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(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

It’s been some years since the editor of China’s Global Times, Hu Xijin, took time out from his busy schedule to belittle Australia.

A few days ago, he did just that. Referring to himself under the avuncular moniker “Old Hu” he informed his Chinese-language social media followers that in recent years he has “not bothered to pay attention to Australia, not drafted a single editorial targeting the country.

“I have not even raised the matter on Weibo, video or twitter. It’s because I fear no one will bother to read what I have to say.”

But now that Australia was “prevaricating” once again on matters important to China, he went on, Old Hu had no choice but to return to this irritating subject.

“I feel [Australia] is a bit like a piece of chewed up gum stuck under China’s shoe. Sometimes you just have to find a stone and scrape it off.”    

The last time Old Hu bothered to belittle Australia was during the 2018 G20 meeting in Argentina. At that time he published an editorial in Global Times insisting that Beijing should teach Australia a lesson by rejecting all friendly gestures coming out of Canberra.

Global Times is an authorised party mouthpiece that sits at the more chauvinistic or bellicose end of official opinion on international affairs within the Chinese leaderships.

Its opinion pieces often make lively reading but they are not as a rule taken seriously in Canberra or even in Beijing.

China was a country governed by principles, Old Hu wrote in 2018, and should “stick to those principles … and make Australia pay for its arrogant attitudes it has revealed towards China”.

The provocation that sparked that editorial was a statement by Julie Bishop repeating Australia’s well-known position on the South China Sea at the G20 gathering of foreign ministers. To Old Hu this was a fit of arrogance not to be tolerated. 

On that occasion he prescribed a range of punishments for Australia’s arrogance reaching from indifference to slow slicing — first “leave Australia hanging for a while” by delaying ministerial visits and then cut away at Australian imports by giving preference to American wine and foodstuffs over Australian producers. 

This should get the message across to Canberra that Australia had “limited strength and influence globally” and compel it to reconsider the balance between its trade policies and its alliance politics.

More than that, it would send a clear message to other countries that if they elected to follow Australia’s lead and showed a similarly “arrogant attitude” toward the “hand that feeds it” they would not be spared punishment either.

Other nations would learn from the Australian experience “that there are no benefits for any country that chooses to take provocative measures against China”.

This theme of Australian arrogance featured earlier still in a number of Global Times articles published at a time when accusations of Chinese government interference were making headlines in Australia.

Rather than consider the evidence, Global Times targeted Australia’s presumption in even imagining China would do such a thing. Australians were deluding themselves to think Beijing would deem them worth the time, effort, or trouble of trying to influence them. What in Australia could possibly be worth influencing? What could a remote, insignificant place like Australia offer a great and powerful country like China?

Old Hu fell silent until this week when China’s ambassador to Australia drew on some of his suggestions for curing Australian arrogance in an interview with the Australian Financial Review.

Ambassador Cheng Jingye predicted a consumer boycott of Australian wine and beef — and threw in education and tourism for good measure — if Canberra persisted in irritating Beijing by pressing for a public inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19. 

For Old Hu this was an opportunity not to be missed and he found time to dust off his thumbs and take to social media to teach Australia another lesson.

Old Hu and Ambassador Cheng have certainly taught Australians a few lessons.

One is that the rantings of a self-opinionated media guru who was once considered an eccentric outlier in China’s foreign policy space turn out to be a fairly reliable predictor of  where China is heading under Xi Jinping.

Now that China’s foreign ministry has begun incorporating threats and rants into its normal operating procedures, we may need to start taking Global Times seriously.

The second is a lesson about the hierarchical mindset that Beijing brings to international relations. Under Xi Jinping, China aspires to refashion the regional political order after its own hierarchical, authoritarian and deferential style of government.

In this order, political scientist Christopher Ford points out, political authority operates along a vertical axis of hierarchical deference to a lead actor, rather than along a horizontal axis of pluralist interaction among equal sovereign states.

All states falling under the shadow of the new order need to know and to accept their subordinate position in a framework of authority culminating in Beijing, and to abide by its norms and rules. These include deference.

Preservation of limited national sovereignty is predicated on ritual displays of respect for the regime in Beijing that sets and polices the rules. Under these rules, governments need to refrain from commentary or conduct that could possibly offend the party leadership in Beijing.

And under these rules a great power cannot be arrogant, just great. A small country cannot be great, just arrogant

Third, Old Hu’s chauvinistic style offers a window on everyday life for a Tibetan or Uighur or other non-Han minority subject to the contempt of people in power. Beijing’s emerging foreign policy style is an international extension of the authoritarian and hierarchical style of rule at home that demands deference from subjects and minorities.  

It’s a reminder as well of the contempt shown towards China’s own rights lawyers and democratic activists, towards street protesters in Hong Kong, and to ordinary citizens in Taiwan living under the threat of blockade and invasion.

Australia could count itself lucky to be just a piece of chewed-up gum.

Looking forward, we can hope that Old Hu finds the time to tell us what comes next, after his great country has scraped this petty one from its boots. Australians are proving to be quick and adaptive learners. They don’t want to wait another two years.

Peter Fray

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