Asian dominos knocked over in rush for the door

Panic abounds, half a century ago tiny Vietnam was the commie domino poised to knock over the world, now China has some folks running for the door. Colin Mackerras reviews China Panic: Australia’s alternative to paranoia and pandering by David Brophy

9 June 2021 | Colin Mackerras (Pearls & Irritations)

This is a truly excellent account of the “panic” surrounding Australia-China relations over the last few years, especially since 2017. It is well-researched, analytical, nuanced and very well written in a highly accessible style that is both scholarly and colloquial.

One of the book’s strong features is a whole chapter covering the role China assumes in Australia’s universities and one each confronting two extremely controversial matters dogging bilateral relations over the last few years, namely Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Several recent books published in Australia have concerned China and the Australia-China bilateral relationship. One to have drawn special media attention recently is Peter Hartcher’s Red Zone, a full-scale attack on China which no less a person than Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong chose to semi-endorse by launching it in the Old Parliament House (19 May). To be fair, her focus was criticizing government policy rather than praising Hartcher, but I found the whole notion of a senior ALP figure delivering a speech to launch such a book completely shocking. What is the ALP coming to?

I wish she had launched the present book instead. We need hope that some major political party will try to promote international peace and reset relations with China. The present book shows real awareness of these issues and sensitivity towards them, so different from Peter Hartcher, whose only aim is to condemn China.

Brophy tells us his motivation in writing the book: “I see as dangerous any efforts to uphold a flagging American hegemony in Asia, which is now of an almost exclusively military nature. I worry at the visible rise in anti-Chinese racism we see here [in Australia]. And I worry at the worsening levels of state repression in China.”

There is not much about economic relations. Brophy’s focus is less trade and the interests of the Australian state and commercial classes than on Australians as a whole. “To get out of the rut into which Australia’s China debate has settled, we need to recentre it on the interests that ordinary people in Australia and across Asia share in both combating oppression and resisting warmongering.”

Author, and Sydney University academic, David Brophy (supplied)

I find that compelling and praiseworthy. On the other hand, national interests and trade do affect Australians as a whole, especially in times of crisis and pandemic. The way the Australian government seems to take delight in poking China in the eye does affect the economic livelihood of ordinary Australians. The issues and interests are interrelated. Brophy obviously sees that. Personally, I give present and future trade and investment matters a higher priority than he does.

In a brilliant chapter titled ‘Cold-war campus’, Brophy takes up the many issues involved in the role of China in the universities, such as the importance of Chinese students in university budgets, censorship relating to China studies and discrimination against Chinese people. He refers to a particularly sensitive issue when he states that “A single-minded vigilance towards China is going hand in hand with the increasing integration of universities with Western military institutions, hardly a recipe for institutional integrity”, and goes on to warn about a return to the days of McCarthyism.

He thinks we are “not yet back” in those dark days. Actually, I’m not sure he’s right about that, but the situation is certainly getting worse. Brophy recommends that “the university community itself ˗ the staff and students who compose it ˗ reassert themselves as the voice of the institution”, as against authorities and administrators, especially those in Canberra. While his point on the university community is entirely reasonable, I’m not at all optimistic at present, to put it mildly. It seems to me that the “community” is getting weaker, the bureaucrats stronger.

The chapter on Hong Kong is quite condemnatory of Chinese policy and actions, especially over the national security law and the crackdown on dissent. It also considers the issue of security and China’s inability to allow an independent Hong Kong. Brophy’s conclusion links the Hong Kong situation to the international pressure that seems to be leading to a new cold war. He writes: “Nowhere will democracy be served by a new cold war, and least of all Hong Kong. That basic fact should prompt us to seriously rethink the mode in which people outside China extend support to the people there.” I strongly endorse that view.

Brophy has published widely on Xinjiang, the Uyghurs and their history. His chapter on the subject shows great empathy, knowledge and concern. There is no doubt for him that Chinese rule has inflicted great repression on the Uyghurs. He is also a strong opponent against Islamophobia, which he blames for much of the suffering that the Chinese, along with the Australian, American and other governments, have inflicted on Muslims, such as the Uyghurs.

Although not claiming Brophy’s expertise, I also have worked specifically on the Uyghurs and their history. While I share his opposition to Islamophobia, I also think he tends to underestimate terrorism as a threat to stability in Xinjiang and elsewhere. And while I am also very worried over the treatment of the Uyghurs, and agree with his advocacy to “preserve and promote Uyghur culture in the diaspora”, I disagree with his suggestion “to apply pressure on Beijing [over this issue] during its hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics”. All that would do would ramp up anti-China feeling, humiliate China and create further resentment, without helping the Uyghurs in any way.

To a large extent, the new wave of Australian Sinophobia is based on the clash of “values” with China, discussed in Chapter 8. In May I attended a talk on China by a Liberal member of the Commonwealth Parliament. It began with rhetorical reference to the need for the speaker’s grandchildren still to be able to hold Australian values in 2050. He spoke as if a friendly relationship with China would make that unlikely. I regard that proposition as completely nonsensical.

And, as Brophy points out, the official statements of values by Australia and China largely overlap, including freedom, equality, democracy and the rule of law. And it’s mighty strange that Australia now shares values with Vietnam, also run by a Communist Party, but not China. Brophy is right to suggest that Australia’s demand to immigrants to accept its values actually means “asking them to retain faith in our system, despite its evident flaws, and to reject the notion that there might be legitimate alternatives to it”.

As for book’s conclusion, the following paragraph struck me as important, in its strong wording and direct message:

“Australians should tell America that we’re not interested in participating in a new cold war or providing a platform for one. We should do so not with apologies and regret, but fully conscious of the way the American alliance has implicated Australia in war crimes and violations of international law, and will risk doing so again for as long as it lasts.”

That’s an excellent formulation of the situation. As he shows in his approach to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Brophy is far from putting all the blame on one side. But I commend his drawing attention to the harm the US alliance has done us not only in our relations with China but more generally. There can be little doubt that tying ourselves to Uncle Sam is a major cause for the mess we find ourselves in now, though certainly not the only one.

Brophy has quite a few suggestions, but in my reading does not really offer us a way out. Maybe his critique of the American alliance is the beginning of one. However, as he very ably shows, the complexities of the damage to bilateral relations have now gone so far that a real solution may be some way off.

Brophy’s scholarship and nuanced approach are admirable. He knows the field very well indeed. He has an approach sensitive to people and to issues. Although I finished the book feeling no more optimistic than when I began, I rank this book among the best in its field.

This article was first published by John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations Colin Mackerras AO, FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University, Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, during the first working as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He is a specialist on Chinese history, theatre, minority nationalities, Western images of China and Australia-China relations and has written widely on all topics. His many books include Western Perspectives on the People’s Republic of China, Politics, Economy and Society, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2015.