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Let's talk about how we talk about China

Evan Ellis |  24 August 2014

Palmer on Q and A

By now Clive Palmer's comments during last week's Q&A have been widely rebuked by politicians, business leaders and media pundits. I doubt he cares.

It wasn't a gaffe so much as a stump speech.

 The Guardian's Alexandra Oliver juxtaposed Palmer's outburst with recent polling, in which 56 per cent of respondents thought the government allowed too much Chinese investment. A 2012 Lowy Institute poll found a majority of respondents were worried about Chinese investment in the mining and agricultural sector. In the same year, another poll showed a majority of Australians agreed that 'China has so much money to invest it could end up buying and controlling a lot of Australian companies.' Faced with Tony Jones' dogged questioning, Palmer seized the opportunity to speak to this considerable disquiet within the community.

China's meteoric rise is still a relatively new phenomenon. The contours of public discourse on this topic are not yet well worn. Our elected officials, Palmer included, are still exploring both how to negotiate it and also how to talk about it.

For all the criticism directed at Kevin Rudd and his handling of foreign policy, he articulated a particularly innovative way of talking about our relationship with China. In a much-lauded speech in 2008, he positioned Australia as a 'zhengyou' to China. This meaning-laden term refers to a confidante who speaks truthfully, even boldly because they have a person's best interests at heart.

Rudd wanted Australia (and no doubt himself) to perform this role while strengthening the US engagement in the region, both to temper China's ambitions and provide insurance if things went awry. This remains government policy.

I doubt Rudd saw these as being mutually exclusive but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seemed to. As such Rudd developed a reputation among some Chinese officials for being hypocritical. His outburst at the Chinese delegation at Copenhagen and the Wikileaks revelations did not help.

If you read the Wikileaks dispatch between Hillary Clinton and Kevin Rudd you are left with a distinct impression that Rudd was a very successful 'zhengyou' to the US. This probably undercut his chances of establishing a similar relationship with their strategic competitor. Whether you can be a 'zhengyou' to two competing nations remains problematic.

However there are several connotations with this term that should not be discarded. Indeed we can pull them out to provide some broad guidelines for shaping our current discourse on China.

Firstly, a 'zhengyou' cares. The rise of China has increased the material livelihood of hundreds of millions of its citizens. This is a good thing. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been good at vocally welcoming this and acknowledging the deft handling of the current regime. This deftness has been accompanied by appalling brutality but the material improvement of millions stands. The loyalty of many Chinese to the CCP makes little sense outside of this context.

Also we show we genuinely care by not name-calling. All politicians and commentators should be mindful of how our debates about the powerful state of China might impact on the Chinese diaspora, who don't have the luxury of the Chinese navy backing them up. The multicultural fabric in Australia is tenuous enough without lobbing talk of 'Chinese mongrels' around.

Secondly, a 'zhengyou' is trustworthy. You cannot be a confidante if the gap between rhetoric and reality yawns wide. This means being upfront with Beijing about where we stand on issues. It means a willingness to occasionally run the gauntlet of Beijing's displeasure. In return we should be willing to listen and not let our alliance with the US, Japan and other hedging powers deafen us to China's different perspectives.

Another aspect of this honesty is that we should be open about the plurality of opinions in our community. Diplomats might want to shout down PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie's comments as unrepresentative but how would they know? For them to be certain we would need to have a much broader conversation within the Australian community. If after this conversation we find such sentiments exist we should be open about that too.

Finally a 'zhengyou' is clear-sighted. The dynamics of power are as important, if not more so, for understanding China's behavior than any unique aspect of Chinese culture. The report that Beijing is buying up Chinese community media in Australia should surprise us no more than Gina Rinehart's tilt at the Fairfax board. Powerful people want to control the message. This is a more useful framing than 'the Chinese are coming'.

If we focus on the dynamics of power we might be able to reduce the amount of ethnic stereotyping and craft both a respectful dialogue and a sober policy to the monumental geopolitical shifts currently occurring.


Evan EllisEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major.



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Submitted comments

Elegantly argued, thanks Evan. Palmer and Lambie were crude and rude, but the fact is that Australian defence and alliance policy is based on the fears they articulated. It's naive to think Beijing does not know the reality that lies behind our Ministers' and diplomats' honeyed words of reassurance - that we are actually quite scared of China's potential future ambition to control our resources and possibly our territory. Will we be able to combine a close and mutually rewarding economic relationship with China and a strong strategic relationship with US based on the strategic 'containment' of China into the indefinite future? Probably not. But diplomatic vagueness has its value, and Palmer and Lambie certainly rattled the teacups.

Tony Kevin 22 August 2014

Abbott's comments about Scots interested in independence were almost as intemperate!

Murray Seiffert 29 August 2014

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