Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 19 June 2020


China cannot lose face, and we’ll have to deal with that

Our job is to keep Donald Trump’s notoriously fickle mind focused on Asia and the ­Pacific as China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, wields its power. Picture: AFP
Our job is to keep Donald Trump’s notoriously fickle mind focused on Asia and the ­Pacific as China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, wields its power. Picture: AFP
The relationship between Australia and China continues to be the subject of much tension. When Scott Morrison called the Chinese out on the way they handled the COVID-19 scandal, they didn’t apologise and promise to do better in the future. Instead, they stamped their feet, picked up their toys and went home.
Now they are rattling the bars of the crib, threatening retaliation by raising tariffs on barley. It plays the role of bully well because that is what China is. But are they so big that you can’t have a decent discussion about fairness in trade?
Swords held aloft, they ride ­towards us in their bulldozers and battle­ships. Without the US, they would be an unstoppable force.
Vigilance in our relationship with the US is more important than ever. Donald Trump is an isolationist at heart. He would much prefer to see fortress America than the US as the world’s policeman. Our job is to keep his notoriously fickle mind focused on Asia and the ­Pacific. The Prime Minister has done Australia a favour by forming a good personal relationship with Trump.
Covering roughly the same area as the continental US, China has five times its population. Feeding that vast number is not enough any more. To stifle any movement towards some civil rights for those people, the Chinese government must deliver remarkable growth figures year on year. How long can the economic miracle last?
Sister Annette, my second-class teacher, was certain that the “yellow hordes” would envelop us. Whether she had a full grasp of the suspicions the Vietnamese had about the Chinese we will never know, but she would not have worried about the nuances. All she needed to know was that an Asian threat was descending. She found it hard to recover from the shock of my answer to the question “What will you be when you grow up?”. Many of the boys said priests. Without blinking an eyelid, I responded: “The Pope.” You can see that delusions of adequacy have been with me forever.
Aged 17, I can recall attending the Barton federal electorate council and moving a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. I was stunned that almost half of the FEC was prepared to defend the takeover. I resolved then to do whatever I could to deny control of any organ of the party to those who would take such a stance.
After I did gain control of the FEC and some more local branches, I was considered worthy of being taken to meet John Ducker. This Hull ironworker, who suffered from industrial deafness, was the party and union boss who became my mentor. He guided me through my early days as general secretary of the NSW branch. I was 26 when I got the job and I needed his support. These were simpler times — when Johno Johnson could organise a thousand Labor supporters, with their kids, to turn up to an outer Sydney picnic ground for the ­annual ALP picnic. Everyone had to attend, but I wonder how many would turn up in these times when we prefer to communicate with computers rather than with face-to-face conversations.
The outrage that came about because of the vision of Russian tanks on Prague streets was greater because not much emotion can be drawn from the Chinese pumping sand into the sea to create some islands. The obvious threat to international shipping lanes was the message China wanted to deliver. For the future, that is my concern. To maintain face, sooner or later China will do something nasty. Communist regimes cannot afford to back off or be seen to walk away from a fight because they put so much time and effort into bolstering the idea of a foreign threat.
Today’s drama illustrates how often Australia will have to dance diplomatically with China. China’s view is that if the other side has a pistol, it will have a howitzer. In its version of a command economy, guns will always have preference over rice.
China is armed to the teeth and happy for everyone to know it. At this stage, the Americans have the wood on them in space but the Chinese will work furiously to develop their own space technology — or steal America’s. The Chinese have gained a huge amount of Western technology by theft, and they seem proud of it. They have no scruples.
In 1982, I stopped by China for the first time on the way to North Korea. On a visit to the Great Wall, my two colleagues and I ate a wonderful meal and scoffed down three beers each. It cost $17.
The trip to North Korea was an eye opener. While the masses had not enough to eat, I went to dinner where they boasted I would eat 70 kinds of seafood. Masses of statues of the first communist leader of the country, Kim Il-sung, littered the countryside. If looking at that wasn’t bad enough, I visited a factory that was bleak, cold and dark. Blaring from loudspeakers were patriotic songs lauding the Great Leader. No doubt, across time, the Dear Leader and the Short Fat Leader have had their share of songs ­written about their great achievements in one of the poorest ­nations in the world.
One of the most pathetic, yet poignant, moments of my life came when I met the chief surgeon of Pyongyang’s main hospital. Surrounded by regime thugs, he dutifully explained to me how the Great Leader came to the hospital to instruct him in the techniques of surgery. I can imagine how embarrassed he must have been, but failure to perform his role in this charade with real conviction could have resulted in a trip to the gulag.
Life in a communist dynastic country is a surreal experience. I could not recommend it.

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