For a long time, the Left had a big problem with China, best summed up by uni students who could be seen wearing Mao caps and Free Tibet t-shirts. Just as people wearing Che Guevara t-shirts rarely understood they were displaying the face of a terrorist and mass murderer, young people championing Tibetan freedom while wearing the accoutrements of the cult of Mao were invariably unaware of the imbecility of their clothing.

Which more or less summed up most of the post-war Left.

At some point in recent years, Mao dropped off the radar as an icon of revolutionary coolness, although only partly as a consequence of the realisation that he was a homicidal maniac on an unprecedented scale. Apart from a few lunatic terrorist groups, Chinese communism ceased to be relevant ideologically, primarily because it could no longer be differentiated from capitalism. The mainstream Left’s reflexive support for nationalism of any kind and human rights had long since become far stronger.

The ALP, as a party of the left that had accepted mainstream capitalism, felt it had a particular understanding of China. Gough Whitlam, as Opposition Leader, went to meet Mao. Bob Hawke later absurdly declared that Australia had a “special relationship” with China. Both men were of course being played for fools by the butchers and gangsters who have always made up the Chinese Communist party. The scales partly fell from Hawke’s eyes in 1989, to be replaced by the tears he shed while consoling Chinese students after Tiananmen Square. Not that the incident stopped Hawke from pursuing a successful business career in China after politics.

More recently it has been the Right that has had trouble processing China. For decades, China was a totemic anti-communist issue. The Republican question “who lost China” shaped US foreign policy right until that old redbaiter Richard Nixon himself went to China. China’s attitude to human rights and — critically for Republicans — religious freedom thereafter shaped years of hostility. In Australia we had the added fear of the domino effect, in which Chinese communism would, as if pulled by gravity, tumble down the map of South East Asia toward our shores.

By the 1980s, however, business had already started to see China differently from their political representatives. So much low-wage labour, so few civil rights – and a huge market. Well worth overlooking any reservations about minor issues like slave labour, religious repression, systematic abuse of basic human rights and institutionalised corruption. There were fortunes to be made in China.

In time, human rights issues came to be replaced with economic issues, and in particular, China’s high rate of domestic saving and its refusal to float its currency. It turned out that China’s vast population wasn’t such a good market if they refused to spend and China kept its currency undervalued. Protectionism — the one thing that can be guaranteed to unite business and unions — began rearing its fugly head. With China’s rise to economic eminence, Chinese investment became the new fixation. The close links, if not total ownership, of Chinese firms by the Chinese Government became the basis for investment Sinophobia. It was a Republican-dominated Congress that in effect knocked back CNOOC’s bid for UNOCAL.

In Australia, one of John Howard’s few, and underappreciated, foreign policy successes was to maintain a solid relationship with China despite being the Bush Administration’s strongest ally. But the Coalition is now in the throes of the biggest Red Scare since the 1950s.

This in part driven by Coalition resentment that it has been far less successful than the ALP at cultivating business people from the Chinese diaspora, and companies with links to China. As even Glenn Milne pointed out on the weekend, if the Coalition resents the fact that the ALP gets far more donations than they do from Chinese-linked interests, they could always vote for a ban on foreign donations to political parties. Oh, hang on, they had the chance to do that only a couple of weeks ago, and voted to retain foreign donations.

That’s a bit more than the usual level of political hypocrisy.

But it also reflects a view that there is political capital to be made from the fact that Kevin Rudd is perceived as a Sinophile. You can understand why this is attractive to the Coalition. Remember John Howard’s humiliation at APEC in 2007 when Rudd effortlessly upstaged him by speaking in Mandarin? What greater satisfaction could there be for the Liberal Party than to turn that into a political weapon against him?

That’s the basis for Malcolm Turnbull’s complaint that the Prime Minister is prosecuting China’s interests rather than Australia’s by advocating China be given greater power within the IMF. On this basis, any utterance at the G20 out of Kevin Rudd’s mouth other than “Aussie Aussie Aussie oi oi oi” is evidently grounds for treason. It’s also a bit rich for a party that outsourced Australia’s foreign policy to the White House between 2001 and 2007 to allege that a Prime Minister is preferring another country’s interests over his own.

It’s telling that the Opposition is being rather coy about what exactly is wrong with having relationships with Chinese-born business people. Lenore Taylor’s description of this as “dog-whistling” is bang on the money.

Turnbull and his underemployed shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey are probably very miffed about Wayne Swan’s Minmetals decision, which inconveniently came out just when Hockey was claiming a “pattern of behaviour” relating to Labor and China. Neither had much to say about the actual decision.

There’s also this line that Government ministers meeting senior Chinese politicians without — gasp! — telling the press is suggestive of a cover-up. Unfortunately, senior bureaucrats are prevented from explaining the number of times that John Howard met with foreign politicians, not to mention diplomats, without letting journalists know, but it would have been a regular occurrence. Perhaps almost as regular as the briefings and meetings public servants hold with visiting Chinese delegations, which are a staple of bureaucratic life at the Commonwealth level.

And then there’s briefings given to foreign diplomats about Government major initiatives. Under the Howard Government, US diplomats were given briefings by Commonwealth bureaucrats about major domestic reforms being planned, on the basis that they might affect US interests. The briefings did not include confidential material, but were before public announcements about policies.

Shocked? That’s the way governments do business. A very great deal happens out of sight of the media.

Absent from all this game-playing about how and how closely we engage with China is the basic, rather sordid reality that China’s systematic, flagrant and despicable breaches of human rights have been conveniently overlooked in the rush to embrace it as ours, and the world’s, economic saviour. Right now, China could blockade Taiwan and assassinate the Dalai Lama with barely a word of protest from the rest of the world. And both sides of politics are equally guilty of that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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