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28 April 2017

In a recent public lecture, ANU Professor Hugh White set out his views on what China’s 21st Century dominance will mean for Australia. In doing so, he neglected to think deeply about both China itself, and the difficult moral questions its rise will force Australia to answer, Clive Hamilton writes.

Imagine it’s 1938 and an Oxford don is advising Britain on how to respond to an increasingly powerful Germany. He gives a public lecture setting out the strategic options but fails to mention the fact that Germany is ruled by a dictatorial, expansionist party bent on European domination. Instead, he speaks only of ‘Germany’ as if Germany under Bismarck, Germany under the Weimar Republic and Germany under the National Socialists were all the same. It’s all just Germany, as if the nature of its government made no difference to its strategic aims and how Britain should respond.

Imagine too that the Oxford don admits he doesn’t really know much about Germany, only that it’s increasingly powerful. But, he argues, when we are dealing with great powers, the balance of power is all we need to know in order to craft a national strategy for dealing with it. He concludes that, because Germany is already dominant and will inevitably become more powerful still, Britain’s only ‘realistic’ option is to appease and accommodate the regime.

This is the argument presented by Hugh White in his ANU public lecture ‘China’s Power and the Future of Australia’. He manages to spend an entire lecture speaking about China’s rise, its intentions and its impact on Australia without mentioning the Chinese Communist Party, as if China is just China with ‘Chinese values’. The fact that it is ruled by an increasingly autocratic and aggressive one-party state has no bearing on how Australia should think about and respond to it.

White is unapologetic about the modesty of his knowledge of China and how it functions. In fact, he recruits all of us into a shared ignorance, telling us variously that we are going to have to learn more about China, our images of China are very simplistic, we need to understand China’s values better, and we must ‘think more deeply’ about it.

White may need to do all of these things, but there are quite a few Australian experts (and many more abroad) who have a very good understanding of China and have thought deeply about the nature of China under the CCP, peering through its secrecy, opacity and walls of propaganda to work out what the rising power’s intentions are for Australia and how we might respond. They have written books, some of them very good, but White shows no sign of having read them.

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If White’s strategic calculus has no place for an understanding of the nature of the CCP and the kind of state China has become under President Xi Jinping, we might turn to Minxin Pei’s China’s Crony Capitalism, War by Other Means by Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris, Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon or Thomas Christensen’s The China Challenge. None of them could reach the kind of conclusions White has reached.

Instead of the Sinologists’ books, the entire structure of White’s argument is built around newspaper shibboleths, drawn mainly from the business pages during the mining boom. This Sinomania gives rise to a number of ‘facts’ that are just silly – we have been ‘relying on China to make us rich’; ‘our future prosperity depends on’ China; if China directed future investments away from Australia it would ‘send our share market crashing’.

Rory Medcalf, by deploying a few statistics, has recently poured cold water over this kind of hyperbole. Jonathan Fenby’s 2017 book Will China Dominate the 21st Century? is a subtle assessment of the title’s question. He concludes in the negative. Fenby may or may not be right; but one thing is clear, White’s tabloid assumption that the answer must be ‘yes’ deserves careful scrutiny, especially if it forms the foundation of one’s entire argument.

White lectures us that we must be ‘realistic’, but what kind of realism is built on a structure of false understandings? He criticises those like Stephen Fitzgerald who argue, just as he does, that 1) China is destined to dominate Asia, 2) the United States’ presence will diminish, and 3) Australia should shift its allegiance away from the United States and towards China.

He diverges from them only on their judgement that by getting closer to China we can influence Beijing and shape its policies in our interests. We will not be able to influence Beijing but will have to accept whatever it dishes up. We cannot shape Beijing’s policies; Beijing will be shaping ours. Even so, he says, there’s no choice but to back the economic winner, because if we don’t so choose then we will be forced into it by China’s sheer economic might.

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The alternative view, that Australia together with the United States and Asian allies can do a great deal to limit the political and strategic influence of China, is given short shrift. White tries to convince us that this option is not available because the only alternative to capitulation is war. For him the grand struggle can be reduced to the willingness of each party to go to war. The party least willing to risk war will lose. Whether Australia must succumb to China depends on whether China’s resolve is greater than the US’s, and on that White has no doubts. America will back down while ‘we would be very unwise to underestimate China’s resolve’.

Here an understanding of the CCP, including its evolution under Xi Jinping, is indispensable; but not for White. Somehow being a ‘realist’ absolves one of the need to know any detail. All we need to know is the balance of economic and strategic power. If Australia sides with the United States in any kind of pushback we would be on the wrong side of history and probably plunge ourselves into a war with China, quite possibly a nuclear one.

White’s argument is notable for what it avoids as well as for what it asserts. What it is most determined to avoid is any comment on what kind of Australia we would live in if China were allowed to dominate in the way he believes it inevitably will. Isn’t this the most important question of them all? Yet whenever he gets close to issues like democracy, human rights and the rule of law, White retreats into his cloud of unknowing. If we are to decide how we really feel about living in a world dominated by China ‘we need to learn a lot more’. Before making a judgement we need to find out ‘what China wants’.

It is at this point that White’s argument becomes truly disturbing, descending into a kind of post-modern moral relativism in which one set of values is as good as the next. We have yet to take China’s ‘moral standing’ seriously enough, he avers, as if ‘China’s values’ can be found in the propaganda of the CCP. The people of Taiwan might be thought to be living according to Chinese values, and are doing their best to resist having the CCP’s version imposed on them. Yet White tells us, seriously, maybe the CCP’s values would not be so bad for Australia.

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‘China’s values are very different from ours’, he says, but who is to say ours are better? After all, our values are ‘hard to define’ and we ‘prefer to keep them vague’. Moral choices, he tells us, are not black and white. We are always compromising our values anyway. So let’s be realistic here: we are going to have to compromise our values so let’s not get on our high horses. The values he will not name include freedom of speech, religious freedom, the rule of law, popularly elected government, and protections against arbitrary arrest and torture.

Some of these, in Hugh White’s realist worldview, will have to be compromised. The only questions, he concludes, ‘are which ones we will compromise’. That’s just how the world is. To think otherwise is ‘crude sloganeering’. Really? Doesn’t everyone who has thought about it for five minutes understand that difficult circumstances sometimes mean we have to sacrifice one principle to protect another? It does not mean our principles are lightly held; only that some choices are genuinely hard.

Besides, White goes on, in assessing China’s domination over us we have to trade off the sacrifice of our values against all of the great things the Communist Party of China has achieved. In a classic ‘no matter what you may say about him, Mussolini made the trains run on time’ argument, White tells us that in assessing the moral standing of ‘China’ we have to credit the Party’s material improvements. (He sees no need to factor in the material deficits, like the Party-induced great famine.)

The logic of White’s position is that Australia has no choice but to become a tribute state. But rather than drawing such a conclusion with regret and foreboding, White engages in apologetics. Maybe, if we ‘think deeply enough’ about it, such a state would not be such a bad thing. After all, our images of China remain ‘very simplistic’.

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