(Image: AAP/Private Media)

For decades, and in the face of evidence, Australian policymakers have told themselves they could compartmentalise when it came to Australia’s relationship with China: the grisly, brutal nature of the Communist Party’s tyranny could be put to one side as a “difference of values”, as something to be overlooked in the focus on its extraordinary success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, while we got on with the business of making as much money as possible from the huge Chinese market.

In time, this created a Sinophile lobby in Australia — successful, well-connected business people for whom making money from China was the only goal, and everything else, certainly human rights, but eventually, Australia’s sovereignty and security itself, should be subordinated to that.

But murder, as they say, will out. The horrific nature of the regime would eventually be put on such vivid display as to make the compartmentalisation no longer possible.

It happened to Bob Hawke, who in a few years went from boasting of a “very special relationship” between China and Australia to tearfully condemning the mass slaughter in Tiananmen Square.

Now it’s happened to the Coalition — mugged by the reality that China is a hostile, brutal major power that believes it can act with impunity — and probably can.

It’s hard to overstate Tony Abbott’s slavish embrace of China when prime minister — and the support he got from News Corp at the time. The rhetoric around Abbott’s trade agreement with China, as Crikey showed yesterday, was ridiculously overheated.

Things hadn’t changed since Tiananmen — the Chinese Communist Party had just become more effective at enforcing its will, creating a state surveillance system far beyond Orwell’s most dystopic dreams. Its suppression of Tibetans continued apace. Its genocidal oppression of Uyghurs — in the name of counter-terrorism — has been known about for over a decade, and has only escalated in recent years.

None of that shifted the needle for Australian policymakers, who could see only the commercial opportunities of the Chinese market.

The same brutal awakening is now the lot of the current generation of politicians and senior bureaucrats. You can’t compartmentalise with a monster. Once again, its brutal oppression has been on display in Hong Kong, even if there aren’t tanks and piles of student corpses (yet). And the brutality has been directed toward Australia. Just a little, mind — a nasty tweet, some trade sanctions, more of the usual overblown rhetoric from the permanently febrile state press.

There are still many who hope for a “reset” with China, including Scott Morrison. A “reset” means going back to a world where we could pretend to overlook the grotesque brutality of Beijing and Beijing pretended Australia was anything more than an irritant in a region it expects to dominate — and everyone could make a lot of money. But it won’t change the reality of what the Chinese Communist Party really is.

Peter Fray

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