Xinjiang China
Police officers and border guards patrol the Musi Island Glacier in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, China, on May 23, 2021 (Image: A Ran/Costfoto/Sipa USA)

For a profession that believes it’s writing the “rough first draft of history,” it’s a shame so much journalism is ahistorical. The news cycle has little time to dwell deeply on the complexities of the past and how they shape our present.

Nowhere is that more evident than in much of the analysis of our troubled relationship with China. The conventional narrative — of Australian sovereignty on the brink, of an uncompromising Beijing demanding we bend to its will — is an article of faith which frames most stories on China these days.

There’s truth to all that. And yet what reporting struggles to do is explain the why. Why do we view China’s superpower behaviour as uniquely evil while seeking comfort in American hegemony? Why did our spies come in from the cold and start sounding the alarm on China? Why do we fulminate over some human rights abuses and merely shrug at others?

University of Sydney historian David Brophy tries to answer the why in his new book, China Panic, the latest in a glut of recent tomes (all written by white men) about the torrid state of relations with our biggest trading partner.

Brophy is, of course, a white man. But he’s also a historian of modern China, who crucially specialises in Xinjiang, the sprawling “autonomous region” in China’s far west which has been the centre of the regime’s persecution of the Uyghurs. His insights on Xinjiang alone, based on firsthand experience watching the ramping up of surveillance and repression, are worth reading.

Seeking to pose an alternative to the hawkish, often shrill attitude around China means Brophy picks many targets. One is Clive Hamilton, the progressive academic turned China doomsdayer, who frequently warns Australia is on the brink of a hostile takeover.

Another is the fourth estate itself. China panic, Brophy writes, “has given journalists carte blanche to lob sensational stories into the public domain without anyone going back and checking if they stood up”.

Is this fair? Brophy argues journalists have been far too cosy with security agencies, willing to write up their drops uncritically. He also makes interesting parallels between Australia’s China panic, which kicked off about 2017, and Russiagate in the US, gathering steam around the same time.

Both narratives centred on a sinister, meddlesome foreign power. As Brophy explains, there was much cross-pollination between the domestic national security establishment and their American counterparts during this period. But the Mueller report fizzed, and Russiagate is all but forgotten now. It’s not a perfect parallel, but as a cautionary tale of how paranoia about an evil empire can lead to journalism that places too much faith in spooks, and tries to join dots that simply aren’t there, it’s instructive.

I suspect many journalists might feel slightly aggrieved. In The Australian Financial Review, Aaron Patrick hastily dismissed China Panic as “tendentious ideological analysis”. Instead Patrick believes we need objective journalism on China. True. But we also need an understanding of how history and ideology shaped our moment, which is what Brophy is well placed to do.

Where other recent China books, like the Red Zone, from The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher, take US hegemony as an inevitable, positive feature of our world, Brophy tries to deconstruct the why.

Australia’s ties to the US, for Brophy, are in part a product of our historical role as a “sub-imperial power” doing the hegemon’s bidding in return for our own little patch of hegemony in the Asia Pacific. It’s why we see China’s activity in the Pacific — building things and doing aid — as malevolent, fears we’ve held about the region before. And it’s why when China rises, behaves like any superpower does, and seriously challenges American supremacy in the Asia Pacific, so much of our defence and national security establishment have responded with alarm bells, taking cues with an influential US Lobby whose influence is frequently overlooked.

As an academic historian, Brophy is perhaps sometimes guilty of spending a little too long dwelling in the past. Still, maybe that’s the point. The historical depth allows Brophy to dig into the weeds of our China panic, and shatter some of the more annoying shibboleths that abound.

One particularly stupid phrase that gets tossed around is the “rules-based international order”. China’s threat, we are told, lies in its failure to abide by the “rules”. Brophy explains such a notion is essentially meaningless in a world where the US (and in fact Australia) frequently opt out of international law-making bodies, and throw their support behind autocracies.

“There’s an obvious contradiction between rules,” he writes, “and the role of a privileged lone superpower in maintaining them.”

On racism too, Brophy explains how Australia’s history of exclusion and xenophobia means the inevitable conclusion of over-hyped language about Australia’s sovereignty under siege is a climate where Chinese Australians will always be treated as a suspicious fifth column.

Brophy’s most important contribution to the discourse is his attempt to chart a progressive course on how to deal with China. Most of the voices dissenting from hawkish dogma are billionaires like Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and Kerry Stokes, who as Brophy explains have a vested economic interest in business as usual. The left, meanwhile, is tied up in knots on the China issue, and struggles to find a middle ground between Hamilton’s warnings of invasion, and those who can be far too easily characterised as regime apologists.

Brophy is a progressive who falls into neither camp. Maybe his book is ideological. But unlike others writing on China, he doesn’t shy away from ideology. That’s a good thing.

China Panic, David Brophy, La Trobe University Press, $32.99

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Singapore

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