Keating rides roughshod over reality of China’s aims
At The Australian Strategic Forum in Sydney on Monday, the keynote was struck by Paul Keating. The position he took was very much in character. It very much needs to be challenged. Much of his address consisted of statements of the bleeding obvious. But he mingled these commonsense observations with a litany of others that were seriously in error.
READ MORE: Beijing envoy Wang Xining attacks ‘narrow view’ of China | Paul Keating and experts dish out a series of brutal truths | Paul Keating: Managing the relationship with China | Paul Keating’s blast: foreign policy on China ‘lacks realism’ |
The obvious statements were that China had grown rapidly; our trade had become deeply dependent on it; the US-based international liberal trading order was in trouble; Donald Trump’s America increasingly was fed up with liberal internationalism and inclined to greater isolationism; we should all “want a region that gives China the space to participate but not dominate”; and “it is in all of Asia’s interests, including ours, that the US remains engaged with traditional partners and allies”.
But Keating’s address was littered with dubious and even shocking statements. He declared, for openers, that “China’s historical view is not rooted in ideological aspiration, universal or otherwise. It sees its legitimacy arising from its ethnic oneness and bulk and its geopolitical pre-eminence on the Asian mainland.”
The problem we have is not with China’s view, as if that were unitary and unchanging. It is with the Chinese Communist Party’s intensely ideological approach to world affairs. The party dominates China but it is not China. Beneath the veneer of Xi Jinping’s overweening ultra-Orwellian dictatorship, it’s not even internally unified.
As for the “ethnic oneness” of China, this is a singularly obtuse notion. Keating here rides roughshod over the reality that the Uighurs and Tibetans are suffering relentless ethnic and cultural persecution and Han colonisation. Ethnic oneness? Nor are they the only ethnic minorities in China. Nor was it the Han Chinese who established the borders the party defends: it was the non-Han Manchus between 1644 and 1911, after they conquered the Ming Empire.
The second basic error in Keating’s address has to do with the causes of China’s recent economic achievements. China’s growth since the reform and opening initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 has been driven by three crucial factors: overwhelming foreign direct investment (many hundreds of billions of dollars), the initiative of the private sector in China, which has generated almost all the growth; and strategic mercantilism on the part of the Chinese state. Xi now is strangling the first two and entrenching the third. The consequences do not bode well for China or the international trading system.
Australia has everything to gain from a prospering, opening China, but the party is the big impediment to sound and amicable relations between the two countries; as it is to the kinds of institutional reforms, political and economic, that the best informed experts on China, inside and out, have been urging for years but that Hu Jintao baulked at implementing and Xi is repudiating outright.
Keating would do well to broaden his circle of acquaintances among the hundreds of wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs in Melbourne and Sydney. There are a good many, though not all, who have come here to get away from the party and who see Xi as taking China in dangerous and anti-capitalist directions. They know China and the party a lot better than he does. Our national security agencies should be, if they are not already, mingling deeply with these “fuer dai” emigres from China.
Keating’s third error is his assertion that the US is “the most ideological major society on Earth”. The US, he declared, “believes, as a nation and as a system, it has the democratic formula and universal values”. He implicitly rejects that claim. This is crucial because we in Australia share those values. Our world view largely is built on the assumption that such values are, indeed, as universal in principle as the laws of physics and chemistry, but that institutionalising them is a long and complex challenge.
Can they be universally propagated? We’ve learned the hard way since the end of the Cold War that there are many anti-democratic forces at work in the world not only unwilling to become democratic but dedicated to undermining the liberal democracies themselves. The party under Xi is among those forces. Keating’s implication is that we should not expect China to embrace democratic politics. But this betrays his ignorance of modern Chinese history.
For a century, the leading intellectuals in China have called for democratisation of its political system. Some were decapitated under the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1898, before she opted to call empire-wide, multi-party elections for a constituent assembly in 1911. Key members of that elected assembly were assassinated by the would-be dynast Yuan Shikai between 1912 and 1916. The 1919 May 4th Movement called for China to embrace science and democracy. Dissidents during the Nationalist era (1927–49) called for democratic accountability and human rights.
The Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957 saw huge numbers of the country’s intelligentsia criticise the party’s “Great Helmsman”, Mao Zedong, and the party’s totalitarian mode of governance, calling for more democratic politics. He had hundreds of thousands of them imprisoned and many killed.
In 1976, on the death of premier Zhou Enlai, students called for political reform. In 1978, the Democracy Wall in Beijing called for political reform and was shut down by Deng.
In 1986, encouraged by reform-minded party general secretary Hu Yaobang, students and journalists again called for democratic reforms but were dispersed. Hu was sacked by the party the following year. In 1989, thousands of students were killed by Deng’s tanks for doing so again, following the death of Hu from a heart attack. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his Charter 08 colleagues, in 2008, called for democratic reform and were imprisoned for it.
Keating takes a Communist Party slogan for reality in asserting that Chinese culture is incompatible with or does not need democratisation.
In 1984, Deng sent a secret emissary to Chiang Chingkuo, son of Chinese Nationalist supremo Chiang Kaishek and dictator of Taiwan, suggesting that they collaborate to “bring the country back together” after the deaths of Mao (in 1976) and old Chiang (in 1975). Chiang Chingkuo — as Chinese and as mainland in background as anyone — responded that it was too late for that because “the people of Taiwan don’t want communism, they want capitalism; and they don’t want dictatorship, they want democracy; and we are going to give them both”. He was as good as his word, within two years legitimising the new Democratic Progressive Party as a political opposition.
Deng took a different path, with bloody consequences. Xi has reversed even the very modest political reforms made by Deng and is taking the party back to really regressive and oppressive politics.
Keating has no excuse for not knowing these things and no good grounds for slandering the Chinese people by asserting they lack a democratic culture or inclinations. What they lack is any democratic oxygen because the party is determined to suffocate all dissent. That’s what its deeply intrusive surveillance program and Orwellian censorship regime is all about.
The consequences are playing out before our eyes in the streets of Hong Kong. The singular irony is that a free and open election at this point, with a conservative faction standing on a law-and-order platform, might well diffuse the riots and return a conservative majority. But such an election is precisely what the party will not countenance. It is hoist by its own petard. If it finally moves to crush the increasingly anarchic uprising against Carrie Lam, it will incur an international public relations nightmare and deeply alienate the already sceptical citizens of Taiwan from the idea of any form of reunification with the mainland.
But Keating’s fire is not directed at the party. It’s directed at our own institutions. Our cabinet system is not working, he asserts; our national security agencies have hijacked foreign policy with “phobias” and our free press “is failing to present a balanced picture”.
Hearteningly, two of our most senior former civil servants, Dennis Richardson (former secretary of the Department of Defence and director-general of ASIO) and Martin Parkinson (former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet), spoke with more good sense. So did The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly on Wednesday when he wrote that Trump and Xi were bully boys taking their countries in dangerous directions. Keating’s one-sided outburst, as a former prime minister of this country, is, frankly, disturbing.
The line he took is, in fact, the stock in trade of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, or perhaps its International Liaison Department. It is being spouted by all too many public voices in this country. Bob Carr is the least of them, and billionaire businessmen Andrew Forrest and Kerry Stokes, along with many other commentators, have been denouncing criticisms of the party or expressions of concern over its egregious human rights abuses, its growing international hubris or its blatant intervention in Australia’s domestic politics as, “immature” and “hysterical”.
It is Parkinson who correctly points out that what is at stake in the debate we are having very openly in this country about China is our future sovereignty. Keating skirted this issue. For if, indeed, China is rising and ambitious and if the US does not remain engaged with its traditional partners and allies, then we and its other partners in Asia will face a serious security dilemma.
China’s strategic aim is plainly to detach us from the ANZUS alliance and to cow our political class into accepting the will of the party. It must not succeed if we value our sovereignty. We have never before in our history faced a challenge as serious as this, if one omits the open aggression by Japan in 1941-42. That war has shaped our strategic doctrine ever since. It drew us into the ANZUS and Five Eyes alliances. The strategic forum was convened because all this is now in question — not because cabinet, the national security agencies and the free press are generating phantoms and failing to provide a balanced picture. Keating and the others who mouth similar opinions have it exactly wrong.
Moreover, having called for strategic realism and a new strategic outlook, Keating singularly failed to articulate even the most basic elements of a new strategy. Richardson argued that we were pretty much getting it right. However, we need a realistic stocktaking of what we are doing, what we are not doing, what it might be desirable to do and where we must do our hardest thinking. Neither Keating nor Richardson offers us anything close to such a stocktaking.
We clearly need to develop our skills at both walking and chewing gum, as the old saying has it. We need to invent ways to work with all that’s best in China while outwitting the party and checking its strategic ambitions in so far as these impinge on our sovereignty.
The party does think strategically, it plays power games well, and it is ruthless and shameless. We have to knuckle down and grapple with this. We need broad bipartisan agreement that Parkinson is correct (our future sovereignty is at stake). Let’s call this Parkinson’s law. We need to uphold the foreign influence legislation and provide a substantial budget for the taskforce formed to police it but so far left unfunded. We need to strengthen, not deride, the national security agencies that have been attempting to grapple with the party’s systematic efforts to exert anti-democratic influence within the Chinese community here and within our institutions.
We need to bolster the capacity and fearlessness of our press in its investigative reporting and protect it from defamation actions by party-affiliated Chinese tycoons. We need to equip our diplomats to be as suave as their Chinese counterparts, who operate under very tight strategic instructions from Beijing; and to counter the party’s hypocrisy on issue after issue.
Diplomacy is an elaborate theatrical art. The party’s strategists and propagandists are adept at it. We need a cadre of skilled linguists and negotiators who will not be beguiled by them. We need skilled tacticians in information warfare.
We need to make clear, explicitly where appropriate, subtly where this might have more effect, that while we have always applauded Chinese economic growth and have great respect for Chinese culture, cuisine, art and classical wisdom, we are not blind to the Orwellian nature of the party’s rule, its shocking human rights record, its lack of anything resembling due process in law, freedom of the press, strategic transparency or viable approaches to collective security. We will not muzzle our press or our private citizens, nor shall we allow the manipulation of Chinese-Australians by the party and its minions.
The central challenges in taking such a path are twofold: if the US does not maintain its commitments or cannot be strongly relied on to do so, we will, indeed, find ourselves in an environment of strategic “anarchy”.
We need to do a lot of war-gaming and diplomatic thinking on what contingencies this could generate and what options we can develop for coping with them. We also need to work hard at how we can defend ourselves against Chinese pushback, its economic and diplomatic blackmail.
Keating made none of these suggestions. The dismaying inference one is left to draw is that he thinks we can finesse the situation by appeasing the party, discouraging criticism of it, neutering our national security agencies and censoring our investigative journalists and editors. In short, that we should subordinate our sovereignty to our hopes of economic gain and our strategic alliances to the feckless hope that the party will moderate its own behaviour and settle for participation rather than domination.
This is not realistic strategic thinking. It’s trapped in a time warp. It’s wishful thinking, the kind that got us into the current situation. We have indulged the party for decades, bending over backwards to accommodate it, defer to it, cajole it, hope it would heed the calls of its best and brightest citizens. That policy was called constructive engagement. It has led us to a serious impasse.
Now we have to get real and grapple with the unpalatable and downright dangerous. We have to adopt a posture of adaptive realism and roll with the punches.
Paul Monk has a PhD in international relations, was the head of the China desk at the Defence Intelligence Organisation in 1994-95 and is the author of Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (Scribe, 2005).