It was, with apologies to JGA Pocock, the Schapellian Moment: everything unsavoury in the Australian character brought out by the plight of a young woman caught up in the terror of a foreign justice system. Our xenophobia, our racial and cultural snobbery, the ease with which we can be egged on by a tabloid media making a mint from our anger — this Midnight Express — Bali brought it all out: the death threats to Indonesians, the demands for boycotts, the willingness to entertain any absurd theory dreamt up by a journalist or defence lawyer.
And many of Schapelle’s outraged supporters made their tentative way onto the internet to sites like www.dontshootschapelle.com to rail against the vile Indonesians and the failure of the Howard Government to Do Something.
The febrile reaction of the local media made for quite a change from the 1970s. Back then the travails of Australian drug smugglers in Thai gaols were more the stuff of life lessons in our newspapers. They described the hell endured by the likes of former rugby league player Paul Hayward in gory detail as evidence of what fate awaited those who got mixed up in heroin trafficking. We nodded over our copy of The Sun and reflected that they were getting what they deserved.
We got another Schapellian moment, in miniature, earlier this year when beer mat mum Annice Smoel was temporarily inconvenienced by Thai authorities for theft. This unleashed a wave of tabloid fury that swarthy types would dare to arrest an Aussie mum who just wanted a good time with her mates. The little bastards wouldn’t even take her bribe. Aussie money not good enough for them, evidently.
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Smoel had great Schapellian potential, being not merely blonde and a mum but not charged with anything particularly serious, thereby neutralising the whole debate about whether she was actually guilty. Inconveniently for the Australian media, she was let go into the waiting arms of her children and, almost certainly, symbiotic life form Max Markson.
Stern Hu, however, has shoved all my patronising bogan-hate back in my face. Yes, true, Hu’s incarceration by the butchers of Beijing has not generated anything like the media coverage of Corby or even Smoel, whose ordeal occupied a number of tabloid front pages. But this case has quality not quantity: most of the Stern Hu coverage has been in the broadsheets, and in the op-ed sections, and it too has brought out plenty of kneejerk responses.
In short, Stern Hu (a name that is a gift to subeditors) is the broadsheets’ own Schapelle, almost perfectly designed to push the buttons of the commentariat in the same way as your ordinary punters had their buttons pushed by the Corby saga. No photogenic bogan boogeyboarder, true, but the perfect emblem of late noughties Rudd-era Oz: a Chinese-Australian mining executive front and centre in the negotiations over prices for Our Minerals, minerals that China Inc, our bogeyman/saviour, would love to get its panda paws on.
It’s not xenophobia unleashed by the arrest of Hu; the chattering class is too subtle for that. But any number of reflexive responses have emerged, and many of them are simply more complicated versions of what was revealed by Schapelle: the basic fear of what’s Out There, in places where the Aussie value of a fair go doesn’t hold sway.
Most obvious has been the inscrutable oriental stuff that seems to still pervade discussion of the Chinese Government, as though bullying and intimidation, and a complete lack of acquaintance with ideas like the rule of law, are just a mask for some long game, centuries — nay, millennia — in development, aimed at global domination. All carefully hidden beneath those blank, same-same faces.
Moreover, these are serious issues. Important issues. “Deep international politics — or at least the perception of deep politics, and that is enough — is involved here,” declared Rory Medcalf on his Lowy Institute “weblog” (whatever that is). What’s required therefore is Deep Thought from foreign policy analysts and old China hands. Paul Keating has emerged to repeat his long-term theme that we need to mollycoddle Beijing more or risk alienating the coming superpower. But there are plenty of sinophobes as well as sinophiles, or, more correctly, those who despise the Chinese Government. I should know because I’m one, and I readily joined in on that score earlier this week.
Then there’s the realpolitik school, commentators who like to show how tough they are by affecting a cynical air and trying for a Kissingerian basso profundo tone.
“The signs are that Australia is about to be taught another lesson in realpolitik,” intoned Paul Kelly, in words carefully weighed for their substance, gravitas and unutterable ponderousness.
“Rudd at some point will probably need to make concessions to China for Hu’s cause.”
Kelly evidently also has a direct line to the ChiCom politburo, stating in another column that the arrest was an internal signal of a move “to a more conservative, state-focused and security-conscious expression of power.” Because Beijing has been taking it easy on the whole state security thing until now.
For others, including a shrill Julie Bishop, it’s a sort of international sport, with Kevin Rudd to be judged — and inevitably found wanting — by how much he muscles up to the big boofy bloke in the red shirt.
And the speculation about the alleged crime has already started. There’s no cannabis in Hu’s luggage but there may have been cash in little brown envelopes. Experts on the ways of doing business in “the Middle Kingdom” (there’s that inscrutable thing again) are a dime a dozen offering advice on how they do things differently Over There.
The flipside of this obsessive media interest — and what is most galling — is that it won’t last long. In retrospect, it’s impressive that Schapelle hogged our attention for as long as she did, although it was strung along by moments such as p-rn magazines adding her to their Hottest Babes lists. The Chinese — and possibly our own Government — will be very aware that we’ll have forgotten about Stern Hu in a week or month, depending on how much more juice there is in the story.
Thereafter he’ll enter obscurity. Just ask James Peng, the Chinese-Australian businessman abducted by the Chinese Government from Macau in 1993, robbed of his company by the daughter of Deng Xiaoping and sent to prison. After initial media interest — “Shanghaied in Shenzhen” was one Herald Sun headline — he disappeared out of media consciousness until he was released — due, Alexander Downer boasted, to the Howard Government’s “terrier-like determination” — six years later.
Or for that matter ask Frederick Toben, who didn’t even get the initial media interest. This appalling Holocaust denier was, for putting his nonsensical views on the internet, abducted by British authorities from a plane stopping over at Heathrow on a flight to a third country, and subjected to imprisonment, harsh bail conditions and an extradition hearing for a German arrest warrant. Toben’s disgraceful treatment got virtually no media coverage of any kind in Australia except from Crikey and Brisbane broadcaster Michael Smith.
But then there were no simple stories to tell about Toben, no obvious lessons. He was a deeply unpleasant man who had his rights systematically and egregiously violated not by an brutal tyranny like China but the United Kingdom.
The exception is David Hicks, but the growing outcry over his incarceration reflected both an increasing contempt for the neo-con incompetents to whom the Howard Government had outsourced our foreign policy, and a savvy campaign by Hicks’s supporters. That campaign relied heavily on encouraging Australians to forget that he was a jihadist with a range of deeply offensive views and a demonstrated willingness to act on them, in favour of an image of a nice kid who’d made some mistakes and was paying too high a price for them.
The media loves a simple story to tell, you see. And the bulk of the Stern Hu coverage is about forcing his terrible situation into whatever neat narrative most commentators want to run with. Until the next story comes along, and that won’t be long.