And China looks to the past for inspiration. By Hamish McDonald.

APEC, East Asia Summit and the G20 summits bring leaders to Asia Pacific

Myanmar’s president Thein Sein prepares for a photo, before the curtain’s rise on this week’s East Asia Summit  in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
Myanmar’s president Thein Sein prepares for a photo, before the curtain’s rise on this week’s East Asia Summit in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
Credit: Lynn Bo Bo / EPA / Corbis

A surreal week of summitry starts for world leaders on Monday when they gather for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation bash in Beijing, where the celestial city’s air has been made temporarily breathable by shutting down industry and private motoring. They then move on to Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s garish capital built in the wilderness by a demented military dictator, for the East Asia Summit, and finally end next week in our very own Brissie for the Group of 20 meeting.

Tony Abbott will be at all of them, no doubt hoping to continue the upward movement in his poll ratings, apparently a result of his embarkation on a third Gulf war and other foreign policy diversions. Around the Brisbane meeting, too, are bilateral visits by India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping.

Less exotic as its venue may be, the G20 summit could be pivotal if the leaders choose to make it that way. The grouping includes most of the big Atlantic economies, Japan, and the big new industrial economies including China and India. The emerging agenda, it seems increasingly, is to stop the world economy sliding into depression. Two of its big engines, Japan and the euro zone, are slipping back into stagnation and deflation, with the European Central Bank about to follow the Bank of Japan into massive “quantitative easing”, i.e. printing money. A third engine, China, is slowing significantly, and while the United States is about to ease the monetary throttle later this year its central bankers are not dismissing the possibility of more revving up if needed.

After the Lehman Brothers crash in 2008, the G20 was instrumental in devising the co-ordinated fiscal and monetary stimulus measures that kept the damage at recession rather than depression. Britain’s Gordon Brown, with backing from Kevin Rudd, took the lead in that exercise. This time, who might it be? The American, Japanese and European leaders are prevented by political gridlock from taking the steps emerging as an economic consensus: linking the monetary easing to infrastructure spending. Instead, the money is flowing into asset bubbles, including Australian housing.

Unfortunately, the hosts in Brisbane seem unlikely to provide much guidance. Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey will be parading their fiscal rigour in making education and healthcare more expensive, trumpeting their “roads of the 21st century” and lauding the virtues of coal. Near-zero interest rates and Australia’s low sovereign debt suggest there’ll be no better time to build the infrastructure of the future. Dare anyone suggest inter-city high-speed rail instead of new airports, urban mass transit instead of clogged tollways, or renewable energy, a national gas pipeline grid (in this week of Whitlam’s funeral), or even fibre-to-the-home broadband?

1 . China looks to the past for inspiration

How much will Xi Jinping give away about his long-term vision for the Chinese political system when he mixes with the foreign leaders in Beijing? How many will dare to quiz him about the great contradiction between his emphasis on constitutionality and rule of law (dutifully rubberstamped at the Communist Party’s latest central committee meeting), and his efforts to purify and perpetuate single-party dictatorship?

Xi will be wearing his usual dark suit and tie, or perhaps a tailored Mao jacket, but increasingly there is the swish of imperial yellow silk around his pronouncements.

In recent speeches, Xi has gone back deep into Chinese history for lessons. Pointing out that tradition “can offer beneficial insights for governance and wise rule”, Xi has cited Han Fei, a Chinese aristocrat who advised rulers 2200 years ago that: “When those who uphold the law are strong, the state is strong.”

This is mixed in with precepts recalling Mao or Stalin rather than the ancient sages, such as those in a recent speech on art and architecture. “Fine artworks should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.” Artists should not be “slaves” of the market or “lose themselves in the tide of market economy nor go astray while answering the question of ‘whom to serve’, otherwise their works will lack vitality.” They should check they haven’t “distorted the classics, toppled history, failed to distinguish right from wrong or good from evil.” Architects should avoid “strange buildings”.

“China is again slowly turning in on itself,” American scholar Carl Minzner wrote in the Los Angeles Times last month. “New party slogans stress ‘traditional’ culture and values. The language of Confucianism is increasingly being invoked to legitimise a new dynasty of red emperors. Windows are being shut. State researchers are being warned against foreign collaboration. Archives previously open to Western scholars are being closed off. And Beijing is reaching for a fly swatter – or a hammer – to deal with influences it perceives as threats.”

Beneath the Red Emperor, a new aristocracy seems to be forming. The Australian National University’s Geremie Barmé notes that of the 48 high-level Communist Party cadres, military officers and state officials arrested in Xi’s anti-corruption purge so far, none have been from the so-called “Red Second Generation” − those like Xi himself who are children of the Communist Party founders or stalwarts of the new People’s Republic founded in 1949. All have been parvenus, first-generation successes from humble backgrounds. (The fall of Bo Xilai, son of a revolution-era marshal, took place separately to Xi’s campaign, in early 2012.)

“It goes without saying that, in the murky corridors of Communist power, an impressive number of party gentry progeny, or the offspring of the Mao-era nomenclatura, have been implicated in corrupt practices, but word has it that, like the well-connected elites of other climes, they’ve enjoyed a ‘soft landing’: being discretely relocated, shunted into delicate retirement or quietly ‘redeployed’,” Barmé writes on the website of the ANU’s Australian Centre on China in the World. “It’s all very comfy; and it’s all very business as usual.”

He adds that even more blatantly, “members of the privileged families of the party-state have gone on the record to observe why they are above the grimy business of corruption”. For example, Zhou Bingde, a niece of Zhou Enlai, proclaimed: “The reason that bureaucrats from a Red Second Generation background are only very rarely involved in corruption is that they have inherited the tradition from their parents of placing the People and the Nation above all.”

As Ju Qiang, a professor of “management psychology” at Shanghai’s Fudan University opined: “Bureaucrats who come from extreme poverty in youth easily fall prey to vile excesses of corruption, whoring and gambling. Observe the progeny of high-level bureaucrats: of course, they too will go after making money but most of them do not indulge in it with unseemly haste.”

Having reintroduced knights and dames himself, perhaps Abbott could suggest to Xi that he brings back the ancient Chinese peerage for these noble beings.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 8, 2014 as "Another GFC looms if politics curbs G20".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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