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Common ground amid polarised China debate



One of the most enduring habits of public discourse is to divide the world into polar opposites, of which one pole is seen to be good and the other is seen to be bad. This can be done to religions, to political systems, or to nations. Contemporary public culture, with an antagonistic political style and the vicious use of social media, favours the making of polar opposites. It is evident in current discussion of China.

Posters of Xi Jinping seen during a rally to support two imprisoned Uyghur professors and the Hong Kong anti extradition bill movement, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in September 2019. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)Those who see relationships through the lens of polarisation usually describe themselves and their allies as virtuous and their rivals as wicked. Their nation is a shining, peaceable democracy; their rivals are aggressive totalitarian states. They are prosperous and rational; their rivals are impoverished and slaves of ideology. The fear that feeds on polarisation then urges the cutting of ties and the building of walls.

Australian attitudes to China have always flirted with this kind of polarisation. After a period in which commentators emphasised the contribution a close relationship to China could make to Australian prosperity, in the last year the condemnation of China has become strident.

To demonstrate its totalitarian character, critics of China dwell on its baleful intentions towards Hong Kong and Taiwan, its incarceration of a million Uighurs and its electronic surveillance of its citizens. They also emphasise Chinese attempts to project its power beyond its borders through territorial claims, its economic assistance to small nations in return for access to ports and other resources, and through the use of spies and of overseas Chinese to further its interests and to project a favourable image in Australia.

Taken together these actions are represented as the actions of a hostile totalitarian, perhaps Marxist, power intent on taking over our democratic institutions and those of our neighbours in order to make us subservient to its interests. They urge control, disengagement and strong alliance with democratic powers with similar ideals and cultural background as ourselves, such as the United States. These lead logically to the cutting of ties with a nation that is seen as culturally alien and politically hostile, to a new cold war.

This polarisation should be resisted, even while the evidence urging it is taken seriously. 

Certainly much behaviour by the Chinese government should be recognised as unacceptable. Its lack of respect for the human rights of groups of its citizens should be deplored. Other behaviour such as buying influence in the Pacific, spying and expecting Chinese residents in Australia to serve China's interests should be monitored and countered appropriately. We should expect the Chinese government to pursue its own interests in its relationships to Australia in ways that will sometimes conflict with Australia's interests. China is not our best friend.


"In all nations there are gaps between the values they profess and the way in which they act, and the relations between them need to recognise that shared inconsistency."


We should, however, resist the polarising assumption that there is a gulf between how we and our allies act and how China acts. There is a more significant gap in all nations, including our own, between what they profess and what they do. In the ways in which we relate to one another we must give full weight to the presence of that gap both in Australia and in China

If China spies upon Australia, Australia spied on East Timor without apology. If as a matter of public policy China detains Uighurs in harsh conditions, so has Australia detained people in brutal and demeaning conditions on Manus Island. If China lays out money to nations on our region to secure its national interests, so does Australia, most notably to Nauru and PNG.

Critics of China who portray its values and conduct as polar opposites to the rule-based and respectful behaviour of Australian allies such as the United States, too, would need to explain how those values are consistent with unilaterally breaking international contracts, detaining Latin American children and using sanctions to serve national interests.

This is not to justify the actions of the Chinese government by saying that other nations do the same, or to claim that the bad behaviour of different nations is equivalent in its gravity. The point is rather that in all nations there are gaps between the values they profess and the way in which they act, and that the relations between them need to recognise that shared inconsistency.

Nations cannot be set against one another as good against evil and should not be spoken of in that way. It is right for them to call out one another's hypocrisies and inconsistencies, and to be vigilant in defending their own interests. But they should also seek common ground, encourage friendship between one another's citizens, and work together when it is for their common benefit.

In personal and national relations fear is not a good counsellor. Nor do exclusion, demonisation and cutting ties make a good policy.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Posters of Xi Jinping seen during a rally to support two imprisoned Uyghur professors and the Hong Kong anti extradition bill movement, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in September 2019. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, China



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Existing comments

Thank you, Andrew, for providing a balanced and measured view. It is true that Australia has its own reprehensible policies and practices, just as China and all nations do. (As Christ quipped, logs and mites abound in many eyes.) A human right breached by any power is a loss to all of us, wherever it occurs. Notwithstanding Australia's history of 'Yellow Peril' fears and propaganda, however, it is worth pointing out also that the incarceration, execution and purported/reported harvesting of organs ripped from the bodies of vulnerable groups by the Chinese Government demonstrates a worldview and ruthlessness that the current Australian government cannot be accused of, for all its faults. If these reports are factually accurate and verifiable, then surely this issue would constitute a crime against humanity and a bridge too far to gloss over. How does one determine and report the truth in a closed society?

Barry Gittins | 03 December 2019  

It is good to see some recognition of reality come into this debate. Further, the discussion of China in the Western media fails to recognise anything that is good about China, it's all bad. No mention of its health care system, its education system, the fact that the police you meet on the street are very friendly and helpful, and do not carry guns. Also, the citizens don't have guns - just think of what would happen to the death rate in the USA if they didn't carry guns. Also, no-one in China is homeless. I could go on, but the point is that there are many good things we could discuss about China, and learn from.

Brian Finlayson | 05 December 2019  

Just one other point - the Chinese government no more reflects the views of all its people than the Australian government does. Most people everywhere are hard-working, loyal, compassionate, curious .... and proud of what their communities have achieved. We should be careful, when we criticise another government's policies, that we don't offend the whole population of that country. Skillful diplomacy is best.

Russell | 06 December 2019  

A wonderful wake up call to us all Andrew. I was very fortunate to do a post graduate year with a wonderful scholar on Chinese history; the late Geoff Sinclair- Wilson, The Master of Robb College at the UNE As others have commented, we too are guilty of the same sins, so quite hypocritical of us to criticize others. I totally agree with Russell. I am left wondering what else Scott Morrison and his government will do before years end. As usual no checking with us, the electors whether any of these acts are necessary. Just consider the recent secret trial- we are getting as bad as China!

Gavin | 06 December 2019  

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Reinhold Niebuhr Your portrayal Fr Andrew is even handed and just as the refugees on Manus and Nauru can do little to change our Government's mind, neither can the socially disadvantaged within our society eg the Aborigines. So you are right. We should not point the bone at China when our own house is not in order. Nor should we blindly accept American leadership. I still maintain however Australian politicians should not sell off our means of production and our utility companies for short term gain and inevitable long term pain.

Frank Armstrong | 08 December 2019  

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