Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag

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.

6 responses to “Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag

  1. If commentary does not at the same time by Peter Hartcher take into account the more significant dangers to our sovereignty from the US (all those drone-enabling spy installations in central and north-west Australia – their propaganda institutes in our university (my alma mater at any rate) and their forcing of our successive governments to join their wars and to spend our taxation dollars in purchasing their war weaponry WMD – and to give major US corporations virtually tax free status. Focusing on China is not necessarily wrong – but it is the lesser of a range of foreign vested interests we should be examining. In any event our own national – if not in my name – participation in spying against other lands and peddling influence – fairly blatantly if I may say so – does not inspire me with any confidence. When Joe Hockey is made Ambassador to Washington and crows of his chumminess with golfers including Trump – and tells Australia that upon finishing his appointment in Washington DC he is STAYING there – corruption of the first order is what springs to my mind. Oh, and I have both very long-term Aussie-Chinese friendships – as well as kinship connections. I hate the opportunities for ignorant racism as much as any one else that the China bashing from the US and copycats from here leads to! It has to stop.


    • Hartcher acknowledges some of the problems of the US alliance, Jim, and I don’t follow his journalism enough to know what happens when he writes about US spy installations etc, but I don’t think we can require that he writes about that in detail in an essay whose subject is China.


  2. COVID_19 changes everything, doesn’t it?
    The death rate in the US is appalling, and even if they are stupid enough to re-elect Trump (after all, they were stupid enough the first time round), the US has lost its moral authority in the rest of the world. Because it’s been exposed as a country that doesn’t look after its own people, to the extent that its death rate is the worst in the world even though it’s the richest country in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the most terrifying things I’ve seen is Trump boasting about the ratings of his Corona briefings. If that’s his mindset, thank God the state governors have separate powers from his


    • The first election he won was a given when his opponent was the most hated woman in America as was evident from citzens being interviewed. One most apt sound bite., “I have a choice between a clown and a criminal. I guess I choose the clown.” Hilary Clinton had to be a joke running with the public opinion being very clear….
      Crossing my fingers he doesn’t get in again.


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