In recent times China has been much on our minds. In this post I’ve collected a number of diverse articles and radio segments bearing on China and our relationship with China which seemed to me interesting. I’m not attempting to deal comprehensively with mess our relationship with China has become.
Visit of Premier Li Keqiang
That’s from an article Li Keqiang’s visit a good sign for the China-Australia relationship on 27 March 2017.
Premier Li Keqiang, second only to President Xi Jinping, spent five days in Australia to consolidate the relationship between the two countries.
There were questions, of course, but the relationship looked open, full of promise and working well.
That was then, this is now
Last week the two remaining Australian China-based media journalists, Bill Birtles of the ABC and Michael Smith from the AFR, were flown home, having been interviewed about the detention of Australian citizen and Chinese state media journalist, Cheng Lei, now in indefinite detention amid claims of imperilling Chinese national security.
Birtles did many interviews with ABC programs. The best I heard was with Linda Mottram at ABC RN’s PM. Five years ago he found China a relatively relaxed and open place to work. Now, he said, it was impossible to make a documentary, because of harassment, and because no-one wanted to talk to Australian journalists, with Australia being consistently and comprehensively rubbished on state media.
China our biggest export destination
China is by far our biggest export destination, taking around 30 per cent of our exports.
- In 2017-18 Australia exported $123.3 billion in goods and services to China, equal to about 6.7 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
There are over 12,000 Australian exporters selling goods to China either directly or via Hong Kong and over 3,000 Australian businesses based there.
Then there is, or was, a significant flow of Chinese students and tourists to our shores.
In November last year Adam Triggs made that 38 per cent and said this:
- It’s true that Australia exports a lot to China — about 38 per cent of its exports. This is far more than to Japan, Australia’s second-largest export destination at around 16 per cent. At roughly AU$144 billion (US$99 billion) a year, exports to China contribute 8 per cent of Australia’s GDP.
Is this a problem? Some fear that these benefits could be at risk if China were to weaponise its trade with Australia as part of a geopolitical dispute, or if the Chinese economy were to suffer a crisis. Luckily, neither is a realistic threat.
As Shiro Armstrong and Peter Drysdale have noted, China has zero strategic interest in weaponising trade against Australia. Yes, Australia is dependent on China, but China is also dependent on Australia. Australia supplies 61 per cent of China’s iron ore, 53 per cent of its coal and 23 per cent of its thermal coal. Australia’s shares in each are increasing.
That was Marise Payne, and her counterpart Wang Yi in December 2018
Now it seems the whole relationship has been well and truly weaponised, apart from actual shooting.
Saul Eastlake’s assessment of the Chinese economy
Economist Saul Eslake assesses the strength of the Chinese economy in Is time running out for the Chinese economy? also published later with slight changes at The Conversation as China’s leaders are strong and emboldened. It’s wrong to see them as weak and insecure.
He sees strength and resilience, rather than weakness. However, as an ’emerging’ economy they have been using debt like an ‘advanced’ economy:
No problem he says because most of that debt is owed by state-owned enterprises to state-owned banks. If a lot of that debt were to turn bad, which is by no means impossible, then they just solve it by writing it off and then recapitalising the state-owned banks by drawing down on the foreign exchange reserves.
Problem is that the foreign exchange reserves have not kept up with the increased debt:
How this is managed, I’ll leave you to read the article, but Eslake thinks their foreign exchange reserves are more than adequate, the main theoretical problem being a flight of capital:
If some occurrence caused a tsunami of capital outflows and the Chinese authorities didn’t have any other ways of stopping it (such as confiscating the assets of, or imprisoning or executing, people who tried to get their money out of the country, something I’m sure they wouldn’t baulk at), then there would be a currency crisis…
Then, he says:
- It’s worth remembering that the lesson the Chinese Communist Party drew from the collapse of the Soviet empire is that once brutal authoritarian regimes have clearly failed to deliver ongoing improvements in people’s well-being, which they promise in return for the surrender of individual freedoms, they can only survive as long as they are willing to kill their own people in sufficient numbers pour encourager les autres, or someone else is willing and able to do it for them.
The Chinese economy keeps powering on, and in large part does so because it is becoming less dependent on the rest of the world:
- In 2019, exports accounted for only 18.4 per cent of China’s GDP (according to World Bank data), down from a peak of 36 per cent in 2006, and less than in any year since 1991. Big economies, like China’s now is, tend to be relatively closed: thus, exports only represent 12 per cent of US GDP and 18.5 per cent of Japan’s (compared with Australia’s 24 per cent, for example).
Whatever dependence they have they will now seek to diversify away from Australia. I believe they are reducing their dependence on our beef, for example, by buying more American beef. Ditto for a number of other products.
World War 2 shapes modern China
Recently Tom Switzer had an interesting conversation with
Rana Mitter on China’s new nationalism. Mitter is an Oxford university historian who has written a book on on how the new Chinese nationalism is being shaped by a re-interpretation of China’s role in World War II.
He points out that the Chinese tied up a million Japanese troops, which may have made a difference to how we fared. It is true that the people who fought the Japanese ended up on Formosa, now called Taiwan. Nevertheless he said that China was in on the ground floor with forming the United nations and helped write the international charter of human rights.
Just to sort out the history, the UN was formed officially in 1945, with 26 signatories who had signed a United Nations Declaration in 1942. China was one of them. The people who fought the Japanese, the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to Taiwan in December 1949.
- Chang urged removing all references to nature and God to make the document more universal, and used aspects of Confucianism to settle stalemates in negotiations.
Of course, China changed when Mao took over. My knowledge of Mao’s thought is close to zero, but communism was based on a Western philosophy, so it was no surprise that he opposed Confucianism.
Mitter ends up saying that China should get back to cooperating with the rest of the world rather than trying to make it conform to its notion of itself. Something along those lines.
Leaving aside the USA, Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the ANU, says China has now alienated a large number of countries, including Australia, India, Japan, Europe and much of Southeast Asia and the developing world.
It seems, though, that we are being made an example of what happens if we show overt impertinence.
China projects soft power
This segment where Phillip Adams talks to James Tager, Deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America, and Sam Voutas, actor and independent filmmaker about Made in Hollywood, censored by China really sent a chill up my spine.
It seems that the big-name American film production houses have become dependent on a large and growing Chinese market. For some time now filmmakers have engaged in self censorship, anticipating what the Chinese censor will strike out. However, now they are being subject to demands that as part of the deal they will include material which tells the Chinese story according to the party line.
China not immune from loneliness epidemic
Even more chilling than that was Adams’ conversation with Noreena Hertz in What happens when a loneliness epidemic meets a pandemic?
Hertz is described as an economist and renowned thought leader, academic and broadcaster. If you check her out on Wikipedia, she clearly does not please everyone and might be described as a precocious radical lefty out of a British business school, one who has a particular gift for self-promotion.
However, she is has a PhD in economics and is not stupid. I recall her commentary around the turn of the century, when she could mix with the powerful elite at cocktails, then throw on jeans and a T-shirt and join with the protesters against global capitalism. That was when anti-capitalist protest choked up cities, before the capitalists started having meetings at places like Dohar and Cancún where the mobs could not go.
I think she could be onto something with her Generation K, a 2015 study of British and American teenagers characterised by:
- anxiety, loneliness, a desire for connection, a desire to co-create, a commitment to societal equality, anti-traditional institutions, commitment to the environment and fear about their own financial futures.
- Key findings include that this Generation is more anxious than previous ones, more intent on being unique, and more concerned about inequality. She posits that they have been profoundly shaped not only by technology but also by the recession and an increasing sense of existential threat. She writes “unlike those currently aged between 20 and 30, the “Yes we can” generation, who grew up believing the world was their oyster, for Generation K the world is less oyster, more Hobbesian nightmare.”
What really stunned her, she told Adams, was to find a US Ivy League university running courses for students on how to relate to other people, including how to read facial expressions and body language. The university had found that students were so isolated and lonely they couldn’t relate to other humans.
Never fear, the market is rising to meet the need. She found 600 sites where you can rent a friend by the hour. She did just that, had a great time with her companion shopping, then when about to suggest coffee was surprised when her companion looked at her watch, said “times up”, asked for her money, and was gone.
Now here’s the thing – isolation and loneliness is happening in China too.
Hertz puts this down to the outcome of what Marx, Weber and Durkheim were talking about in ‘alienation’ and anomie.
Not helped, of course, by the logic of capitalism, which sees the individual as both the ultimate unit of labor and the target consumer.
I wondered what Confucius would have said about all this, and in particular about the anger currently displayed by the Chinese. We know the importance of filial duty. Wikipedia gives us this:
- Herbert Fingarette’s conceptualisation of Confucianism as a philosophical system which regards “the secular as sacred”, Confucianism transcends the dichotomy between religion and humanism, considering the ordinary activities of human life—and especially human relationships—as a manifestation of the sacred, because they are the expression of humanity’s moral nature (xìng 性), which has a transcendent anchorage in Heaven (Tiān 天).
Social harmony is central, and I find this of interest:
- The worldly concern of Confucianism rests upon the belief that human beings are fundamentally good, and teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor, especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue in a morally organised world. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, yì, and lǐ, and zhì.
Rén (‘benevolence’ or ‘humaneness’) is the essence of the human being which manifests as compassion. It is the virtue-form of Heaven.
Li embodies the entire web of interaction between humanity, human objects, and nature.
That all sounds good to me, but does not explain why Pang had to exclude nature, nor why the Chinese have at times trashed the environment with seemingly gay abandon. (No, they are not alone in that.)
Of course, it may seem gross impertinence for me to be blundering about in the Chinese system of thought. However, I’m willing to be tutored and learn. I do see the possibility of common ground, and I do see a determination on their part not to find it.
As for our leaders, what I see is complete ineptitude. I’ll leave it at that.
Sam Crane, more knowledgeable than I am, tells us in Confucius doesn’t live here anymore (2014) that officially Confucianism is back in vogue after a diversion by Mao, but:
- China today impatiently modernizes at breakneck speed. All that was solid in the Confucian past has melted into air. In the tumult of the present, Confucius has returned, but only as a vague yet unattainable desire for a more stable cultural identity.
Leaders cite classical texts, but capitalism is culturally and socially corrosive:
- these official references to Confucius, even if they were something more than political posturing, cannot counteract the much more powerful social and cultural changes sweeping across China. Rapid modernization in all of its manifestations – commercialization, urbanization, social mobility, the rise of the individual – have fundamentally transformed the contours of Chinese society.
As an addendum, the featured image comes from an article Australia is planning a major blow to China’s dominance in electrical vehicle market. Here is the larger image:
Photoshopped, of course.
Two Australian companies are setting up the break the Chinese monopoly by setting up graphite processing facilities for batteries here and in the USA. The Australian plant is planning to supply Germany. The Japanese are also lining up to buy the stuff from somewhere other than China.