A foreign concept: less Rudd

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Kevin Rudd as a xiaoren (小人) character  (ii) China and Asian studies in Australian universities are too ideological and outdated with little practical use for any meaningful discourse with Asia.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

http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/a-foreign-concept-less-rudd-20111003-1l55o.html

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.

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About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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