Following article comes out from the blue in the SMH. This is certaintly a very well written article with good analysis and expresses words that could not have been better chosen: (i) about how China came to understand Kevin Rudd as a xiaoren (小人) character (ii) China and Asian studies in Australian universities are too ideological and outdated with little practical use for any meaningful discourse with Asia.
Jia Gao, October 4, 2011
Ken Henry’s Asia policy review needs to produce a more even-handed strategy towards China.
Although long overdue, the Gillard government’s decision to ask former Treasury secretary Ken Henry to review Australia’s readiness for the Asia century is a valuable opportunity to take stock of what has happened over the past few years to Australia’s relations with Asia, especially those with China.
The review is more meaningful than it initially seems considering recent events.
Australia’s approach to Asia, especially to India and China, suffered a major setback following the departure by the Rudd government from the even-handed approach of previous Australian governments towards China and the US. That earlier approach was evident when both Chinese President Hu Jintao and then US president George W. Bush addressed Parliament in October 2003.
Since the 2007 election, among other issues, controversy surrounding attacks on Indian students has discouraged them from coming to Australia, and China has again been portrayed in various ways as a threat to Australia.
Internationally, Australia has presented itself with a new, ”Rudded” image of a country that has benefited considerably from Asia’s booming economies, but it has also played a more active and provocative role than other Western countries in fostering fear and apprehension about China.
One day, this may well come to be seen as a regrettable episode in Australian history, a shocking departure from its long-term bipartisan approach based on national interests, in place since the Whitlam era, and a return to the old-fashioned international politics and ideological beliefs of the Cold War era.
The Gillard government has been in office for 15 months, and while it has performed badly in opinion polls, it has so far made no big mistakes in dealing with Asian neighbours, and positive steps have been taken to reverse some of the damage caused by Kevin Rudd. In fact, one of the first actions by Julia Gillard was to abandon Rudd’s “Asia-Pacific community” idea.
In 1997, the Howard government, within its first year in office, commissioned Australia’s first white paper on foreign and trade policy. The aim of the review was to distinguish the government’s approach from that of the two previous Labor governments. To be effective, the current review needs to serve a similar purpose of enabling the Gillard government to distinguish its policy and approach from the previous government’s.
When the Rudd government came to power, it did not conduct a review, but simply relied on Rudd’s confidence in his own knowledge. However, the reliability of his expert knowledge was challenged from as early as his first four months in office when he soured relations with an attempt to lecture the Chinese in Beijing. This bad start was followed by a string of controversies, such as those over the 2009 defence white paper and the case of detained Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, through which Rudd’s China knowledge was proved to be unhelpful.
Guided by a strong wish to be China’s zhengyou – partially meaning a true friend who dares to disagree and who offers advice – Rudd staged a series of blunders. The result of this was that he instead gave rise to the image among the Chinese of a xiaoren – which literally translates as “little person” and is used to refer to those who act in an ungentlemanly manner.
What is not in Rudd’s dictionary is a long explanatory note on the qualification for being a zhengyou, which requires an extremely high level of public and personal recognition and respect from those to be advised.
Rudd emerged several years ago as a China specialist, and a Chinese-speaking PM was expected to improve Australia-China relations. It is now clear there was something wrong with his China expertise.
There is no doubt that China is rapidly changing, even making many observers, commentators and researchers within China puzzled about their own country. At the same time, China studies and Asian studies as a whole in Australia are dangerously lagging behind developments in China. Further, a tendency in Australia to look at China using a fixed set of decades-old politicised concepts adds to the problem. Australia does not lack specialists and commentators who prefer to analyse the reality in China by attempting to fit it into the concepts with which they are familiar.
It was not long ago that knowledge of China and Asia was only obtained through structured university subjects with limited practical application.
What the public was told was often the circulation of concepts and keywords from one textbook to another, not much based on reality in China or Asia. Maybe now is the time to listen to analysts who are not overloaded by outdated and over-politicised concepts.
It is unclear whether, after Rudd, the Australian public still wants specialists to inform them about Asia and China. Perhaps the decision to appoint someone who is not regarded as an “Asia specialist” to conduct the latest review may not be a bad idea.
Since the end of the Second World War, and particularly since Whitlam in the 1970s, almost all Australian governments have tried to push the shift to Asia, with this developing into a relatively sophisticated and mature approach to China in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The benchmark for Australia-China relations was set by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments.
Various expectations for the latest review were expressed within hours of Gillard’s announcement. In fact, it is not that crucial whether a blueprint will be produced. What is more important than the review report itself is that the nation has a discussion about what has been done, what needs to be done, and especially how and why Australia’s attention to the emergence of the Asia century, the rise of China in particular, has recently been heavily ”Rudded”.
The review will be considered a success if it can provide Australia with a less ”Rudded” version of an Asia strategy.
Dr Jia Gao is a researcher at the Asia Institute, Melbourne University.