• John McDonnell

The China Contradiction

On Wednesday morning, BBC China correspondent Stephen McDonnell (no relation) appeared on ABC Radio National to discuss Trevor Watson’s new book, ‘The China Bureau’, to which he was a contributor. He said one of the more interesting aspects of the international observation of China for other outsiders, was the way Australian China experts were fundamentally split on the way they viewed the country and its government. He wondered aloud why they couldn’t get together to share information and perspectives.

The contradiction in Australian views of China is confusing to the Chinese who find it difficult to understand Australian policy, perceived as it is through the prism of the hard-line or soft-line Australian commentators.

In Australia, hard-line observers are clustered around the security industry. They have a monolithic view of the Communist Party of China, which they see as being dominated by an assertive cadre that is controlled by Xi Jinping.

The alternative view is dominated by academics, the department of foreign affairs and trade as well as the business community. This group believes that China is a very complex society, comprising 43 different nationalities in 26 provinces, each with several layers of government. Members of this group think that China verges on the edge of chaos, with the central government having to work hard to maintain stability.

Some of these issues emerged at the National Press Club on Wednesday, when it featured a panel consisting of:

  • Professor Jane Golley, editor of the China Yearbook,

  • Wang Xining, deputy ambassador to Australia for the Peoples Republic of China, and

  • Michael Smith former China correspondent for the Australian Financial Review.

The Australian National University's Professor Golley pointed out that academics were far from agreed on what was happening in China. She said that she had received a paper for publication, that was yet to be peer-reviewed, containing very different evidence about the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang Province than that presented by Human Rights Watch.

In his presentation, Wang Xining made the point that the Uighur population in Xinjiang was approximately that of Australia, in an area the size of Queensland, two-thirds of which was desert. Most of these people got on with their lives without intervention by the central government. From this perspective, it was ridiculous for the western media to talk of ‘genocide of the Uighur people’. He said that government action was predominantly against people he described as Uzbeks, implying they were outliers in the Uighur community.

Wang Xining went on the front foot when it came to restrictions on Australian exports. He made specific reference to the treatment of Huawei and said Australia had been at the forefront of “unethical and immoral” activities against the company for anti-competitive purposes. He cited the memoirs of a former politician, which contained a boast that the politician had been instrumental in persuading Donald Trump to ban Huawei in the United States.

This was a reference to Malcolm Turnbull, whose actions against Huawei were particularly painful to the Chinese leadership. Turnbull’s daughter-in-law is a granddaughter of one of the 100 immortals who were on the long march with Mao Zedong. Xi Jinping’s father was another immortal and so Malcolm Turnbull was seen as one of the family. His action against Huawei was seen as a family betrayal.

Wang Xining implied that the trade retaliation against Australia was rooted in the grievance over Huawei. It is one of the contradictions of Turnbull’s prime ministership that if he had listened to trade and business connections, rather than the security hawks, he could have used his family connections in China to expand trade and business opportunities in that market. As it was, he chose a course of action that has cost billions with no noticeable impact on China’s global assertiveness.