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Let's talk about how we talk about China

  • 25 August 2014

By now Clive Palmer's comments during last week's Q&A have been widely rebuked by politicians, business leaders and media pundits. I doubt he cares.

It wasn't a gaffe so much as a stump speech.

 The Guardian's Alexandra Oliver juxtaposed Palmer's outburst with recent polling, in which 56 per cent of respondents thought the government allowed too much Chinese investment. A 2012 Lowy Institute poll found a majority of respondents were worried about Chinese investment in the mining and agricultural sector. In the same year, another poll showed a majority of Australians agreed that 'China has so much money to invest it could end up buying and controlling a lot of Australian companies.' Faced with Tony Jones' dogged questioning, Palmer seized the opportunity to speak to this considerable disquiet within the community.

China's meteoric rise is still a relatively new phenomenon. The contours of public discourse on this topic are not yet well worn. Our elected officials, Palmer included, are still exploring both how to negotiate it and also how to talk about it.

For all the criticism directed at Kevin Rudd and his handling of foreign policy, he articulated a particularly innovative way of talking about our relationship with China. In a much-lauded speech in 2008, he positioned Australia as a 'zhengyou' to China. This meaning-laden term refers to a confidante who speaks truthfully, even boldly because they have a person's best interests at heart.

Rudd wanted Australia (and no doubt himself) to perform this role while strengthening the US engagement in the region, both to temper China's ambitions and provide insurance if things went awry. This remains government policy.

I doubt Rudd saw these as being mutually exclusive but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seemed to. As such Rudd developed a reputation among some Chinese officials for being hypocritical. His outburst at the Chinese delegation at Copenhagen and the Wikileaks revelations did not help.

If you read the Wikileaks dispatch between Hillary Clinton and Kevin Rudd you are left with a distinct impression that Rudd was a very successful 'zhengyou' to the US. This probably undercut his chances of establishing a similar relationship with their strategic competitor. Whether you can be a 'zhengyou' to two competing nations remains problematic.

However there are several connotations with this term that should not be discarded. Indeed we can pull them out to provide some broad guidelines for shaping our current discourse on China.

Firstly, a 'zhengyou' cares. The rise of China