China’s failed attempt to censor a scholarly book should serve as a warning to Australians.
China’s latest effort to censor an Australian book reveals there is more for us to worry about in the “Asian Century” than finding ways of making more money. Culture and politics, and the values of freedom and democracy, will matter just as much as commerce in the years ahead.
Beijing’s official complaints last September over a book published by the Australian Centre for China in the World reveal a political intolerance that is more suited to the delirium of absolute monarchy than a powerful, self-confident modern state.
That should come as no surprise. China’s power is waxing and when the communist regime in Beijing is not adding to regional tensions by aggressively pursuing its claims in the South China or East China Seas it is devoting its energies to perfecting its system of censorship, in China and elsewhere.
Just look at the furore in China over official censorship at the Southern Weekly, a newspaper in southern Guangdong province whose editorial staff went on strike after official intervention to censor an editorial calling for the rule of constitutional law.
The risk to Australia of China’s mindset is clear. Our biggest trading partner seemingly reserves itself the right to respect our freedoms selectively, especially when it comes to criticising negative perceptions of China in our media and academic institutions.
This attitude was on show a few years ago during the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival, when China objected to Australia providing a visa to Uighur activist, Rebiya Kadeer; and even more so after the publication of an official Australian Government paper on defence policy in 2009 that pinpointed China as a future adversary.
The latest instalment of this episodic bullying occurred last year, when the Australian Centre for China in the World at the Australian National University published its 2012 annual yearbook, Red Rising, Red Eclipse.
Launched by the former head of the Treasury, Dr Ken Henry, the yearbook is a series of chapters on different aspects of China ranging from foreign policy to law and order and culture. A largely anodyne though curious academic publication, it contains little to scratch the skin of the Chinese Communist Party.
Yet staff from China’s embassy in Canberra complained about a lack of balance and the feeling in Beijing was so strong that back in mainland China its digital censors blocked Internet access to the report.
Embassy staff first went to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the mistaken belief that the Australian Government controls the content of university books. When that failed, they took their grievances to the Centre itself, a move that outraged the Centre’s Director, the renowned sinologist Geremie R. Barme, enough to prompt him to write a 13 page rebuke to the Chinese Embassy.
“We believe that it is important to act as if the People’s Republic had already sloughed off the vestiges of Cold War-era and Maoist attitudes, behaviour and language,” Professor Barme said in his letter which is posted on the Centre’s website.
“I for one do not see how such a crude interdiction benefits mutual understanding, respect, nor indeed how it can reflect well on the maturing relationship between China and international academic and research communities.”
In a democratic polity like Australia it’s a reasonable right of anyone or any institution concerned about truth and accurate reporting to make a complaint. If a Chinese think tank started publishing crass falsehoods about Australia, there would no doubt be a reaction from Australian officialdom.
But in this case the tone of China’s complaints was all wrong and, so far from being unbalanced, the claims of the book seem eminently reasonable and unprovocative.
One of the chapters wrote of China’s newly aggressive foreign policy—and just who is going to deny that trend with a straight face? Another described the downfall of the neo-Maoist politician Bo Xilai, a major political player ruined in a grubby scandal and ejected from the centre of China’s leadership. That story has been covered globally ad nauseam. So what can be the real issue here?
The Centre is a recognised centre of sinology with influence and contacts around the world; its views matter and they influence people, including readers in China. For instance, while the Chinese embassy staff were putting their case last year, Professor Barme was visiting Harvard, Columbia and George Washington University explaining the contents of Red Rising, Red Eclipse to other scholars.
In addition to this, China’s top leadership has shown great interest in the Centre’s work. Xi Jinping, the newly appointed General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, even donated 1,000 books to the Centre back in 2010 after a visit. Is it possible that China was offended because it imagined a more understanding relationship with the Centre that didn’t actually exist?
It’s not just intellectual freedom that we should be worried about either; on policy issues as well there has been a similar absolutist fervour.
Recently, a Chinese official complained about the treatment of the Chinese telecommunications firm, Huawei, which the Australian Government sensibly blocked from participating in the national broadband network. As the US Congress has discovered, Huawei has links to China’s national security community, raising doubts about its suitability for a role in sensitive projects.
But China’s ambassador to Australia, Chen Yuming, warned Australia that the price of discriminating against Chinese firms like Huawei could be to become locked out of being part of China’s economic transformation. That’s a big stick to use in a relationship that is supposed to be friendly and balanced. Can you imagine Australia threatening to lock China out of investing in our minerals and resource sector?
So perhaps the real question in this odd story is what will be the long term effects of this type of bullying on Australia’s political culture?
As Chinese investment pours into Australia and as our exports to China grow, we often forget, or downplay that China’s political system is fundamentally different from ours and that our freedoms may not remain untouched through our closer commercial relationship.
Greater efforts need to be made to explain to the Australian people the nature of the emerging challenges and the pressure they will put on our democracy.
There has been a quite public strategic debate in Australia over whether we will have to choose between the United States and China, but little has been said about the long-term political effects of our relationship with China.
Australia is a grain of rice compared with China’s full course banquet of power. As economic power moves to Asia, our tiny democracy will face its biggest challenges this century and our political class needs to bring them home to the nation’s understanding.