In any debate on China, the voice of the “”whateverists”” can invariably be heard. This term was invented to describe the position, over the years, taken by many Western academics and others that we should all pay due heed to whatever it is that the leadership in Beijing is saying.

That”s why it is so refreshing to see a succession of Australian politicians in recent years say what they believe about China, without fawning before the apparent views of the Communist Party. Some commentators have compared the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott”s direct address to the Australia China Chamber of Commerce in Beijing last week to the approach taken by John Howard when he was prime minister.

The comparison is accurate. However, the essential point is that a degree of bipartisanship is involved here. Abbott”s position is similar to that of Howard. But so was Kevin Rudd”s.

Abbott has received some criticism for saying that “”China should prosper even more if its people enjoyed freedom under the law and the right to choose a government””. Yet, in April 2008, Rudd went even further in his address at Peking University. He spoke about China”s “”problems of broader human rights”” in general and Tibet in particular.

While recognising the importance of China to Australia”s economy, Howard went out of his way to indicate that this would not be at the expense of the nation”s traditional friends. The then Chinese ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, was in the room when Howard delivered the Lowy Lecture in March 2005. Howard deliberately referred to the great democracies of the Pacific – Australia, Japan and the US – while acknowledging the importance of China to all three countries.

The lesson is, or should be, obvious. Australia”s trade with China grew during the periods of the Howard and Rudd governments. China”s leaders do not oversee the purchase of Australia”s primary resources because they like us. They do so because Australia provides an excellent product at competitive prices and has an independent judicial system to resolve any contractual disputes.

Critics of mining, from the former Greens leader Bob Brown on, tend to overlook the fact that Australia”s strong economy – and the “”soft power”” which goes with it – turns on the fact that Australia”s mining industry operates at world”s best practice. Phillip Adams recently repeated the leftist mantra that mining is all about digging up Australia and shipping it overseas. This view is not heard in Beijing.

The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is clever but also tough. The likes of Hu Jintao are not likely to be offended by Abbott”s comment, in the current issue of The Spectator Australia, that “”China is freer than it was but it”s still a repressive state””. This just happens to be the truth.

Party members are well aware of the Soviet-style shuanggui (or “”double regulation””) discipline system which comes into operation when comrades break the rules or fall out of favour with the dictatorship. This is the current fate of Bo Xilai, who recently fell from favour.

And there is history. The current leadership in Beijing traces its power to the Communist Party revolution of 1949, when Mao Zedong became leader. In his recent book Mao”s Great Famine, the Dutch-born scholar Frank Dikotter estimates that the number of deaths due to Mao”s regime, between 1949 and 1976, amounted to a staggering 45 million: most as a result of forced famine, which was a consequence of the so-called Great Leap Forward; the others due to political murder and suicide.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – up until the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 – it was unfashionable in Western circles to discuss the totalitarian gulag that was China. The academics, journalists and business figures, who comprised the whateverists of their day, did not approve of China being criticised. Now political leaders such as Howard, Rudd and Abbott are castigated if they imply that China has residual human rights problems.

The Australian National University professor Hugh White normally talks a lot of sense when commenting on defence. However, in his 2010 Quarterly Essay “”Power Shift””, White went close to saying that the decline of US power in the Asia Pacific entailed that Australia should distance itself from Washington and cultivate Beijing.

This does not make much sense. For starters, many of Australia”s allies and friends in the region have a genuine concern about China”s power. Moreover, it is far from clear what China”s future will be. History suggests that one-party states do not last forever. And China faces an ageing population due primarily to the regime”s one child policy.

If Abbott becomes prime minister, his realistic approach to China is likely to be as successful as that taken by Rudd and Howard. When nations are dependent on one another, a little hard but truthful talk is unlikely to do much harm.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.