Andrew Hastie Beijing Yang Hengjun
Liberal MP Andrew Hastie (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The education tours arranged by Australian interest group China Matters were bound to end in tears. All it was ever going to take to scuttle the efforts of the organisers to improve bilateral understanding through parliamentary visits was for Australian politicians to speak their minds and shine a light on issues that Beijing prefers to keep in the shade. Not hard to see that coming.

To anyone familiar with the current leadership in China, it could hardly have come as a surprise, either, that Beijing would refuse to issue visas for Liberal politicians Andrew Hastie and James Paterson on account of things they said. How often do officials in Beijing need to tell Australians to shut up or suffer the consequences for that message to hit home?

But a closer look at the language in which the embassy couched its response suggests that the idea of parliamentary education tours to China was not just unworkable but fundamentally ill-conceived.

The China Matters team billed the event as a “nuanced” education tour. For Beijing it was a re-education tour – an effort behind closed doors to convert the tourists to the Communist Party’s point of view. The idea of education as re-education is implicit in the embassy’s response.

As long as people genuinely “repent”, the embassy declared, the door remains open to all Australians. No further correspondence on this matter will be entered into as “China will never yield to colonisation of ideas and values”.

The phrasing of the embassy’s response is eerily similar to the language employed by officials in Beijing in trying to explain why they are holding a million Uyghur Muslims in forced education camps in Xinjiang: it’s about education, repentance, and awakening. Australians appear to be in need of similar treatment.

Official documents recently leaked to The New York Times illustrate how this kind of education is explained to the family members and friends of those incarcerated in Xinjiang. Officials concede that people undergoing forced education have done nothing wrong. Still, they harbour “unhealthy thoughts” that need to be remedied through education. For those who take part in the forced education programs and then sincerely repent, awaken, and embrace the beliefs of the party, the door of the prison will be open too.

The embassy’s remark that the door “will always remain open” if Hastie and Paterson “repent and redress their mistakes” echoes these official explanations of mass forced re-education because both stem from a common set of assumptions about authority and education under party rule. The party is both absolutely powerful and absolutely correct and there is no room for disagreement.

The party is also exceptionally generous in extending its forgiveness to people with unhealthy thoughts who publicly recant. In the case of Xinjiang, according to the Times, critics of the internment policies are told to be grateful for the party’s help and to stay quiet. For Australians, the message is that the door is open to those who appreciate the party’s generosity and remain silent.

This is where the party’s claim that it won’t tolerate colonisation of ideas and values starts to come unstuck. Its antiquated language of repentance, reform, and awakening is itself a colonial borrowing from Japanese prison reform initiatives of the colonial era and from Christian conversion-moralising of the same period.

Christian conversion language was transplanted into the party lexicon through 19th century hymns and sermons which missionaries translated into Chinese and recited in that country’s church halls and public squares before circulating them through the new mass commercial presses they founded around the turn of the 20th century. Preeminent nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, a Christian himself, transposed many Western missionary terms such as ‘conversion’ and ‘awakening’ into a colloquial nationalist vocabulary which was fused with Leninism in the early protocols of the Chinese Communist Party.  

When party leaders speak of the need for repentance and conversion to their point of view, they follow a colonial logic more potent than any that Australians can muster, a colonial logic of their own devising.

Of course there is a vast difference between being held in camps and being told you can’t visit China. But when it comes to being lectured at by party authorities, Australians don’t like being colonized any more than the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.

Peter Fray

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