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Two systems, one global interest - understanding China

By K.C. Boey - posted Friday, 24 July 2009

By the standards of Australia, Rio Tinto mining executive Stern Hu is being subjected to the most egregious injustice in Shanghai by China's Ministry of State Security.

The reaction in Australia has been shrill. Pick up the phone to (President) Hu Jintao, opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull tells Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Canberra's line has been that it is a consular matter, until it has information to persuade it otherwise. Observers close to the government are with the view - if not behind it - that megaphone diplomacy would be counterproductive.


What is the case against Stern Hu? How has Canberra got things so wrong on Beijing? What of the "zhengyou" relationship (intimate to the point of being able to agree to disagree) Rudd has with Beijing? Such questions miss the point of the popular view equating China's one-party rule with a singular ideology within the politburo, discounting the possibility that the reality might be of competing voices behind the bamboo curtain. Such tensions within the party may have grown with re-evaluation of the market economic system since the global financial crisis, and growing unrest in western China, and consequent reassessment of China's international relationships.

The day Stern Hu was picked up in Shanghai on July 5, Rudd was taking off for Kuala Lumpur for talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on people smuggling. After a brief stopover, Rudd would fly on to Europe for bilateral visits and global talks: economics, climate change. It was not until 10 full days after Stern Hu's arrest, on Rudd's return, that he directly addressed "our Chinese friends". Until then, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith had taken up the matter at a consular level.

China had "significant economic interests at stake" in its relationship with Australia and its other commercial partners in the world, said Rudd. "It is in all of our interests to have this matter resolved." The message was as much for home consumption as it was for Beijing.

It was a posture as much in the manner of Rudd's strident stand on Canberra's prerogative in the modernisation of its defence forces, after Turnbull's caricaturing of Rudd as an envoy for China in his championing of Beijing's standing in the International Monetary Fund.

On one view, Canberra's defence white paper released in May might have been overly harsh in projecting the threat posed by China than might have been necessary, instigated by the baiting of Rudd cosying up to Beijing. Should that have been the intention, it might have boomeranged. That is now being speculated as one of the irritants contributing to Beijing hitting back, using Stern Hu.

Among other events: Rio Tinto spurning a $19.6 billion bid by Chinese state-owned enterprise Chinalco to raise its stake in the mine; Rudd being the only Western leader to criticise Beijing on the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, raising the issue in Parliament; and a parliamentary delegation meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.


The hope is that Rudd will resist similar baiting over Stern Hu.

Trusted advisers in former high-ranking diplomats Ross Garnaut and Dick Woolcott counsel quiet diplomacy. Garnaut, professor of economics at Rudd's alma mater, Australian National University, was ambassador to Beijing from 1985 to 1988 - Rudd's boss when he was there as a junior diplomat. He's now adviser on climate change. Woolcott, former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1988-92) and ambassador to the United Nations (1982-88), is now special envoy promoting Rudd's proposal for an Asia-Pacific community.

Theirs is a call for calm hushed by a media driven by demand for instantaneous response from Beijing in accordance with Australian national interests, never mind Chinese state of affairs.

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First published in the New Straits Times on July 19, 2009.

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About the Author

K.C. Boey is a former editor of Malaysian Business and The Malay Mail. He now writes for The Malaysian Insider out of Melbourne.

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