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Don’t mention the Chinese elephant in the room

By Dan Ryan - posted Thursday, 15 September 2016

Watching many in Australia’s commercial elite talk about China is increasingly like watching mainland Chinese television.

Occasionally, informative things are said, but it is also always important to keep in mind the topics that are not discussed and the issues not given prominence.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Last year Australia’s leading corporations, almost without exception, took out a full-page advertisement voicing their support for same-sex marriage — human right, apparently; an issue on which our captains of industry could no longer remain silent.


Yet what you will never see is a similar full-page advertisement calling for Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, or indeed any of China’s political prisoners, to be released.

With the growing importance of China to their business, most Australian chief executives would rather eat fried scorpion in Sichuan than venture an opinion on anything Beijing deems “sensitive”. There is no shortage of sensitive topics.

Last month Ethan Gutmann author of the book, The Slaughter, visited Australia. He presented evidence — detailed, credible evidence — that the Chinese government had been complicit in widespread harvesting of the organs of political prisoners (primarily the Falun Gong but also “house Christians” and other persecuted groups).

For some odd reason Bob Carr didn’t get around to giving Gutmann an invitation to Carr’s Australia-China Relations Institute. The earnest, pastel ribbon-wearing Australian celebrities also steered clear. No major Australian corporate offered champagne and canapes. None of our trendy PR agencies designed snazzy slogans (“How’s your (Chinese) kidney bean?”) to promote the issue.

Instead Carr invited Carl Hinze, an associate scholar at a Beijing-backed Confucius Institute, to give a talk on the importance of the Chinese concept of “face”.

This focus on “culture” — and the downplaying of politics and ideology — is such a typical distraction when it comes to China and completely misses the point. How precisely does “face” explain why Taiwan has a free press and Beijing does not?


Hinze is a lawyer, but it would be unfair to single him out. Many of Australia’s leading law firms sponsor Carr’s controversial China think tank, including King & Wood Mallesons, Australia’s largest law firm. It recently merged with a Chinese law firm and has a network of offices across the Middle Kingdom.

Australian law firms certainly are not known for being quiet on other issues, from global warming and refugees to Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution. Yet when it comes to China they fall strangely silent. Where is the King & Wood Mallesons-sponsored centre for the study of human rights in China?

In the name of “corporate social responsibility” Australian businesses back all sorts of causes — some worthy, some far less so.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Dan Ryan is managing director of Serica Legal, a law firm focused on Asia-related transactions and disputes. He is a director of the Australian Institute for Progress.

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