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China discourse beyond pandas and dragons

  • 22 May 2019


The long weeks of the election campaign contained many surprises, culminating in a 'miracle'; to China-watchers, however, the relative lack of focus on Australia-China relations was simply business as usual.

While it is true that China issues appeared on occasion, as for instance within the fierce fight for the Melbourne seat of Chisholm that featured duelling WeChat accounts and deliberately misleading Chinese-language signage (in the electoral commission's colours), these were mostly localised battles. There was not a nuanced national discussion about how either party intended to manage what has rapidly become our most important, enriching and yet perilous relationship.

This is not to say that Keating's security musings or Morrison's awkward labelling of Americans as friends and Chinese as customers were not China focused — or un-noticed in Beijing — but it was almost as though there was a Basil Fawlty agreement between the parties not to mention China. This would go some way to explaining the intensity of Penny Wong's ire when in public debate Simon Birmingham attempted to differentiate Coalition and Labor policy regarding China.

It is very instructive that during the campaign, apart from an article that appeared in Eureka Street in the lead-up to one of the most important dates in the China calendar (the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, which this year was the centennial), it seems not a single other mainstream paper or magazine covered that historically freighted event. The 4 May date is that significant and influential within the Chinese body politic that the equivalence would be not discussing Gallipoli or the centenary of Federation. This glaring omission illustrates something of the manner in which China (its history and culture) are viewed within Australia at large.

That is, China is largely viewed as a 'market' or quite frankly an 'other' to think about and discuss in simplistic binary terms, if at all: friend or foe, customer or market manipulator, student and tourist or human rights abuser. It is easy for local individuals or institutions then to be seen as falling on one side or the other of this consequential positive-negative divide. Thus Bob Carr's institute was deemed to be a panda hugger while Clive Hamilton's position on Chinese influence was considered to be dragon slaying. Knowledgeable discussion is a distant third.

This is even though there exists a serious consideration of China and Chinese realities in Australia, as has been for a long time. Most of the