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While the former prime minister dismisses hawkish fears, the reaction to his speech highlights the need for a coherent policy on Xi Jinping’s China. By Vicky Xiuzhong Xu.

Keating exposes China divide

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Paul Keating was everywhere this week – his right fist clenched, his face stern and disapproving. The photograph was snapped during the former prime minister’s speech to The Australian’s Strategic Forum on Monday and splashed across Tuesday’s papers. It circulated widely on social media, accompanied by praise and condemnation for the address, during which Keating said phobias have prevented the current government from adapting to China’s rise. He lambasted journalists and security agencies whose work has informed such policies.

His speech came in the wake of the “Xinjiang Papers”, a cache of 400 documents leaked from the Chinese Communist Party to The New York Times, which was published on Sunday. The papers provided a rare insight into the rationale and methods behind the detainment of an estimated 1.5 million Uygurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s north-west.

In the documents, the Chinese president instructed his party to transform the thoughts of Muslim minorities using the “organs of dictatorship” and showing “absolutely no mercy”. One official ordered his staff to “round up everyone who should be rounded up”. There was even a comprehensive guide teaching local officials what to say when students home for summer break found their parents had been locked up in a so-called “re-education camp”.

Keating made no mention of the Times’s revelations. Instead, he told the forum “China’s historical view is not rooted in ideological aspiration, universal or otherwise. It sees its legitimacy arising from its ethnic one-ness and bulk, and its geopolitical pre-eminence on the Asian mainland.”

Unlikely supporters emerged, while Labor allies, including Penny Wong, wouldn’t endorse the speech.

Economist James Laurenceson, acting director of the Australia–China Relations Institute, says that while there was “quite a bit to agree with” in Keating’s speech, “leaving out mention of issues like Xinjiang gave the impression these could be glossed over, which they absolutely can’t be”.

For Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, recently denied a visa to enter China over his outspoken criticisms of the country – along with his colleague Senator James Paterson – the significance of the Xinjiang Papers is clear.

“The leaked documents gave insight into the character of the regime. Penny Wong came out. Anthony Albanese, Richard Di Natale, Rex Patrick, among others,” he told The Saturday Paper. “So that’s a positive development.”

Thus far, Hastie has dismissed calls for him to “repent and redress”, as suggested by a Chinese government spokesperson last weekend in a statement about his visa denial.

“The relationship is on their terms,” says Hastie. “The expectation is that you self-censor, or you don’t get a visa. You self-censor or your business might suffer. It’s a lot harder now to walk the fine line between values and the economic relationship.”

The challenge presented by China doesn’t fall neatly inside traditional party lines – or political lines or ethnic lines – says Kevin Carrico, senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Monash University. As a result, “the China question” cuts many different ways.

Following Keating’s speech, federal Labor promised at the same forum to be more hawkish on the South China Sea – while in Victoria, the Andrews Labor government recently signed a new framework agreement under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The Liberal Party is generally more hawkish on China, but only recently, the Hong Kong-born Liberal MP Gladys Liu was in hot water for her alleged association with organisations under the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.

By the rubric that Tony Abbott defined for Angela Merkel back in 2015, the divide might be loosely grouped as those who choose “fear” and those who choose “greed” on China.

Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor has a more generous reading: “The divide can be distilled to groups of people within the Labor and Liberal parties who are more concerned about the money and trading relationships with China, and those who see that the Chinese government is a serial human rights abuser and has no respect for international norms and agreed laws.”

Last year, O’Connor faced backlash over her views on China. Repeated criticisms of Liberal premier Will Hodgman’s closeness with China prompted him to say, “The Leader of the Greens makes Pauline Hanson look balanced.

“There are people from China living in our state, wanting to enjoy a better life here, and you are making them feel miserable,” Hodgman said. He was forced to withdraw his comment about Senator Hanson.

In December, accusations emerged from within O’Connor’s party that her linking of Chinese interference efforts to a Hobart Council race was “racist dog whistling”. O’Connor rejects these suggestions: “I’ve been to China twice. I just love the country,” she says, but not the aggression displayed by the Xi Jinping government.

O’Connor’s experience highlights another fissure in debate around China – parsing where genuine fear about foreign interference ends and racism and xenophobia begin, and what are accusations of xenophobia deployed to mask actual efforts of interference.

Division and unease have been exacerbated by recent events. In the past week alone we’ve seen the leaked Xinjiang Papers, a violent siege at Hong Kong universities and the news that Australia had quietly ended its co-operation with China on human rights. Commentators say the discourse is shifting and there is growing urgency for politicians to pick a side on the question of whether Australia should take a more hardline stance towards Beijing.

China policy needs a new chapter, and there needs to be a sensible, calm and mature discussion and some form of consensus – but that simply isn’t happening.

Twice, Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick proposed a senate inquiry into Australia’s relationship with China. Twice the major parties rejected the proposal because they were, according to Patrick, “running scared”.

However, after two years of focused media reporting on China’s interference efforts in Australia and public debate about the China relationship, many agree that under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China is becoming increasingly authoritarian and willing to use its economic leverage to pressure and coerce Australia.

Parliamentarians are watching China closely. Labor senator Kimberley Kitching points to human rights concerns, the repeated hackings of the parliamentary system, Australian intellectual property that’s being taken offshore illicitly – in some cases used to surveil a populace – Hong Kong and the Chinese government’s potential breach of the “one country, two systems” agreement, and also trade.

“There is awareness of the complexity of the relationship, and there is also unease because of that,” says Kitching.

Earlier this year, alongside Hastie, Kitching formed a parliamentary friendship group to advocate against foreign interference. Next month, they will hold an event where some 20 parliamentarians across different parties will listen to talks from China experts. “A year ago, that just wasn’t happening,” Hastie says.

Both on and off the record, China watchers mostly agreed on one point – Keating’s take on China was a little disappointing. They say the idea that, simply by engaging with China, the country will naturally open up and gradually shift to a democratic and civil society is now proving outdated.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Paul Keating. But he’s lost a lot of his shine in my eyes because he’s running tired old lines about another China from another time,” says O’Connor.

For both major parties, unresolved problems remain. The recent New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings exposed more of NSW Labor’s unhealthy relationship with proxies for the Chinese government. The Liberals’ Gladys Liu still has not explained herself in the parliament. And there are also growing frictions between federal and state politicians on China, as some state governments favour policies, including the Belt and Road Initiative, that benefit local economies.

Neither major political party has a coherent framework for China policy. When pressed, matters are decided, and opinions are offered on a case-by-case basis. And the fact that debates about modern China are often emotional makes it all the harder.

“We’re dealing with very serious issues here,” says James Laurenceson. “If you’re a human rights activist in China … if you have a friend who’s detained, it’s perfectly understandable to be emotional on these issues.

“And if you’re an Australian farmer, or someone who works in sectors like tourism … you just want to get on with your job. If your business is threatened by the bilateral relationship, you would have some strong views.”

But for others, the China issue – at the end of the day – is not one about politics or emotion but empathy.

“It doesn’t matter what your politics are,” says Cassy O’Connor. “Australians, we’re not a perfect people, but culturally, we do have this fair go principle.

“Just look at those kids in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of empathy and understanding of those students – and every other citizen of Hong Kong – literally putting their lives on the line for freedom. That has changed the discourse in how we talk about China and hopefully is a step forward for us to understand more and clearer about China.”

Meanwhile though, politicians continue to use the China issue to attack their political opponents. “Both sides of the political spectrum in Australia are happy to criticise the PRC [People’s Republic of China] party state interference when it relates to the other side of the spectrum,” says Kevin Carrico.

“The Chinese government is eager to, and has managed to, cultivate links to both major political parties, but political parties seem uninterested in engaging with the issue when it relates to their own.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Keating exposes China divide". Subscribe here.

Vicky Xiuzhong Xu
is a journalist and a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.