Fascinating story in this morning’s Age about a senior Chinese general, Liu Yazhou, who has publicly called for China to adopt Western-style democracy to safeguard its future. According to John Garnaut, Liu writes in a Hong Kong magazine, Phoenix, that “The secret of US success is … its long-surviving rule of law and the system behind it”, and that “Democracy is the most urgent; without it there is no sustainable rise.”

Confirmation of a serious debate on the issue comes from a BBC report that a group of Chinese scholars have criticised their country’s “unprecedented conceit and arrogance”, and called for greater allegiance to universal values.

Public discussion of such issues in China is tightly restricted: anyone wanting to promote reform has to either be very careful or have powerful patrons within the Communist Party hierarchy (General Liu is political commissar of the National Defence University). Political dissent is a dangerous business.

But what’s our excuse? How can it be that the prospects of democratisation in China receive less discussion in free and democratic Australia than they do in China itself?

This is going to be the biggest story in our part of the world in coming decades, bar none. How will political reform come to China: will it be gradual or sudden, peaceful or violent? How deep will the economic trauma be? Will decolonisation snowball into fragmentation, or will a militaristic backlash engulf China’s neighbors?

General Liu may be unduly optimistic when he says that “in the coming 10 years, a transformation from power politics to democracy will inevitably take place”, but there is no room for doubt that some sort of transition is on the way, and it would be idle to expect that Australia can remain unaffected.

Australia’s media and politicians ceaselessly remind us, with good cause, of how deeply our economic prosperity is tied up with China, but the coverage never scratches the surface of what that means. Instead it gives every impression that China is a normal country like any other, rather than a dictatorship with a precarious future.

Our politicians would offer the excuse that it would be bad for business to offend China’s leaders — ignoring the fact that moral cowardice is not a good way to earn respect. It is also short sighted, since the next generation of Chinese leaders might not appreciate our present attitude: having been on first-name terms with General Suharto, for example, is not much of a ticket to influence in today’s Indonesia.

But just as with the hollowness of our present election campaign, the media are the enablers in this. Instead of offering their own analysis, or at least calling some of the politicians to account, they join them in burying their heads in the sand.

In fact, media and politicians share the same fundamental flaws. They are chronically short-term in their focus, being unable to look beyond (at best) the next election, and rarely beyond the next day’s headlines. They are disinclined, whether through incompetence or lack of interest, to examine deep issues. And they worship power: their focus rarely moves from the people at the top to embrace the outsiders and the proponents of change.

Public dissatisfaction with the election coverage has been given a serious voice in a few places by critics such as Crikey’s Guy Rundle, so maybe pressure will eventually mount for change. But if turmoil in China is just around the corner, the failings of our political and media culture will be even more dramatically revealed.