First 'Conversation with the Archbishop' for 2019 tackles China questions

China-watchers discuss how Australia should engage Asian giant

By Chris Shearer

March 21 2019

The key to understanding China’s goals and place in the world lies in the views of the ruling communist party, and particularly its leader, Xi Jinping, according to two seasoned China-watchers.

Joining Archbishop Philip Freier for the first ‘Conversation with the Archbishop’ of 2019, senior lecturer on Chinese policy and society at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute Dr Delia Lin and former Australian China correspondent Rowan Callick delved into China’s immense political, social and economic complexities, and how poorly many in the west understood them.

China under Xi was not a ‘business as usual’ communist regime Dr Lin argued, telling the audience that “it’s a very different China from ten years ago or 20 years ago”.

“To understand how we should engage with China, I think we really need to understand Xi Jinping’s rule,” she said.

“The way that he rules China is very different from his predecessors in the Hu Jintao era or Jiang Zemin era or Deng Xiaoping era … what Xi Jinping himself calls today’s China is a new style political party system – Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”

Mr Callick agreed, saying that Xi “is remaking China” in line with his own views, and that it would be a mistake to assume the country’s development would lead to greater liberalisation.

“There’s been this assumption by some in the West, foolishly, that modernisation equals westernisation. That’s never been true and it’s less true in China than of most places,” he said.

“So we’ve seen the party take over many roles from government in recent times and so it’s called by many observers a ‘party state’. So this is a very different type of organisation altogether. Every organisation in China has to have a party committee; a church; a sports club; a private company should have a party committee.”

Beyond internal changes, Mr Callick also suggested that China under Xi is casting off the isolationist policies of its past and trying to overcome what it thinks of as “a century of humiliation” that began with the Opium Wars.

“Since Xi Jinping took over China, he felt that China now has got the confidence to make a noise, to make a voice in the world and to exert its power of discourse around the globe and also, at the same time, to have more dominance of Asia and the globe,” he said.

“So there’s not in my view an intention of seizing new territory, but one of China itself coming into the world, making its presence felt as this is the ‘glorious time’ for China right now.

“It’s weaponising, if you like, in some ways, China’s economic rise.”

Dr Freier noted that this had posed a concern for Australia in the Pacific, where Chinese influence had begun to be felt in areas that were traditionally considered Australian spheres of influence.

“We’ve seen some reasonably … extraordinary decisions of Australia putting very significant investment basically to replace Chinese-funded investment in some of our near Pacific neighbours,” he said.

“They do look a bit sort of reactionary and if you’re looking at who’s got the deepest pockets, presumably China is always going to win that kind of alliance.”

Mr Callick said he thought it would be “very unfortunate” if the Pacific Islands became “a repository for competitive forces to come in and do things for people”, suggesting instead that partnerships could be formed with China. He pointed to a joint New Zealand-China pilot program that established an aid agency in the Cook Islands last year as an example.

“I don’t see why Australia shouldn’t also work with China,” he said.  

Dr Lin added that for Australia, understanding how to engage with China was a difficult question, because “the political system in China now is something that we have never seen”.

“A very common attitude in that circumstance when we don’t know what to do is to take a binary stance; we’re either for China or against China and I don’t agree that’s a good attitude because it’s not an either-or situation,” she said.

She argued that because the party state has “embedded” its values throughout China’s legal, judicial, educational and cultural processes and even across decision-making and personal lifestyles, a sophisticated approach was needed.

“The more we understand it, the more we understand how it works, people will find space for meaningful discussion and for meaningful engagement.

“We need to engage with China and the Chinese people, but we really need to understand how the regime is like and also to understand that the people are different from the regime.”  

Mr Callick agreed, saying that he found the “shrillness of political debate” frustrating in that it often conflates the idea of the Party with the whole of China, affecting how we think about engaging.

“It is channelled quite cleverly by the Party into the ears of, let’s say, Australian business people whose businesses depend heavily on China and those people come back here and say China is really angry with us for something or other and one of the worst things, one of the things that irritates me … is the idea that China is the party state or Xi Jinping is China or the Politburo is China, you know?

“China is 1.4 billion [people], it’s vast. Chinese people are highly individualistic. In my view they parallel Americans for their individualism and what we’re seeing now is a rather strange version of China.”

Mr Callick also said that both Christianity and Buddhism appeared to be on the rise in China as the Chinese people realise they no longer face the “existential challenges” that had dominated the lives of the previous generations.

“They’ve survived and they’ve started to prosper and I think now what people [are asking is] what’s this for, what’s the meaning of this?” he said.

“I’ve met people outside the, for example, Catholic cathedral in South Beijing on a Wednesday in Holy Week, packed cathedral, packed, and there was a couple of young fellows outside, couldn’t quite get in. ‘What are you doing?’ And this guy said to me, well, what do I do, he said, I’m in marketing, most of my friends they just want to talk about the latest mobile phone, what its features are. He said I feel I’ve outgrown this. There must be something more. There’s something genuine happening here. I’m interested in this.”