Peter Hartcher, Red Flag: Waking Up to China’s Challenge (Quarterly Essay 76, 2019) – and correspondence in Quarterly essay 77)
My usual practice is to delay reading each Quarterly Essay until the next one arrives in my letterbox. Peter Hartcher’s essay on Australia’s response to China’s growing economic strength and political influence, published at the end of 2019, in pre-rona days, feels as if it comes from a past era. Of course, that feeling doesn’t completely reflect the reality, but the essay is looking at the China–Australia connection through a different lens from the one that tends to obsess us at the moment.
In a prescient moment, arguing that it’s unwise for Australian businesses to put all their export eggs in the China basket, Hartcher writes, ‘The thermal coal market is highly diversified globally. Other industries would have a harder time. Universities come to mind.’ However, he’s not talking about a possible crisis in which the Australian government bans flights from China. His concern is with the risk of the risk of a Chinese economic slump or, more central to the argument of his essay, the risk of Beijing using the trade connection as an instrument of political coercion.
The essay’s argument is easily summarised. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is in effect on a war footing with the rest of the world, using economic leverage and cyber weapons rather than military means, and with motives that are seen in China as defensive but by the rest of the world as aggressive. Australia has become increasingly dependent on trade with China and is still largely complacent about any threat. It’s not a matter of choosing China over the increasingly unreliable USA. ‘Whenever Australia is asked to choose between China and America, the ultimate answer must be that we choose Australia.’
The red flag of the essay’s title is both the Chinese national flag and the red flag of warning that Hartcher is raising.
Hartcher tells of a number of Australians who have been hit by the realisation that the Chinese government and its representatives seek to influence politics in Australia. In six of his cases, five – Joe Hockey in 2013, Stephen Conroy in 2016, Penny Wong, Bill Shorten and Richard Marles in 2017, Professor Feng Chongyi in 2016, and journalist John Garnaut in 2009 – resisted the Chinese overtures. The sixth case is Sam Dastyari, who famously fell from grace by departing from party policy on China’s actions in the South China Sea. In his response to correcspondence in QE 77, Hartcher clarifies his point: we know about these cases because the Chinese attempts to influence Australian policy were unsuccessful: we just don’t know about the successful ones.
He lists cases when China has used economic heft to influence the policies of other countries. ‘In the past ten years,’ he writes (p 43), ‘Beijing has imposed economic punishment on at least eleven countries. for a wide range of perceived offences.’ The connection between the crime and the punishment is often not made explicit, but a pattern has emerged. He lists countries ranging from tiny Palau and Mongolia to Canada and, finally, Australia.
He makes a number of recommendations, on immigration, on vetting politicians, on diversifying our trade relations, on defending our democracy. I’m in no position to comment on the rightness or wrongness of his analysis or his proposals, but I can accept his general argument that it’s not a good idea to be complacent.
Sadly the 35 pages of correspondence published in Quarterly Essay 77, Margaret Simons’s Cry Me a River, also predate Covid, apart from Peter Hartcher’s response, and that was clearly written before the serious economic consequences were becoming clear.
The correspondents all take issue with Hartcher’s argument. He relies too heavily on the words of a previous head of ASIO; his proposal to have ASIO vet potential MPs and senators is terrible – Hartcher agreed, but argues for a new parliamentary body to vet candidates; he mistakes Xi Jinping’s statements of intentions for inevitable achievements; he doesn’t allow for the disruptions to China and the rest of the world that climate change will wreak; he underestimates the strength of resistance as it stands; he misunderstands the complexity and diversity of Chinese-heritage and Chinese-born Australian citizens. One response, by Caroline Rosenberg, is a personal testimony from someone who came to Australia from China in her teens: she wishes she had been given this essay as a teen (though if she had been she wouldn’t have read it), because she was totally unprepared for the way the West saw China, and her, and this would have helped. I think, but I can’t be positive, that that is an incredibly subtle and polite way of calling bullshit.