Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 31 March 2021


China’s latest ‘wolf warrior’ more a propaganda panda

Zhao Lijian of the Chinese Foreign Ministry is a man not to be trifled with.

Fearless, aggressive, and outspoken, he personifies China’s new “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Articulate and erudite, he can transform at will to bare his fangs and make lesser nations cower. He commands respect.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

Zhao is a piss and wind functionary, a bureaucrat perfectly suited to serving a totalitarian government. Wolf warrior? More a propaganda panda. Think of Squealer from George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, the obsequious manipulator who, at the behest of his master, Napoleon, spreads disinformation throughout the socialist collective to bolster the supremacy of his fellow pigs.

There is a certain talent required for such a position, and that is being able to repeat risible lies with a straight face. It also requires a complete lack of scruples, and Zhao is your man. He has accused Canada of committing genocide after that country criticised China’s treatment of ethnic Muslim Uighurs, and he has promoted rumours that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in the United States.

Having last year tweeted a manufactured image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child, the unrepentant Zhao claimed last week the Morrison Government was detaining “tens of thousands of people from war-torn countries” on Manus Island. Never mind that island’s processing centre closed in 2017. “The concentration camps, as some critics call it, are still in operation,” Zhao tweeted.

Like many of history’s infamous apologists, Zhao knows the most effective propaganda, however outrageous, is that which contains a modicum of truth. His reference to “critics” labelling immigration detention centres “concentration camps” is fact.

Supplying the material to demonise Australia

For the last 20 years, this has been standard practice for refugee advocates and other opponents of conservative governments, thus providing the Chinese Communist Party with an abundance of material to demonise Australia.

For starters, there is author Thomas Keneally. “We began by arguing that to save Australia from terror we had to keep these people in permanent detention,” the Booker Prize winner told the BBC World Service’s Hardtalk program in 2019. “So we have what can only be called concentration camps in Australia … in which people are punished psychologically for having the ambition for being Australians.”

Australian author Thomas Keneally. Picture: Nikki Short
Australian author Thomas Keneally. Picture: Nikki Short

The assertion that the federal government punishes people for aspiring to be Australian is childishly facile. As columnist Gerard Henderson pointed out in this paper at the time, Keneally is a supporter of Labor mainstream governments, but seemingly was oblivious to the fact that the Keating Government had introduced mandatory detention for unlawful arrivals. Disingenuous misapplication

Then immigration minister Gerry Hand said in 1992 it was needed to “send a signal”.

That the author of Schindler’s Ark — the basis for the movie Schindler’s List — resorted to the label “concentration camp” speaks for itself. To describe immigration detention centres with this terminology is disingenuous. By doing so, critics imply an equivalence with the Nazi concentration camps, but conveniently they can claim, if challenged, this was not their intention and that they were instead applying a pre-World War II definition of the label.

The misapplication of the term is not confined to excitable authors. “Holding 90 children in indefinite detention in hellish concentration-camp conditions as ‘an example’ to people smugglers is not Government 101, rather it is Totalitarianism 101,” wrote former Canberra Times editor Crispin Hull in 2018. Jack Waterford, another former editor of that paper, wrote in 2016 warning of “what our loyal military, our paramilitary, concentration camp guards and politicians are doing in our name”.

“I am currently ashamed to be Australian,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald columnist Wendy Squires in 2017. “Disgusted, in fact.”

Referring to Manus Island as a “tropic hell hole” and a “concentration camp”, she labelled this an “indelible smear on Australia’s already dodgy humanitarian history” and “an international disgrace your children will bear for decades to come”.

Writing in 2014, fellow Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly declared “I’ll just keep working and paying taxes so that Tony Abbott can lock lost children in concentration camps”.

Appearing on ABC’s Q and A in 2016 to discuss border protection, author and comedian Magda Szubanski implied the Australian government committed the worst atrocities. “I mean, to think that we live in such an abundantly wealthy country and that we treat people in this way as a deterrent … I mean, seriously, my family risked their lives to save people from camps like that,” she said.

That was too much even for host Tony Jones, who interrupted Szubanski to tell her this was an inappropriate analogy, as her father – a member of the Polish Resistance – had saved Jews from extermination during World War II.

“You know, first of all, we don’t know fully exactly what is going on in a lot of these detention centres, because of the laws that are blocking people from talking about it,” she replied. Presumably then the only sensible conclusion is they must be akin to the camps of Dachau and Treblinka?

Actor, comedian and writer Magda Szubanski. Picture: Supplied
Actor, comedian and writer Magda Szubanski. Picture: Supplied

Incredibly, some have suggested that immigration detainees have it worse than those murdered at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

“Even those who finally knew they were about to be condemned to the gas chamber at least found some sense of relief in knowing what was happening,” said paediatrician and Australian Medical Association representative Dr Paul Bauert in 2019, comparing this with the Nauru detainees’ “lack of certainty”.

Reality check

Citing the Manus and Nauru detention centres, former Greens candidate and current independent MP Andrew Wilkie wrote to the International Criminal Court in 2014 seeking prosecution of then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and all of his Cabinet colleagues for crimes against humanity. Although agreeing with Wilkie that the “alleged conduct thus appears to have been such that it was in violation of fundamental rules of international law,” the ICC declined to investigate, saying the allegations were not “grave enough to justify action by the court”.

That’s ICC-speak for telling Wilkie his grandstanding was wasting the court’s time.

You would expect this mentality in fringe groups like the Greens, but sadly it also exists in the alternative government. Labor candidate for Macarthur in 2016 and now MP Michael Freelander in 2016: “I would hate to think we would be torturing children in a place like Manus Island — in a concentration camp and I could never support that. In 2015, then New Zealand internal affairs minister Peter Dunne described the practice of detaining Kiwi criminals on Christmas Island prior to deportation as “a modern concentration camp approach”.

Writing in the Guardian in 2016 regarding those in offshore detention centres, La Trobe University emeritus professor Robert Manne looked to author and political theorist Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” theory to explain why “the commercial media and majority public opinion” were supposedly “unmoved”. Arendt’s observation, you might recall, arose from the trial of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal implementers of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution.

Whether it is in academia, literary circles, the media, the medical profession, the commentariat or political parties, these fallacious and ad hominem depictions of the government’s asylum seeker policies are many. It must delight the likes of Zhao. After all, nothing gets the attention of a self-styled wolf like the mass bleating of sheep.

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