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On friendship with China



The COVID-19 world clearly needs to discover how to be in better relationship with China and its citizens. It seems like the era of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ has ended, given the heightened animosity towards China around the world due to the pandemic. 

A mural painted by artist Amanda Newman of Ai Fen (Getty images/Robert Cianflone)

China will continue to become the dominant global player, perhaps joined by the USA if it retreats from its new isolationism. However, outbursts from President Trump, obfuscations from President Xi, threats of economic boycotts from China’s Ambassador to Australia and the recent muddied messaging from Australian political figures show that widespread uncertainty exists as to how to shape the relationship.

There are several key points to note when talking about engagement with modern China.

One, China perceives official friendship as a diplomatic tool.

China’s leaders are very deliberate about engagement with foreigners. The government strategically pursues those who may be of assistance to it. Globally, united front organisations cultivate relationships through the language of friendship but also the peddling of influence through hefty donations. In Australia the case of Huang Xiangmo, property developer and national security risk, is a clear example of how multiple actors are at work for China’s national goal.

Two, when Chinese officials talk of friendship they are actually talking about power.


'It is clear therefore that the Chinese government’s sophisticated communications strategy makes it difficult to talk about its actions without falling into a schoolyard spat about who is China’s best friend this week. This deliberate ploy of diversion and control is to be avoided.'


They will praise as ‘friends of China’ those who relay the official line (as for instance about the South China Sea) and use affective language to criticise those who call out China’s actions. In such cases the official line is that the ‘feelings of the Chinese people have been hurt.’ The expectation is that the offending party will then have to spend energy to repair the perceived harm, and is punished if it does not. As Australia’s recent experience of exports being left on Chinese docks shows and the more recent ‘threats of economic coercion’ by Ambassador Cheng Jingye indicate are a real tool at China’s disposal.

Three, expressions of national sentiment are as much about controlling dialogue within China as they are about managing international relationships.

The Chinese government needs its citizens’ support, and making one foreigner a foe and one a friend achieves this. When individuals like US Secretary of State Pompeo, Malcolm Turnbull, Mack Horton or a free-range Peter Dutton make statements that can be portrayed as slights, they do the government’s work for them.

Four, most Chinese want to meet foreigners and study and travel overseas but are also rightly proud of their own country.

To be told constantly that their government — which is often regarded with as much distrust as any other government — was the perpetrator of such things as famine, mass internment, corruption and now a global pandemic does little to offset the Chinese government’s refrain that no-one likes China. Strident carping can undermine the desires of Chinese citizens to develop friendships with foreigners, while also bestowing unwarranted credit on the government’s propaganda.

Five, Chinese citizens know of both China’s failings and its great successes.

Many, such as the Wuhan doctors Li Wenliang and Ai Fen and the Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, are prepared to jeopardise their careers and even their lives to campaign for greater transparency and freedom. There are a multitude of ordinary Chinese people who support such actions and likewise seek to take action in their own ways.

It is clear therefore that the Chinese government’s sophisticated communications strategy makes it difficult to talk about its actions without falling into a schoolyard spat about who is China’s best friend this week. This deliberate ploy of diversion and control is to be avoided.

Rather, foreign entities will more likely achieve their goals if, at the same time as applauding the achievements of modern China, they continue to encourage its government’s engagement in international bodies as a means of ensuring greater transparency (and global security).

Furthermore, it is wise to use language that emphasizes that statements about the Chinese government are not criticisms of the Chinese people, rather support for them and especially as named individuals like Doctor Li Wenliang. This strategy of engagement relies on national figures speaking with one voice rather than free agents pontificating outside their portfolios, not seeking to blame China to bolster support in domestic electorates and being consistent in the statement of clear national interest. Sustained China bashing will not achieve these much needed goals.



Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is the founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a China consulting company, and a Visiting Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

Main image: A mural painted by artist Amanda Newman of Ai Fen (Getty images/Robert Cianflone)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Australia, auspol, COVID-19



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Existing comments

Writing in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon proclaimed a new American ambition: to “persuade China that it must change”. “Taking the long view,” he wrote, “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbours.” - has progress been made?

Joe Sicher | 30 April 2020  

The Great Wall of China, both a physical and emotional structure. None of us want to relive that movie blockbuster "55 Days at Peking". For one thing, a name has been changed or, rather, reinstated. The virus may have manifested first in China but the blame game does no nation any good. Best to work for a harmonious working relationship.

Pam | 30 April 2020  

This article was a breath of fresh air amongst much of the current commentary about our ongoing relationship with China . I hope that it reaches a wider audience. I feel for Chinese friends who are on the receiving end of a lot of unfair comment and negative behaviour, much of it engineered by groups with vested interests of their own. I spent a significant part of my life living and working in Shanghai and was treated with unfailing courtesy and shown significant pastoral care, especially when I was hospitalized with health problems. Across the years I had access to people who lived in remote villages and farming communities scattered across the country. Their hospitality was legendary. When I was offered a position in a Cadre University I told the guys interviewing me that I was a Christian. They laughed and told me that they had known this for a long time ....and that they trusted me and that they knew that I would never do anything to "betray" my Chinese friends. This sense of "ambivalence" is a particular aspect of working with Chinese. During my early travels in China, not long after the Cultural Revolution, I was investigated by Chinese Security several times. A couple of security officers became life long friends. It was this sense of " ambivalence" that appealed to me when I was much younger and when I was the first Australian allowed to live with local people in Shanghai. Chinese are impressed when they encounter people who make an effort to learn Mandarin. I hope that in the future Mandarin becomes more readily available in schools and universities in Australia. (When I was in first year Mandarin at Sydney University, there were only about 35 in the class. Most of my classmates were Cantonese Chinese wanting to update their language skills. ) Thanks, again, Dr Clarke.

Ken | 30 April 2020  

Thanks Jeremy. Much hangs on that word 'friend'. Is the friendship Chinese citizens seek the same as your definition of 'friendship' from a government point of view? We have different relationship with Chinese people - we have a Chinese daughter-in-law who is much loved as distinct to the Chinese government. We need to build bridges and make friends wherever we can but also to maintain a strong sense of our our national self. Jorie Ryan

Jorie Ryan | 30 April 2020  

Jeremy you are right to take a sceptical view on China's international diplomacy. China is a country of enormous economic influence but invariably mask their long term intentions with assurances that later prove opposite to what they initially stated as an objective. The South China Sea and the militarisation of the reefs and attolls is a recent case in point. "With China’s initial island-building campaign nearly 10 years old, the next phase of China’s SCS expansion is the consolidation and military fortification of its territorial assets – garrisoning the many tiny islets once deemed uninhabitable, including the strategic Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Dao), lying just 140 miles west of the large Philippine island of Luzon and currently under development. The establishment of military bases has culminated in the creation of China’s “strategic triangle.” Even with the construction of aircraft bases, detection systems, and weapon delivery systems, the impact of China’s methodical efforts in the SCS have failed to yield considerable change in the status quo of power relations." The Diplomat March20 2019. Foreign control of infrastructure is forbidden within China but they've enjoyed a free for all here. Businesses are being snapped up. Much more scrutiny is required by the FIRB.

Francis Armstrong | 30 April 2020  

The first recorded case of COVID-19 was in Wuhan on November 17, 2019. Wuhan was not locked down until January 22 when Wuhan’s mayor admitted that 5 million people had already left the city. The WHO was complicit in helping China cover its tracks. We now have the worst pandemic in a century. Thousands have died worldwide, and we are staring at the worst recession since the Great Depression. It is not “China bashing” to want an investigation into the causes. Western “experts” promised that trade with China would bring prosperity to the West and democracy to China. It has proved to be a Faustian bargain. China has ignored international law and rejected the ruling from The Hague over disputes in the South China Sea. It has now moved beyond interfering in other nations’ politics to belligerently making threats to anyone who challenges it. Ordinary Chinese citizens want what ordinary citizens worldwide want. Unfortunately the West’s tech giants, multinationals, and global finance are siding with China’s ruling elite. However South Korean companies are pulling out of China, and Japan’s pandemic budget has earmarked $2.2 billion to help its manufacturers shift production out of China and back to Japan.

Ross Howard | 01 May 2020  

Jingye Cheng suggested there may be consumer boycotts if the push for an inquiry was not dropped.(ABC News) Rubbish! ABC should stick to the words 'veritably' spoken by Jingye Cheng. The words spoken by Jingye Cheng were right, it is the fabricated interpretation, and lack of understanding of what he said that is wrong. The 'Australian people' could also decide to not buy Chinese imported products. So? Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. Confucius

AO | 01 May 2020  

The virus has affected the entire world, and it is only natural - and reasonable - that countries other countries would wish to know how it started, mainly, in order to ensure a recurrence can be avoided. But perhaps more important is the need to have in place an efficient mechanism to let the world know without delay if a similar virus breaks out in the future, anywhere. There could be, say, a requirement for mandatory, regular reporting – perhaps, monthly - that no virus has broken out, and immediate advice if one has occurred. The WHO has been found wanting during this crisis but there is no need necessarily for a new organization; the WHO only needs to be made efficient by being suitably reorganised. While Scott Morrison’s call is reasonable, his timing and his emphasis have not been ideal. And some of his language and that of the Foreign Minister has been unhelpful. And for the Foreign Minister to state that a new body to cover future similar occurrence should include personnel like the ‘weapons inspectors’ we had in Iraq is surely to jump the gun, and is unnecessarily provocative. Osmund

Osmund | 03 May 2020  

Re: China's so called boycott threat reported by ABC. ABC please pull up your socks and take lessons from other News Networks. Check out '60 minuets' Channel 9, 03/05/2020 : "Your talking about no longer drinking Australian wine, or eating Australian beef"..."Except that your ambassador to Australia said that". "He didn't make any threats if you read the transcription of his remarks carefully, you can see he was simply reflecting describing some people in China about their sentiments about Australia.

AO | 04 May 2020  

AO (4/5) picks up on practices that are becoming all too common in media reporting: the dislocating of selective comments from their contexts, and their prefacing - if they are reproduced verbatim at all - with hyperbolic, even sensationalist, introduction. This might be tolerable in sports reports, but it could have seriously deleterious consequences if it becomes accepted practice in the reporting of political, social, religious and economic events on the world stage.

John RD | 05 May 2020  

John RD. Your eloquence: saying the proper thing and stopping.

AO | 06 May 2020  

China is currently vastly more powerful than Australia economically and militarily and its government does have a cohesive and far reaching policy, as is currently unfolding in the case of Drew Pavlou at the University of Queensland. We need to exercise great care, but must not be afraid of standing up for what we believe in. Indonesia, far closer to us, is a rapidly rising power. Predicting what will happen in world politics is a parlous game. We do need to ensure we retain control of our resources, such as water and our productive farmland. This is a long term strategy for our own survival. It is a cruel world and China has used its economic clout in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and parts of Africa not necessarily to the advantage of those countries. Perhaps not relying solely on the US, but forging alliances with countries like Indonesia may be in our long term interests. We need to look after ourselves. Enlightened self interest is the key to the game in world politics.

Edward Fido | 11 May 2020  

Osmund, Maybe there are those in the WHO who should be sacked for taking Chinese bribes or responding to threats of various dimensions.

john frawley | 16 May 2020  

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