Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Stern Hu affair is a worrying preview of a world run on China’s rules

The Chinese are happy to call Australia their true friend until we dare to question their unarguable rightness.

They are faraway times now, but before Stern Hu was interred in the bowels of a Shanghai star chamber, maybe he sampled the beaches of southern Sri Lanka, or trekked into that wild panhandle of north-eastern Afghanistan that juts into China. Or maybe he’d been to Mandalay, most anywhere in Africa or to the most venal border town I’ve ever had the misfortune to be trapped in overnight, a nasty Chinese railhead called Suifenfe, populated with the most ferocious prostitutes servicing timber merchants on their way to waste Russia’s forested far east.
If Hu — or Kevin Rudd for that matter — had spent time in any of those places, he’d better understand why he’s now designated an Enemy of the Chinese People, about as serious a charge the Chinese Communist Party can lay, and presumed guilty of whatever
crime it chooses, before the unlikely event he is released from his nightmare into the arms of Rio Tinto, his family and an outraged Australia.
On that Lankan seascape, in Burma, Afghanistan and all those other miserably poor places where just a fraction of China’s $2 trillion pile goes a very long way, he’ll have seen myriad
Chinese quietly doing their solemn patriotic duty for the party’s cherished zu guo — guaranteeing the motherland’s economic security by plundering foreign mines and oilfields, building Chinese-run ports, refineries and airports, painstakingly assembling a quasi-sovereign supply chain that connects the raw stuff fuelling the ‘economic miracle’ to
toiling minions back home, who export it as finished products back to us. This network is all centrally supervised by Beijing, and it will never be finished. No other country so obscures the boundaries between State and Mammon on such an industrial nationally-interested scale. It’s an awesome undertaking, but get in the way of it, by having too much say in pricing commodities fuelling a strategic industry like, well, steel, then China will try to permanently excise you from the game.
Such is how the dragon is fed and stable, which keeps the Chinese Communist Party in power. And to the leadership untouchable behind the vermilion walls of the Zhongnanhai
compound in central Beijing, that’s all that really matters. To them, people like Stern Hu and the fuss raised around him are barely noticeable wrinkles in fulfilling their mandate of
heaven: to make China as economically independent as possible within the world’s sovereign inconveniences. For which, read Western influence.
The rights of the individual are surrendered to those of the party and China, which are ideologically indivisible anyway. And, as China doesn’t mind reminding us by demanding we butt out, apparently it’s in all our collective interest to submit.
So get used to it. China Inc will soon enough be the world’s biggest economy — it is already banking the GFC-crippled US — and the Pax Sinica’s rules of engagement will not be as nearly so benign or negotiable as the Western democratic systems it replaces. China’s starting point of negotiation is to demand agreement with its terms, and then engagement happens. China states its inarguable correctness, which you must accept because if you don’t someone else will get the deal, and there is a long line behind you. You are China’s ‘true friend’ until mutual interests do not align. Stern Hu’s dramas are a window into our
economic future, how a Sinosphere might work. And if it doesn’t sometimes, China blames everyone but itself. But it’s important that Hu happened, because now we know.
There’s a lot of cultural and ideological baggage in all this: China’s ‘5,000 years of history’ that the party manipulates to suit itself; the innate belief — exemplified by the two characters denoting China — that it is the ‘central nation’, the very centre of civilisation; the correcting of ancient foreign (colonial) wrongs against China; a paranoid insecurity stemming from the historical fact that China is inherently chaotic — one reason why the Chinese are the world’s biggest and most widely-spread diaspora — but now countered by the party’s absolute conviction that its rule, even today’s pragmatic crypto-commie version, is indisputably correct and was historically inevitable, another absolute truth that brooks no discussion. As it reminds us daily, the CCP is the only regime in Chinese history to adequately feed and house its masses, and unite and secure (almost) all the territory historically claimed as Chinese.
‘China is totally non-transparent,’ says Richard McGregor, former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times. ‘The legal system is explicitly under the control of the party, and even if there was a genuine case against Rio for corruption of some kind, it’s unlikely that it could credibly made by the Chinese. That system is so tightly bound in politics that it is incapable of transmitting a plausible message about the rule of law. By all appearances, the Stern Hu case is about the system reasserting itself, to regain political control over a strategic industry, and using old-fashioned methods of state security to do so.’
Of the welter of commentaries on Hu’s — and Australia’s — predicament, perhaps the most sinister came from the Chinese themselves, via an Australian placeman. Writing in the Age, and unencumbered by appropriate designation, one Mark Crosby last week suggested Hu was roadkill on the way to a promised land of limitless prosperity: ‘This affair will turn out to be a small bump on the long road to China’s full integration into the world economy.’
Crosby says the matter exposed many questions about ‘our’ trade relationship with China. Er, our? Crosby presents himself as an Australian citizen, and an associate professor at Melbourne University, but he is also billed as a director of something called the Confucius Institute. Melbourne Uni we get, but the Confucius Institute? It is one of the more controversial exports from China in recent years, a seemingly benign projector of Beijing’s soft power campaign, accelerated since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy protestors. Having only rehabilitated the ‘feudal’ Confucius’s philosophical legacy in
the 1990s, at least Beijing’s true believers had the good sense
not to call their propaganda unit the Mao Institute.
It presents itself as a Chinese version of the Alliance Française, Germany’s Goethe Institute or the British Council: an innocent vehicle for advancing language and cultural studies. So
why is Crosby wading into the Hu story on the institute’s behalf? The dragon is in the detail; Crosby is the CI’s ‘business research’ director, representing a state-controlled
body that ‘provides information and consultative services concerning Chinese education, culture, economy and society’. The CI is controlled by the same state that controls its biggest economic entities, the same state or, more to the point, the monolithic party that directs China’s steel industry and its legal system. In China, it’s all neat, circular, controlled, opaque and absolute.
The CI is where China does some of its best propaganda spadework these days. Unlike other ‘cultural’ institutes operating through shopfronts and embassies, the CI’s modus operandi is to ingratiate itself into the world’s universities, where it becomes the well-funded de facto Chinese studies faculty. But as CI critics like veteran Australian diplomat in China Jocelyn Chey ask, what happens when appropriate academic examination of
all things Chinese calls for the necessary critique of Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, of anything the party deems politically off-limits? Expect the CI to throw its weight around
We saw last week the lengths China is willing to go to in order to get Australians behind Beijing’s message, heavying the organisers of a Melbourne film festival to drop a documentary about a Uighur independence leader. We saw it last year during the Olympic torch relay farce, with the blue-tracksuited ‘Protectors of the Flame’ Sebastian Coe described as thugs. And we saw it in our own parliament in 2003, which President Bush of
the US and China’s President Hu Jintao addressed within a day of each other. The Greens jeered Bush’s speech because Australians were held at Guantanamo Bay, criticism he took with grace. The Chinese, up the next day, freaked when they heard Bob Brown was going to raise Tibet during Hu’s speech. They demanded — successfully — that Australia silence elected officials in its own parliament, threatening the Speaker if anyone dared interrupt Hu’s speech, to be broadcast live on China’s state TV.
‘It is all very well to point to China’s murkiness with regard to the arrest of Hu and to the murkiness surrounding the iron ore trade and China’s state-owned enterprises,’ the CI’s Crosby writes, ‘but our [there’s that equivocating possessive pronoun again!] Foreign Investment Review Board processes would seem just as murky to outsiders. One thing that seems clear is that our foreign investment rules need to be more transparent.’
Er, wait on. An Australian in the employ of the non-democratic Chinese government lecturing democratic Australia on transparency? The sheer chutzpah of Crosby’s column far outweighs its intellectual poverty and fudging. Australia may well send mixed signals on what constitutes the national economic interest — a common grumble of Chinese firms that don’t get their way when plundering Oz resources — but how are the FIRB’s processes apposite to the brutal way Beijing has treated Hu? Rudd and Wayne Swan didn’t lock up Chinalco’s boss Xiong Weiping while they were deliberating his offer to plunge $20
billion in Rio-Tinto and finagle seller-to-buyer influence over Australia’s primary resource. Do Crosby and his CI mates seriously expect us to believe that the CCP’s political left hand doesn’t know what the right hand of its legal apparatus is doing, or hasn’t told it what to do? Party history tells us that is exactly what is happening. Methinks the likes of ‘Aussie
Mark’ Crosby, whoever he is, answers to and writes his columns, has drunk a little too lovingly of the CCP Kool-Aid to be a neutral observer of this drama.
Since Hu was detained on 5 July, we’ve learned much about the Sino-Australian relationship. We’ve learned that Canberra was chummy with China’s senior leadership because Rudd is an ex-diplomat who impressed Hu Jintao with his Mandarin at APEC
and meets secretly with junketing Politburo members. Canberra first claimed the Hu matter had nothing to do with it, maybe hoping no one would notice. As the heat increased on a Rudd singed as China’s ‘Manchurian Candidate’ by the Joel Fitzgibbon affair, he expressed ‘concern’ about Hu. The press and talkback shock jocks got hold of him, so Rudd talked tough, doing that ‘We warn the Czar’ thing Australian pols love, to show us how hairy-chested they are — except it only shows them depilated. After moving on Hu, Beijing has done mostly nothing. It pre-judged Hu as a corrupt spy, and all the more traitorous because he switched nationality, and then told Australia to pipe down lest the ire of our biggest trading partner impact badly elsewhere. Rudd flubbed around trying to present low-level municipal types and sub-ministers as Chinese rainmakers, the best he could summon. What good is a zhengyou — a true friend — when your fair-weather Chinese mates won’t take your calls?
Hu has also exposed as nonsense that Australia ‘punches above its weight’. That pompous twaddle that we are at the centre of things only seems to be true when it doesn’t matter — while supping at the White House — and never when it does, like now, when Australia really is at the centre of things because Hu has become an international metaphor for what happens in China. Pace the bellicose Fijian junta, it’s not even true in the western Pacific, where Australia claims to be the superpower. About the only field of human endeavour in which Australia punches above its weight is on the sporting field.
No, as Stern Hu now knows, the world sees his adopted country as what it is — a massive mine packaged into a blousy democracy of 21 million people, an international welterweight at best whose grumpy calls you can ignore. It’s left to DFAT to pathetically remind Mrs Hu that Australians abroad must be aware that the laws of foreign countries can be different to those of Australia, as it figures out how deep to kowtow.
The Spectator (Australia)
July 22, 2009 Eric Ellis

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