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Friday, 29 March 2013

Stronger ties with China's leaders depend on deeper knowledge of China by regular Australians

Gough Whitlam in China in 1973 with
Stephen FitzGerald (right).
It has hardly been a focus for us in the community in recent days but apparently Julia Gillard is going to China next Friday, which gives her an opportunity to put into practice some of the ideas she voiced in the Asian Century white paper, which came out in October. It's been over six months since that document emerged from the fastnesses of Australia's busy bureaucracy but the quantity of public debate on it has been frankly dismal because, to a large degree, the media has been more intent on the ALP's leadership struggles.

But some people have been watching, although they're mostly isolated from the hurly-burly of the public sphere. One of them is Stephen FitzGerald, who was Gough Whitlam's ambassador to China, and who has recently gone public with a lecture - Australia and China at Forty: Stretch of the Imagination, which he didn't give due to health reasons - at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU in Canberra. FitzGerald is down on the government's dealings with China's leadership, which he says started to suffer under Howard and have not improved since. Calling for a deeper, more strategic dialogue with China's leaders, FitzGerald underscores how discussion of relations with China has become largely economic in content. He wants something deeper.
We have to think about China, not as another United States – that would be ridiculous – but in somewhat the same conceptual and functional way as we think about the United States, or other parts of the world where we have more longstanding relationships than we have with China – the UK for example, or Europe. We have important economic relationships with all of those, but the way we think about them and feel we can relate to them is multi-dimensional and not just economic, and in our policy we respond to several dimensions and in our relations we work at knowing them in these several dimensions, and knowing their politics as well as their political and other elites.
When FitzGerald says "we" I think that he means all Australians but my impression is that he's mainly talking about those who operate at the elite level, such as politicians and senior bureaucrats. Which suggests some level of naivety about how the polity operates in Australia, where regular opinion polls are the focus of intense scrutiny by both the community (through the media) and the elites themselves. It's easy for policies to get shelved in the face of strong, negative media coverage and a bad poll. And while I agree that a deeper dialogue with China is necessary FitzGerald seems to miss the point of the Australian values that he elsewhere says the Chinese leadership must respect when doing business in Australia, such as freedom of speech. At one place in his lecture, FitzGerald scathingly talks about "the way public discussion is often reduced to caricature by the media". You wonder if he really understands how the public sphere in a liberal democracy operates.

You get the feeling that FitzGerald would prefer all debate to be conducted in public only by those most qualified to make comment, such as academics.
I have some sympathy for the academics, because of the way public discussion is often reduced to caricature by the media, the dismissive spin with which government responds to intellectual debate, and the personal denigration that too often greets different views.
This acknowledges how public debate in Australia is often not as collegiate as those academics would prefer, which may be why they tend to stay out of the business of public speech altogether. But then FitzGerald goes on to support, in a completely different context, the freedom that Australia's media enjoys at home:
Exceptionalism doesn’t drive everything in China’s foreign policy, but it does influence foreign relations from time to time and it’s not new. In the 1970s, for example, the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni made a documentary film about China which the Chinese denounced as anti-Chinese. When the ABC announced it would show the film, a protest was lodged in Canberra with a demand that the showing be cancelled. On the Australian side, we said this was a matter of our right to freedom of speech and the media. The Chinese attitude was not just that China objected to the film but that when China says so we actually don’t have that right – in effect, the Chinese right extinguishes ours – and the attitude was self-righteous and rude and somewhat bullying.
So it seems that FitzGerald wants it both ways. He doesn't like the Australian media but he is a vocal supporter of the rights - such as that public speech is protected under law - that allow them to carry on the way they do. It seems to depend on whose nose he is tweaking at any point in time. And he also seems to miss the fact that Australian politicians listen to the views of the electorate and tend to base their public announcements on them so that they will be viewed in a good light. We'll leave aside the idea of "leadership" here and just say that in the behaviour of the media anyone can easily observe how government actions merge with the expectations of the electorate. This is something quite foreign, I would suggest, for China's leaders, who expect their media to obediently follow guidelines set at the top.

So you wonder what FitzGerald thinks of the average voter in Australia. But look, here's something in the lecture that gives us an idea:
It was in the second half of the ’90s that this contraction in China focus to the economic began, and a separation of policy into deepening economic engagement on the one hand but retreat from the Hawke/Keating strategy of deepening political engagement on the other. This was a political choice. But there were also other factors at work, and one which I think was important was a shift in attitudes in Australian society at that time, the rise of the ‘aspirational voter’. This was the voter more interested in an ever-better personal material life than in party platforms for reform or social change or policy debate about ideas or visions or values. This trend went hand in hand with the rise of the aspirational politician, the one who cares less about ideas and principles and standing on them and more about gaining and staying in office and therefore more about the aspirations of aspirational voters, and what Ken Henry calls ‘the race for political points and the key to the Lodge’. That aspirational culture has since been overtaken by the culture of entitlement, perpetual material winning, fed shamelessly by both sides of politics.
Within his lecture there are many indications that FitzGerald is yearning for a golden era - one where he personally played a pivotal role as ambassador to China - where public debate was "meaningful" rather than just being about money. But look at how different the whole world was in the 70s, a decade where all nations were still struggling with the imperial imperatives of the dominant Cold War nations. Thank God that time has passed, I say. If the average voter in Australia - like the average citizen in China, I believe - is more interested in material gain then that can only be a good thing. The last thing anyone wants is a return to the kind of toxic paradigm where political parties are threatened with silence - as happened in Australia when Robert Menzies tried to make the Communist Party illegal here - because that kind of bullying behaviour is exactly what happens in China today.

What do I personally think? In a real sense I agree with FitzGerald when he calls for a deeper engagement with China but I also think that this can only happen within civil society itself. And that depends on the voter. Regular Australians must want it to happen. And they need to know more about China in the same way they are well informed about Europe and the US. Europe? It's our political heritage. The US? We were very comfortable when John Curtin gave Douglas MacArthur leadership over Australia's military in WWII.

In a real sense China needs to sell itself better to FitzGerald's aspirational voter, and the Australian media has a crucial role to play here too. In this second case, for example, there are three Chinese-language newspapers operating in Sydney alone. What contact does Fairfax, say, have with the editors who work in those offices in Chinatown? What kinds of stories do ethnic Chinese living in Sydney care about? Surely there are ways to deepen our understanding of the real views of Chinese people in China by watching how ethnic Chinese in Australia engage with the world. And one thing that Gillard's Asian Century white paper does talk about is education. The only way that better relations at the top can be achieved is by deepening understanding of China - regular Chinese people, not just China's leadership - within the Australian community.

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