Type “Obama” and “Australia” into Google and we find literally hundreds of articles discussing the US President’s twice-postponed visit to our shores. By contrast, barring Rowan Callick’s short piece in The Australian on Monday, we are hard pushed to find anything previewing the arrival this weekend of Xi Jinping, a man set to become the most powerful individual in our region, perhaps even the world.
Granted, unless you are one of 700,000-odd Chinese Australians, Xi Jinping is not a household name in Australia. But nor is he a relatively obscure rising Chinese official or a mere hot tip for future political stardom. In 2012 he will almost certainly succeed Hu Jintao as president of our biggest trading partner and the next global superpower. When he arrives in Melbourne on Saturday (June 19), authorities will be rolling out one of the largest security operations the city has ever put in place for a visiting dignitary.
Following the pattern of other recent visits by Chinese leaders, few details of his itinerary are yet public. We know the centrepiece is a large business forum in the Great Hall of Parliament House on Monday (June 21). Beyond that, it is rumoured he will address students in Melbourne, visit mining sites in the Northern Territory and sign an agreement between the Australia National University and the Communist Party’s Central Party School (the training ground for party officials).
Analysts say the visit will focus on restoring political trust, deepening economic ties and, in particular, ease future investment in Australian resources. Unlike during visits of senior Australian officials to China, it is highly unlikely that he will give a media conference. He will no doubt meet the Prime Minister in Canberra but whether he will interact with the Parliament, or indeed lay himself open to scrutiny at all, will have to be seen.
Born in 1953 in Beijing, Xi Jinping is the son of former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, a Communist Party hero. He is the top-ranking member of the Communist Party secretariat, China's Vice President, Principal of the Central Party School and the sixth ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee (China's de facto top power organ). He has one of the highest profiles of China's leaders and, like Hu Jintao in the run-up to his presidency, is currently doing a lot of international travel. This week alone he will visit Bangladesh, Laos, New Zealand and Australia.
Understandably, few are watching Xi Jinping’s rise more closely than the Tibetans. Hu Jintao, the current president, was formerly the party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In 1989 he approved the use of lethal force against protestors in Lhasa, asked Beijing to declare martial law and presided over one of the darkest periods in Tibet’s modern history. Following the Tiananmen Square massacre, a mere three months later, Hu was one of the first regional leaders to declare his support for the central authorities.
Sadly, one does not rise to the pinnacle of the Chinese Communist Party by being soft on Tibet, on pro-democracy, or any issue that might challenge the party’s legitimacy. Xi Jinping too has made his mark through a series of tough assignments. He was put in charge of preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics as well as last year’s 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. He is the party’s leading figure in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macau.
Tibetans have scoured Xi Jinping’s past for signs that he may bring a shift away from Beijing’s increasingly hardline policies on Tibet and towards a peacefully negotiated settlement with the Tibetan people. Intriguingly, Xi Jinping’s father was an interlocutor for the Dalai Lama's Special Envoy Lodi Gyari in the 1980s and apparently carried a photo of the Dalai Lama. Prior to that he had some association with the 10th Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important religious leader.
It may be wishful thinking that such links would have any real bearing on Xi Jinping’s Tibet stance. But importantly, whatever Xi Jinping’s views on Tibet may be, they carry implications not only for the six million Tibetans but also for the peace and stability of China and for the broader region.
While recently overshadowed in the Australian media by the Stern Hu case, the visit of Rebiya Kadeer, the failed Chinalco bid and Google’s challenges to China’s Internet censorship, Beijing itself has elevated Tibet to a “core issue” both domestically and in its relationship with foreign powers, according it at least equal importance to Taiwan.
Tibet is situated between India and China, for centuries a buffer between the two rising giants of Asia. It is the source of almost all Asia’s great rivers and China’s near catastrophic environmental mismanagement of the Tibetan Plateau may hold grave consequences for the populous countries downstream. Recent policy failures, in particular the heavy-handed response to 2008’s unrest, have fanned ethnic tensions and remain a constant threat to stability.
Few issues are as critical to peace and security in China than Tibet. And barring perhaps climate change, given our present course few variables will determine Australia’s long-term economic health more than China’s stability and prosperity.
The chances of Kevin Rudd pushing Xi Jinping on Tibet in private, let alone in public, may be thin. Indeed, the visit has already been hailed as a sign that “relations are thawing” following last year’s spate of derailments. That said, the Prime Minister would do well to recall a statement from his party’s own manifesto: “Effective human rights diplomacy supports international and regional security and is in Australia’s national interest.”