Australia votes: China wins?
Melbourne, 3 December 2007. As I write, in Canberra a new Government is being sworn in. On 24 November most voters chose to head it Kevin Michael Rudd, leader of the Labor Party (ALP). Many were impressed by the fluent Mandarin he had learnt as, guess what, (his favourite phrase) a minor mandarin with the Department of Foreign Affairs. On 30 November he announced his Ministry. You guessed it, not old-style "workers" so much as desk jockeys with degrees moving up the bureaucracy of Trade Unions or Party. But also a record number of women, led by deputy PM fiery-haired Welsh charmer Julia Gillard. Straight away she got cordially saddled with two huge portfolios of Education and Industrial Relations and no Parliamentary Secretaries to help out. Go figure.
On the same day, Sydney opened a representative office of China Construction Bank (CCB, Jian Hang, one of China's four biggest). Its President Zhiang said it was the first step to getting a banking license and opening a branch to boost trade even more. China being already Australia's biggest trading partner with $50 bn. two-way. China's banks, like its Universities, aim at world dominance (PINR.com 7 November 07: BBC news, 17 Nov. 07). Sovereign Capital offers a new challenge to national independence, not only of Australia.
Next day the vote count confirmed that PM John Howard had not only lost Government, but also the seat he held for thirty years, non-Labor since its inception in 1949. Winner was Maxine McKew, who used to present an ABC TV program, notorious as the "Labor Half Hour", while married to a senior Labor Party cadre. By Freudian slip or design, ,the presenter of ABC TV election coverage on the night reported a “swing to the ABC”, instead of ALP.
While Howard wooed the electorate as often as he could while running the country, looking serious and tired, Maxine assiduously door-knocked the large Chinese community which had moved there in recent years and propagandized jovial Mandarin Rudd. ("PM's seat hangs on Asian vote", Age 10 Nov. 2007). "She happy, she smile!" enthused to the media one of the 690,000 Chinese-Australians, not counting more than current 90,000 students country-wide. Many graduate, and stay, greatly contributing their hard work and talent to the country.
It is even possible that their absorption of "Australian values" could feed back through personal connections into some thawing of the Party rule, the socio-political ice which still overlays the loosening, more marketized economy. But experience reminds us that modernization/industrialization led, for example in Imperial Japan, to a merger of militarist command and control with that of organized crime; the yakuza. Compare Putin's Russia. (Stratfor.com, 14 November 2007: "there is no clear distinction in Russia between criminal enterprises and the government").
China's economy and society, experts say, are too big and diverse to be controlled by a central government. Emperors reigned, local bigwigs ruled. Today Beijing admits to serious problems of divergence in urban and rural living conditions, pollution etc., as local bosses defy it. In his mausoleum, Chairman Mao must sleep uneasy as the peasantry rises up all over again and even at the Party Congress, some bookish cadres (those pesky zhishifenzi!) prefer liberation to pervasive surveillance, land grab, arbitrary arrest, and worse.
As a member of the Academy of Sciences recently told a seminar at my University, Monash; when China started opening up, people thought in terms of emulating America, but since 1989 the mood has swung to "neo-nationalism", as in Japan and Korea (oddly, he did not mention Russia).
The "Confucianism" now being revived seems closer to the "Legalist" tradition in Chinese statecraft, which relied on crackdown rather than benevolence to head off the ancient threat of stampeding chaos (luan): smite necks , sell livers - not pat heads, fill bellies. If that is the trend, there may be a downside to the worldwide expansion of "soft power" by Chinese financial, commercial and governmental organizations, which cadres of the Party at some level ultimately run. In Australia, the defection of a diplomat raised alarm, as the Sunday Age, Melbourne, alleged (11 November 2007) that "China uses its power to co-opt support and silence critics. Sometimes it involves intimidation and threats" (for example, by Consular officials against Parliamentarians or students pressured by some 1,000 agents to spy on their mates). Were threats needed? A Labor MP complained "The view seems to be that China is so important to us economically that we are prepared to ignore human rights issues". "Pre-emptive kowtowing" is also as American as apple pie.(See James Mann; "The China Fantasy", Amazon.com)
A former Australian diplomat and China specialist recently warned Universities that so-called " Confucius Institutes" set up as joint ventures with the Chinese government were, as their parent body (Hanban) put it, of positive significance in improving China's soft power. (Sunday Age, 18 November 2007). Officially all about teaching Chinese, such bodies generously part-financed by Beijing could risk becoming agencies of influence like the "Friendship" outfits used in Soviet days to recruit unconscious and conscious "useful idiots" for agitprop and the KGB. Hu Jintao is said to have told Kevin Rudd "You know all about us!". Not in the way some business or leftist enthusiasts may expect, a Rudd background knowledge conferring immunity to illusions about the PRC, (Mann's "soothing scenario") may well be a very good thing.
Ian Adie is WSN Editor Australia.