Letter from Beijing

The first time I visited China I was a bag carrier for the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. It was August 1982. Frankly, the place was forbidding. There were few pedestrians on the streets, people dressed in the uniformly drab Mao suits and there were thousands upon thousands of bicycles. The streets of Beijing were wide and empty.

The first time I visited China I was a bag carrier for the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. It was August 1982. Frankly, the place was forbidding. There were few pedestrians on the streets, people dressed in the uniformly drab Mao suits and there were thousands upon thousands of bicycles. The streets of Beijing were wide and empty.

The meetings between Fraser and his counterpart, Premier Zhao Ziyang were formal and pro forma. This was a meeting between the leader of a Western democracy and the leader of a totalitarian society.

Last month I made one of my regular visits to Beijing. The sights are all the same; the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the vast avenues eight lanes wide. But that’s it. There are scores of five star hotels, all the fashionable Western shops which once made Hong Kong such a shopping Mecca are there: Max Mara, Louis Vuitton, Dior…

And then there’s the traffic. Eight lane avenues, which were once empty save bicycles are now clogged with cars, nearly all of which are Japanese and European makes.

As for my meetings, they were pretty modern too. Lunch with the Chinese foreign minister at the St Regis Hotel was steak – Australian steak – not a bowl of rice garnished with some indescribable seaweed and jelly-like seafood of unrecognisable provenance.

There have been several revolutions in China over the past 65 years; the communist revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and, under Deng Xiaoping, the capitalist revolution. Make no mistake; the last one was the big one.

We still live in the past. Our vision of China is of a poor, unhappy people oppressed by a communist dictatorship more interested in the creature comforts of leadership than the welfare of their poor, overworked, underfed citizens. What is more, we subconsciously equate communist China with the old, bankrupt but threatening Soviet Union.

This is just nonsense. The liberalisation of modern China is one of the greatest developments of the modern era. More people have been lifted from poverty by the Chinese capitalist revolution than in any comparable time in history. This hasn’t been achieved with large dollops of foreign aid from the West – although China has received plenty of aid. Poverty has been reduced by allowing the market to operate. Modern China is the greatest monument to the success of market economics since the rise of America.

None of this is to belittle the problems China still faces. Its political system is still inadequate, there is poverty in Western China, there are serious environmental challenges and so on. But we seldom give credit where it’s due. Chinese reforms initiated by its diminutive leader, Deng Xiaoping, have been an economic miracle.

Which makes everyone ask: is this country a threat to American power and the dominance of the West? Well, yes and no.

Let’s start with no. China, unlike the Soviet Union, isn’t trying to export revolution. It’s not trying to impose its undemocratic political system on an unwilling world. Nor is it fermenting unrest and revolt in developing countries with a view to wedging them away from Western influence. It is investing heavily around the world but it is doing so in order to guarantee the supply of raw materials and foodstuffs for its massive population.

Nor do I think China’s leaders see themselves in a competition for power with America. But they have their issues. They want to secure their borders, which include Tibet and their contested claims in the South China Sea. They want to retain the option of securing Taiwan by military force if circumstances ever require it. And they want to avoid their ports being blockaded, as they were by the Europeans in the 19th century (the Chinese have long memories).

These are very different objectives from challenging American power throughout the Pacific and beyond.

Now let’s think about yes. The rise of China will change the global agenda. Where once the West unilaterally determined the priorities for international and multilateral negotiations, others including China and India will have a large say in what can be discussed and achieved. The West’s fascination with climate change is hard to foist on a country of 1.3 billion people trying to shake off centuries of poverty and deprivation. For them, the G20’s economic agenda, the WTO, APEC and so on matter more.

Something about Australia and China sticks in my mind. I can’t shake it off. Policy makers in Canberra and many of our academics debate Australia’s choice. Do we consolidate the American alliance and give China the cold shoulder or do we downgrade the American relationship in order to placate a growing China? It’s a kind of Sophie’s Choice. Either way we are a massive loser.

Australia needs to grow up. There isn’t about to be a war between America and China. If there is it will be a catastrophe for the world. We don’t have to make a choice between China and America unless there’s a war! China is a great economic partner and that partnership will grow. It’s also what we might call a regional colleague who we need to work with on other issues.

And America is our great ally, the guarantor of our security and the keeper of the ring in East Asia. That’s the message we should be sending. 

X