Clive Hamilton has written a new book about China and the shadow it casts over Australia. Chinese official media have condemned it and feature an image of the book, clearly about to be flushed down the toilet. If you don't like a point of view, most agree that it's best to ignore it. A controversy is sure to stir interest and excite debate. And the media like controversy. Good news for any author!
There has been concern for some time about the "Chinese Dream" of making China a world power whose influence extends to Africa, the Maldives, the "South China Sea", and ports around the world including that of Darwin. What are some of the issues about the Chinese and their influence in Australia? Let's look at just a few of them raised by recent events, including Hamilton's book.
First, China presents itself as a peaceful country eager to get on with others. But when accused of subversion, its anger is reflected in this official statement reacting to Hamilton's book:
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in December that China strongly urges relevant people in Australia to shake off Cold War mentality and bias against China and immediately stop uttering false remarks that undermine mutual political trust and beneficial cooperation.
Oh yes, the usual habit of "you're not doing what we want, so you must be bad". What next? Already, anyone criticising China and its policies will be accused of Sinophobia and moral panic and all the rest of it. Did the Chinese never hear the saying, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks"? Why complain, if people aren't likely to be convinced by the argument that Chinese influence is hostile to our interests? If the book was not well-researched, or it were full of false accusations, academic scrutiny and public debate would shoot it down. That hasn't happened: it's apparently selling well.
Second, there has been some unease about the penetration of Chinese official views into our universities. There has been animated discussion on The Conversation and elsewhere about ACRI, the China-Australia study centre at UTS in Sydney. While some say it is useful to have pro-Chinese views expressed, others say that it presents only a narrow pro-government view of China. Hamilton's book has a whole chapter on Bob Carr and the study centre, raising many worthwhile issues including: Who chooses senior staff? Where is the real academically-tested research? Similar concerns have been raised about other centres in universities in Australia and overseas. Some have been shut down.
We heard this week that Chinese students are now some 43 per cent of international students in Australian universities. At Sydney University, overseas student fees rose 92 per cent in three years from $391 million in 2014 to $752 million last year. Considering the rise and huge proportion of Chinese, Hamilton says overdependence on Chinese students is "corroding the soul of our universities". There have been Foreign Affairs and Trade Departmental warnings about interference from overseas governments, and concern about Chinese students complaining of academics who are not sufficiently enthusiastic about China's policies. Academic freedom must be respected, said a spokesperson; so must scrutiny of China. But can academic freedom survive the challenge when foreign students bring in large university fees? Stories in Hamilton's book suggest – not at all. In any case, the risks to our universities of being financially dependent on the demands of any foreign power are worrying. The risk to standards from students with imperfect English and a poor grasp of western ideas of honesty and plagiarism are something else again. But to paraphrase Paul Keating: never try to stand between a vice chancellor and a bucket of money.
Third, are we to believe that the Chinese students are all here because of the high international standing of our universities? Really? University friends suggest that many are really here to get permanent residency. A typical story seems to run: "First my daughter gets a PhD. Then she gets PR. Then she brings her family". I found out for myself when at one university teaching English as a second language. I asked 'What will you do next year?' And the room fell into a tense silence. Apparently, many do one course after another to stay and somehow find a way of settling here.
Fourth, Chinese students are over-represented in selective schools. These are schools in New South Wales for which pupils sit an entry test. And they get excellent results in school leaving exams. The uneven racial composition of these schools is a powder keg. Clearly, anyone who mentions this fact will be accused of racism. And so the issue continues to fester.
Fifth, loopholes in our rules mean that Chinese students arrive and start buying land. In Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Wagga - the list goes on. What the Chinese want most is land. Australian politicians don't care: on average they own more than one house.
Pity help the young Australians trying to compete with all this, and buy a house for themselves. Do governments care? Yes, they say they do, but in reality? I doubt it.
And finally: Chinese money is influencing politicians.
The Dastyari affair last year showed that Chinese money has thoroughly infiltrated the Labor Party. It bewilders me that Labor luminaries are happy enough to say things that please the Chinese government, which quotes 'critics' of Hamilton's book in an attempt to discredit it. There are a number of sources, including Hamilton, arguing that the Dastyari affair was merely the tip of the iceberg. And the Liberals are also to blame. Foreign corruption of politicians is an evil and it must be stamped out. But who wants to stop those who bring money with them to enrich a political party?
It seems that Australians and their government will have to decide how to position themselves. It was announced last year that we will not kow-tow to the Chinese. After Malcolm Turnbull said he would stand up for Australia against China, Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said
"Ultimately, their goal is to have Australia become more pro-China, less pro-US, align with Beijing and distance itself from the United States and ultimately end the alliance," he said.
"Everyone understands what China is about, the difference is now we are starting to fight back against them."
China is a tightly-controlled country. Hamilton warns - with some telling stories - that countries who try to stand up to Beijing are soon brought into line as the flow of tourists, or students, etc can be turned off if something displeases Beijing. Internet users get censored or blocked if they mention one of the 'five poisons', such as Taiwan, Falun Gong or the Dalai Lama. These and other things get blocked by China's Great Firewall. While in China, try checking Wikipedia about kangaroos and you get "the page you are looking for is currently unavailable". Even Winnie the Pooh got blocked recently (he was used as a symbol of Xi!)
So where are we now? Australians are stuck in the Pacific and Indian Oceans between one power in decline, and another rising fast. And we have a clever sharp-witted leader pitted against an erratic and dimwitted one. China keeps talking grandly and gaining attention about free trade; about climate change; and progress. The reality? China is largely closed to western capital and trade. As we know only too well - foreigners can't buy land in China. Academic debate? Human rights? Almost non-existent in China, a country with powerful surveillance of "troublemakers" and punishment of dissent to a degree rivalled only by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four.
It does seem that China is doing its best to separate Australia and New Zealand from their US ally. One minute we get people in Australian political parties telling us to like the Chinese, that they are massively important, they saved us from the Great Financial Crisis, they are our friends, not to worry, she'll be right, mate…..and so on. Then, like a jealous lover, the China apologists turn on us with accusations of a moral panic, Sinophobia, racism, all the usual stuff trotted out by some academics. This is echoed by the Chinese official press who have called us an ex-dumping-ground for British criminals. Hamilton's book has some amusing comments by Chinese, referring to Australians as a 'paper cat' and so on; and there is one mention of Chinese contempt for 'dumb c**t Aussies'. And though many Australians boast of top-level Beijing contacts, one Chinese is quoted as saying 'As if you would be frank with a foreigner'. This must be the mutual trust that the Chinese government spokesman referred to earlier.
Australians may well have to choose between China and America. And frankly, I prefer the Americans, however unstable the present President. These words are attributed to Napoleon:
Here lies a sleeping lion. Let him sleep: for when he awakes, he will shake the world.
It's clear that China's leaders did not want Hamilton's book published; they will do their best to discredit it. Does that mean we should shun or ignore it? I doubt it. Perhaps Hamilton's book is a bit alarmist. But people need to make up their own mind, not condemn the book without checking for themselves.
As France, Germany and other countries warn of China's plans for becoming a centre of power stretching in all directions, Australia needs to stay alert. Investment in farms, land, ports and car companies worldwide is all very well, but at what cost? The loyalty of some Chinese-Australians seems open to question, at least; and we know there's a difference between loyalty to China and loyalty to the Chinese government. So let's hope Australia knows how to cope with the dragon. With Xi apparently becoming leader for life, we will need wisdom, steady guidance - and a lot of luck.