Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Saying the unsayable in Australia’s relations with China

The resignation of Sam Dastyari is as significant for Australia its own way as Brexit for the UK or the election of Donald Trump for the US.

Sam Dastyari in the senate chamber (Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty)
Sam Dastyari in the senate chamber (Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty)
Published 15 Dec 2017 

The issue of influence by the government of the People’s Republic of China in Australian public and political life reached a turning point with the resignation of senator Sam Dastyari. It concluded a year of forceful reporting and vitriolic debate about China in Australia, fuelling a steady flow of controversies and revelations about how deeply China’s interests reach into Australian institutions.

In the case of Dastyari, much of the media coverage has focussed on partisan party politics and wins and losses for the government and the opposition. However, his resignation is symbolic of a fundamental change in the nature of Australia’s relationship with China, one that is as significant in its own way as Brexit for the UK or the election of Donald Trump for the US.

For more than 30 years, policy and public life in Australia has been dominated by the notion of engagement with Asia. Expressed in a multitude of policy statements and national development aspirations, and always in a curiously urgent tone, ‘Asia’ has been invoked as Australia’s future. In the 1980s, Asia meant Japan, then the ‘little dragons’ of northeast Asia, and in the last 20 years, the biggest dragon of them all, China.

This policy and political project is coincident with ‘reform’, Australia’s equivalent of the neoliberal turn in economic policy in the 1980s. Measured in such terms, the policy of Asian engagement has achieved its greatest results in China: 35% of Australia’s national exports go to China and 30% of international students in Australia are from China. Universities embraced their commercial future in Asia more enthusiastically than any other public institution.

China, however, is also a party-state that institutionalises Leninist authoritarianism, a Communist vision for modernisation, and a hard nationalism. It should have, on the face of it, long presented a challenge to the liberal democratic values that Australia espouses.

Yet until recently it has not. Australian political, business and education leaders have produced endless platitudes about the future for Australia in partnership with China; speeches and statements promising to bridge cultures and promote diversity, create partnerships of global competitive advantage, access the opportunities of the burgeoning Chinese middle class, and so on.

This prosaic corporate and policy language, familiar to anyone who has been in a China business delegation or university internationalisation committee, offers no meaningful and critical engagement with the immeasurable gifts of Chinese civilisation and also the nature of the PRC party-state.

It has been possible for key sections of Australian public, political and corporate institutions to embrace China but simultaneously ignore the complex realities of the party-state because the policy rhetoric is not about China as a real place. Instead, it has always been about how Australia should understand itself and its national future.

China in this institutional world is a metaphor to reconcile two contending themes in the development of Australia’s national life: the neoliberal turn and progressive politics. In the metaphor of China, Australian public, corporate and political institutions have imagined Australia as a globally competitive society selling to the great Chinese market, and also as a cosmopolitan society casting off the legacy racism and imperialism, both British and American, to be comfortable in the Chinese world.

This way of talking about China while really talking about Australia has launched a thousand educational and cultural partnerships, corporate ventures and policy initiatives, burnishing progressive credentials and envisioning market opportunities, without ever needing to ask questions about the nature of the PRC party-state.

Dastyari’s resignation marks the breakdown of this complacent and inward-looking approach to China. It shows the PRC party-state as a real and unavoidable part of everything China is, rather than simply a metaphor for Australian economic policy or aspirational cosmopolitanism.

The party-state itself has clearly understood the implications of this event for its interests. The vitriolic comments by the Chinese media and government, characterising the controversy over influence as anti-Chinese, are an attempt to contain discussion of China within its place as a metaphor for Australia’s preoccupations. A number of Australian commentators have attempted the same move.

But the unsayable is now sayable - that this is not about us. China is a great civilisation and rich and diverse culture, a part of the Australian community, a modernising superpower taking its rightful place in the world, and also a Leninist party-state that seeks to influence Australian political and public life in its interests.

For academics, policy-makers, professionals and journalists who have long sought to engage with the full complexity of China as it really is in Australian institutional settings, questions about the nature and actions of the PRC party-state are now legitimate and reasonable, not an expression of a retrograde hostility to China out of step with modern Australia. From those questions, many others follow, and the foundation of a full and meaningful engagement with China and the Chinese world may finally be created.

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