. They also target our military surveillance aircraft with warship military grade lasers.
The resentment against China (and Russia) stems from the contempt they have for the West and their democratic systems. Slowly China is tightening the infrastructure noose around the bulls throat while they haul us up their economic gibbet. The destruction of the Australian shop is of no concern to them.

Francis Armstrong | 04 March 2022  

'War and rumours of war' ... The real war in the Ukraine and its possible spinoffs have taken political attention off the complex situation regarding China, at least for the moment. China won't go away. She is a major world power with real, fully stated aims in the South China Sea and the rest of the world, including our immediate region abutting South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. She is a major military power. Our defence forces are not, at the moment, fully prepared to defend our vast island continent. We need to be prepared economically; diplomatically and militarily. Loose lips will do us no favours. Penny Wong is the most sophisticated member of the Opposition regarding China and Kristina Kenneally the most naive. Penny Wong is not 'Chinese', nor is she in China's pocket. Her father was Malaysian Chinese and her mother an Adelaide WASP. She is married to an Australian woman. People of similar background to her in Singapore have no problem dealing with China. We need to have a bipartisan, long term national strategy here. We must not allow Chinese control of any major national assetts. We have to have a long term well-rounded strategic approach.

Edward Fido | 04 March 2022  

Might I recommend Mary Beard for those unaware of the critical distinction between democracy and demagoguery that Andy draws?

As a PPE undergrad I long regarded the Classics as a tedious and unnecessary impost on a study of political ethics. Thus Bowra, sonorously quoting Thucydides on a stuffy Michaelmas afternoon, observed in his lecture notes that the Athenians, for the sake of private ambition and profit, pursued policies that were bad for themselves and their allies, from which honour and advantage accrued to private individuals rather than to the polis when they succeeded, but which when they failed brought damage and war.

How could eminent Bowra split hairs, I recall thinking, between two constructions of politics, both of which were democratically permissible in a free society and which would fail democracy's test if curtailed?

Years later I encountered Beard, who makes the same distinction between those who voted for and against Brexit, arguing that democracy entailed honouring not just the opinion of the people but also ensuring that its ethical implications were honoured, for fear of it being confused with populism.

The article being lengthy, and Beard's refreshing language somewhat colourful if not pungent, I cite its web availability:


Michael Furtado | 05 March 2022  
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Perhaps not quite on point MF though she shares many characteristics with Germaine Greer. Both underline the point that women's current membership of the Catholic Church are like captive birds within a gilded cage.
We need more fearless women like her that take no prisoners.

Francis Armstrong | 07 March 2022  

Thanks you for that link Michael, I really appreciated it. I did like the quote attributed to one of her admirers:

"One of the things Mary has taught is to look at the window, not through it, because there isn’t really anything behind it."

Ginger Meggs | 10 March 2022  

Most people can and do distinguish between people and their governments.
Putin’s dreams of bringing back Soviet-era global standing and being the Tsar of all Russians is perhaps matched only by President Xi’s creeping expansionism and his seeming desire to be Emperor of the World. Both display brutality, and for now at least, Putin and Xi appear to be in lockstep.
That’s unsurprising, and people familiar with history should now recognize that Putin and Xi are cut from the same Marxist/Leninist cloth as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mengistu and Pol Pot.

Ross Howard | 06 March 2022  
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The Russian spin doctors describe the invasion as "peacekeeping" and liberation and talk about a specific military operation. Meanwhile Vigano openly supports Putin and his "Christian" objectives to unite Ukraine under one church. It seems to me that Cardinals and Bishops should keep their opportunistic ambitions out of politics rather than bang Putin's hollow war drum.

Francis Armstrong | 14 March 2022  

The late Fr Gabriele Amorth, decorated Italian Resistance hero; exemplary priest and long term exorcist of the Rome archdiocese thought both Hitler and Stalin were both demented and possessed and fully culpable for what they had done. I would put Putin in the same category. It is necessary to stand up to him. Would that lead to a nuclear war? It is a dreadful scenario to contemplate.

Edward Fido | 07 March 2022  

I accept there is a difference between the art of politics or statescraft and the nefarious tactics of politickiig. Donald Trump in winning the Republican nomination, and triumphing in the US election and then running a shambolic government for four years was politicking writ large. The main thing that stopped him from hanging on to power after his electoral defeat last year was that he never controlled the defence forces and the intelligence agencies.

Joseph Quigley | 08 March 2022  

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