We’re now up to a total of five Chinese dissidents who’ve gone public about seeking protection in Australia (see here). But it’s interesting how little comment there has been on the fact that the Greens are their strongest supporters – or, more generally, the only party that seems to have no qualms about offending the Chinese government. Isn’t that a strange attitude for a left-wing party to have towards the largest surviving communist country?

One explanation is that China has ceased to be communist in any meaningful sense; as Paul Norton put it in The Age last week: “The Chinese economy is either becoming, or has become, capitalist, and… it’s perfectly possible for capitalism and capitalists to coexist happily with authoritarian and totalitarian political systems.” But that doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

Cooperation between China and conservative Australian governments goes back almost 30 years, to Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s – before the Chinese embraced market reforms. What has to be recognised is the importance of time lag in politics. In the early 1960s the Chinese fell out with the Soviet Union, but it took about 15 years for western politicians to respond.

Those on the right had cheerfully supported corrupt third-world dictators as long as they were anti-Soviet, so they had little difficulty in adding China to the pack. (Contrast this with India, which, although a democracy, was pro-Russian in foreign policy, and therefore shunned by the Right – as it still is.)

The radical Left, on the other hand, had been pro-Chinese in the 60s; a few stuck to that line and became rabidly anti-Soviet (remember Norm Gallagher?) but the majority drifted away from China as the Chinese became more and more friendly with countries like the US and Australia. Such is the power of inertia in politics: what’s happening today is largely a response to a Cold War that is over and an empire that no longer exists. We have buried the Soviet Union, but it continues to rule us from the grave.