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In 2012, Perry Anderson identified a growing body of literature that, rather than being Sinology proper, sought to answer the question: ‘China – what’s in it for us?’ It ‘consists of works that appear to be about China, or some figure or topic from China,’ he wrote, ‘but whose real frame of reference, determining the optic, is the United States.’ He termed it Sino-Americana. 

This was a less vexed question for Australia at the time: Australia was one of the few developed nations still experiencing uninterrupted post-GFC growth, thanks largely to Chinese infrastructure spending. This was rarely admitted, though; instead, politicians were eager to portray growth as the result of enlightened antipodean economic management. Similarly, it hasn’t been politically palatable to ask whether a policy that put such a heavy reliance on the economy of another nation – often at the expense of local industries – was in Australia’s best long-term interest. Now, as the economy shows signs of waning and China under the leadership of Xi Jinping becomes more assertive, there has been an explosion of Sino-Australiana treatises. But the underlying question reflects the changing national mood, in which China is seen as less of an opportunity and more of a threat: ‘China – what risks does it pose for us?’ 

Peter Hartcher’s Quarterly Essay, Red Flag, is the latest contribution: repeating many of the West’s favourite clichés about China and refusing to hold a mirror up to Australian policy-making, it is a work that fails to understand China’s rise and misrepresents the nature of power and empire.

For Hartcher, the United States and its allies are guardians of the rules-based order, while China is a threat to the system. This binary blinds him to the many flaws of his analysis. For example, when he writes uncritically that ‘Barack Obama accused China under Xi of using “sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions”’, he doesn’t pause to consider that Obama’s criticism could be summed up as: ‘China is acting too much like the United States.’ But, for someone who accepts American exceptionalism as the natural order of things, these condemnations are justifiable and, considering the supposed threat, commendable. 

Hartcher is quick to draw distinctions between China and western democracies, but his claims are often based on either a deliberately distorted reading of history or blind acceptance of western orthodoxy. China, with its large state-owned corporations, obviously approaches trade differently from nations in thrall of neoliberalism. However, his claims that liberal democracies like Australia and the US conduct trade for ‘mutual advantage’ is plainly wrong. In China, the unfair trade deals that European powers forced upon the much-diminished Qing dynasty following its defeat in the Opium Wars remain a symbol of colonial arrogance and overreach to this day. As Liang Qichao, one of the foremost Chinese intellectuals of the early twentieth century, observed in 1896, ‘a hundred times more than Western soldiers, Western commerce weakens China.’ 

Throughout the 19th century and right up until the 1920s, America was the most protectionist country in the world: in 1925, the average industrial tariff rate was 37%, which rose to 48% in 1930 with the passing of the Smoot-Hawley tariff. ‘It was only after the Second World War’, writes economist Ha-Joon Chang, ‘that the US – with its industrial supremacy now unchallenged – liberalized its trade and started championing the cause of free trade.’ The adoption of neoliberal policies in developing countries, including trade liberalisation, is often a precondition of US aid, despite the fact that it stymies growth in poorer nations and disproportionately benefits wealthier ones. In other words, the United States’ global free trade agenda is not an enlightened program based on ‘mutual obligation’ – it’s a program that serves US interests. 

In many instances, China is filling the void left by the United States in the developing world. ‘At a time when the US president is calling for an end to globalisation,’ Hartcher writes, ‘Xi is opening new channels of economic activity for China and its partners.’ But this has little to do with the current occupant of the Oval Office; these ‘new channels’ exist because of the way the US has chosen to exert power across the globe. Hartcher stumbles upon this by accident, but doesn’t recognise the significance of his own words. ‘While the United States is trying to work out how to extract its remaining troops from the never-ending war in Afghanistan,’ he continues, ‘Chinese engineers are laying fibre-optic cable through the country.’ Tellingly, Hartcher’s emphasis is on the current moment and the current leaders rather than the fact that the US hasn’t built any useful infrastructure in a country it’s had a heavy military presence in since 2001. The same could be said of Iraq and much of Africa. Instead, the United States has dotted the globe with its troops and military bases – around 800 bases in about 80 countries. (China, in contrast, has one overseas military base – in Djibouti.) 

Many of these bases are in countries that have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This vast infrastructure program undoubtedly has strategic objectives, but it also addresses one of the most significant impediments to growth in developing nations. China has lifted 850 million people out of absolute poverty in the four decades to 2013 – seven out of every ten people in the world who have escaped poverty in this period were Chinese. Is it any wonder that many developing nations look to it for assistance and as a model to emulate? 

Despite the conspiratorial tone and reds-under-the-bed-style paranoia, Hartcher presents little evidence for many of his extraordinary claims. ‘All immigrant communities have strong ties to their home countries’, he writes, but ‘only one is penetrated by a foreign authoritarian political party with plans to dominate the host country.’ In lieu of evidence, Hartcher prefers to quote the recently retired head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis. Here’s a fairly typical example:

“It’s quite clear to me that any person in political office is potentially a target. I’m not trying to create paranoia, but there does need to be a level of sensible awareness. Where people talked about [how to define foreign interference in] our political system, I used to get the comment, ‘We will know it if we see it.’ But not necessarily. Not if it’s being done properly. There would be some I don’t know about.

In other words, the problem is all-pervasive and the absence of evidence is only evidence of China’s sophistication. Hartcher accepts Lewis’ assessments unquestioningly, despite ASIO’s long history as a reactionary, conspiratorial organisation not above acting extrajudicially. In recent years, it has deployed its resources to spy on climate change activists, detain and deport peace activists and kidnap and falsely imprison suspects. But spooks provide cover for Hartcher’s unfounded claims; after all, they know how serious the threat is – they just can’t talk about it. 

For Hartcher, Sam Dastyari, who he describes as ‘operating as an agent for Huang Xiangmo while a sitting senator’, epitomises the threat posed by China. But Dastyari is just a symptom. Money – as opposed to Chinese money – is the more significant corrupting force in Australian politics. While Hartcher’s criticism of Dastyari is justified and the suggested reforms – overhauling the political funding system and creating a federal ICAC, for example – sensible, it’s hardly a problem confined to China. The fossil fuel lobby, for instance, exerts far greater influence on Australian politics, and the threat it poses in the form of climate change is existential.  

Another drawback of Hartcher’s approach is that has little to say on the most deplorable and condemnable elements of Chinese statecraft, presumably because he sees them as irrelevant to Australian interests. The persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority rates a mention not because hundreds of thousands of people have been imprisoned in ethnic concentration camps throughout the western province of Xinjiang, but as evidence that ‘China uses infrastructure as the friendly forerunner of political power.’ Similarly, you wouldn’t learn from reading Red Flag that Tibet is experiencing something akin to a second Cultural Revolution with the destruction of sacred sites, restrictions on religious practice and the radical recasting of the ethnic make-up of Tibetan cities. You do learn, however, that a road connecting Beijing and the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, was built recently. This is not simply a problem of method; it’s a way of seeing and understanding the world that is unconcerned with human suffering and the plight of those at the mercy of the state power. Hartcher’s apathy is best represented not in his analysis on China, but in his criticism of the White Australia policy: 

“Over Australia’s history, most Chinese immigrants have proved to be first-class settlers and citizens. It was Australia’s loss to expel them during the White Australia era and the country should never repeat that costly mistake. Australia has never recovered from the economic consequences of that decision. By driving out all ‘coloured races,’ the White Australia policy expelled the greatest force for the development of the northern part of the continent. 

Of course it’s not incorrect to say that the White Australian policy was bad economics, but that kind of misses the point. 

Sino-Australiana barely conceals its anxiety about China’s rise. Australia, once a British colonial outpost and, more recently, ‘America’s deputy sheriff’ in the region, has always had an uncomfortable relationship with its neighbours. Race has played a defining role in Australian history and the colonial thinking in which Asians were seen as biologically inferior and a potential source of racial impurity continues to manifest itself in many forms today. The insinuation by Hartcher is that, extraordinary though China’s rise has been, it has only been achieved through nefarious and surreptitious means. The Chinese can’t be trusted and now, on the cusp of superpowerhood, Australia needs to wake up. Hartcher claims to have penned a clarion call to a blind Australia – the barbarians are at the gates. In reality, Red Flag follows in the long Australian tradition of ignoring the threat from within, while amplifying that from without.

This was originally published in Flood Media on 10th February, 2020.