What are we really arguing about when it comes to China

Raised Chinese-Australian voices

Pity another group of pensioners

The monetising of New York

Manners for beginners

Drinking on high – video sketch

 

AN AVERSION TO NIGHTMARES

On January 23, 1936, William Shirer, the American journalist who made his name reporting on the rise of Nazi Germany, was startled to find his name all over the front pages of the afternoon newspapers in Berlin.

There were “hysterical denunciations of me as a liar and a cheat and a ‘German-hater’… Every time the office boy brought in a fresh batch of afternoon papers, with fresh attacks on me, I grew hot under the collar,” he later wrote in The Nightmare Years: 1930–1940.

Six weeks earlier, he had filed a wire story to his American bosses at Hearst’s Universal Service about preparations for the Winter Olympics, to be held in the Bavarian Alps. In his opening paragraph, he reported that Hitler was seeing to it that “the signs that last summer bellowed ‘Jews Get Out’ and ‘Jews Unwanted’ have been quietly removed from Garmisch. All Jew-baiting is officially off in Germany during the Olympics.”

The story was denounced as lies and based on lies. He had forgotten, Shirer wrote, how hysterical the Germans could get.

I never fail to tell China observers, both pro and anti, to read their William Shirer. No historical situation is ever directly applicable to another – and there are obvious differences between Hitler’s 1930s Germany and Xi Jinping’s newly prosperous and economically important China – but Shirer was acute on power, the rise of power, the abuse of power, how human-beings react to power, and how certain forces can be unleashed – or harnessed – by the powerful with powerful ambitions.

Famous for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, it is Shirer’s records of his time as a correspondent in Berlin – like Berlin Diary, The Nightmare Years and “This is Berlin” – which are so illuminating about the human instinct to A, side with the mighty and B, avoid unpalatable truths.

We see both instincts at work today in the back and forth over Australia’s relationship with China. Or rather, our relationship with the Chinese Communist Party which runs China under chair, and president, Xi Jinping because it’s the CCP – not China – that is the real issue.

Who doesn’t feel uneasy about how critics of the CCP are treated, from the week-long detention in Guangzhou of Sydney Professor Feng Chongyi, known for his concerns about Beijing’s influence in Australia; to the imprisonment of human rights lawyers in China; to the Taiwanese human rights activist who “disappeared” on a visit to China;  to the forced removal of Taiwanese delegates from an international conference on trade in “blood” diamonds, held in Perth, because of noisy and unruly objections from the Chinese delegation; to stories of intimidation on campuses here driven by Beijing; to Chinese students  objecting to the way Australian lecturers teach; to something as seemingly arbitrary as John Hugh/Hu, a Chinese-Australian, being prevented from entering China with his mother, on a short visit to scatter his father’s ashes.

The week before, Hu had helped launch a controversial new book by former Greens candidate and ex-Australia Institute boss, Clive Hamilton. The book’s highly charged argument is contained in its title: Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia. (Its original subtitle was How China is Turning Australia into a Puppet State.

That was when it was due to be published by Allen & Unwin before that publisher balked for fear of litigation and that it might be targeted, its CEO wrote, by “Beijing’s agents of influence”… )

Hamilton argues that Chinese Government influence and actions within this country are eroding our sovereignty. A Chinese government spokesperson derided the book as “completely meaningless”, “slander” and “good for nothing”.

But, of course, others have raised serious concerns in the last 12 months about Chinese Government influence here, notably the ABC Four Corners/Fairfax Media investigation, screened June 5, 2017. See here and here.

It has come from official sources too. DFAT boss Frances Adamson sounded a strong caution in a speech to Chinese students at Adelaide’s Confucius Institute last October about silencing or gagging debate. Late last year, in its annual report, ASIO warned of growing “harmful espionage and foreign interference” operations in Australia. ASIO did not name the countries concerned but media reporting made it clear China was a focus.

Hamilton has been attacked as a racist on social media and his book has been described as racist in spite of the author making it clear that not only is his criticism aimed at the CCP – not at China itself and certainly not at the Chinese – but also warning of the dangers of such conflation.

Nevertheless, in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herad, Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, accused the author of using language that “smacks of The Yellow Peril revisited”.

Soutphommasane insisted he wasn’t downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised but he argued that it was concerning to see “sensationalism” creeping into commentary and that “it is time to bring down the temperature”.

Uncanny choice of words because when Shirer visited America in September, 1935, and tried to talk to friends, even Jewish friends, about what he was seeing in Germany, he felt they thought he was “emotional” and “sensational”. When Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws that same month, Shirer wrote, “no-one, at least in New York paid much attention”.

We have just seen Xi win a constitutional change that allows him to rule as long as he likes, thus ending the years of collective rule that seemed so important at one time to the Chinese hierarchy after the unstoppable Mao Zedong, and the setting up of a new National Supervisory Commission with power to detain without charge not just Communist Party members, as previously, but all public servants and village officials.

We used to think capitalism and democracy went hand in hand, that you couldn’t have the first without the freedoms of the second. Xi’s authoritarian China, with its increasingly harsh crackdowns on dissenters and pro-democracy activists, as well as the Muslim Uighur communities, Falun Gong, and Tibetan Buddhists, is showing otherwise. That’s why all this matters so much.

As a final thought, does anyone know the current whereabouts of the eye roll business reporter?

Liang Xiangyi’s mesmerising display of disdainful disbelief at the National People’s Congress in March as another journalist asked an interminable and fawning Dorothy Dixer was caught on camera and went viral, leading to memes and hilarious copycat videos.

We know she was stripped of her NPC press accreditation – but nothing more. We can only imagine.

Because of an eye roll.

WHO ARE THE REAL RACISTS?

Back to Clive Hamilton. The plethora of earlier news stories about his book’s difficult path to publication may have been why, when it was finally launched in Sydney on March 14 in the Macquarie Room of NSW Parliament House, there were so very few local media in the room. Been there, done that, must have been the chiefs of staff’s reasoning.

And there, they missed the real story.

For that room that day was packed with Chinese-Australians. I would estimate 95 per cent of the room was ethnic Chinese. And they were hugely supportive. The first burst of loud applause broke out when one of the opening speakers said of the book, “It says nothing about the Chinese. That is not racism. The other side that says Chinese are not capable of real democracy, they are the real racists!”

These are people who say they are intensely worried about the activities of the CCP in China and here. And they seemed relieved – certainly that’s what various members of the audience told me then and later – that these matters were now being aired in public.

At a panel discussion in Sydney’s York Street ten days later, organised by the New York-based television and YouTube team  China Uncensored, drawn here by the reports of Chinese influence and the Sam Dastyari political donation scandal, one audience member, Chinese-Australian, spoke of “coming to Australia to get away from the regime only to find the regime here”.

He meant the fact that almost all Chinese language media here, from newspapers to radio, is heavily influenced by Beijing. When another Chinese-Australian – again, the audience was weighted towards ethnic Chinese – lamented the fact that SBS broadcasts a daily Chinese language news programme supplied by the CCP’s China Central Television, there was a burst of supportive and angry clapping.

This is not an issue that will go away and it needs to be handled with sensitivity, but also confidence in our own democratic values – and a determination that those values remain front and centre.

In July 2016, a few hours after an international tribunal in The Hague had announced its decision on a legal wrangle between China and the Philippines over strategic areas of the South China Sea, I was lunching with a Chinese-Australian friend who had spent several years working in Beijing. He showed me the feed on WeChat on his phone. It was full of intense messages of disgust and anger from young Chinese that The Hague had backed the Philippines.

For me, it was a revelation to see the strength of youthful nationalist pride given I still remember the students of Tiananmen and their demands for democratic reforms.

But this is a generation, two generations in fact, that have been schooled differently since June 4, 1989. Shelley Zhang of China Uncensored, which tackles the Chinese government with satire via television and YouTube, explained to me that these kids – many of them now adults in their 30s – have instead always had lessons in what is called “patriotic education”.

These are young people who, like President Xi Jinping, are now intent on ending a “century of humiliation” experienced at the hands of western colonialism. They even have a name: fengqing or angry youth.

In his Herald opinion piece criticising Hamilton’s book, Tim Soutphommasane argued that if we are not careful, we will run the risk of setting fire to our multicultural harmony.

But public servant Albert Fan, who was born in Hong Kong and who first arrived in Australia in 1979, argues the very opposite.

Fan, a member of the pro-democracy Australian Values Alliance, is hugely worried that, because of the activities of the CCP here, the political reaction and media coverage, and the reports of pro-China activism amongst some students studying here, that Australians are getting the wrong idea about the majority of Chinese who live and/or study here.

“I love democracy and freedom of speech. And soft power can become hard power very quickly,” he warns.

“We have to do something [otherwise] people [here] will mix up the CCP with Chinese people and China. If we don’t do anything, say something, we will be like the Chinese in Indonesia. There’ll be an uprising against us.”

Extreme words and that doesn’t sound like mainstream Australia. But it serves to show that these are the people who are really wearing the pressures of the CCP’s actions.

FROZEN ASSETS

Hardie Grant was the publisher that went ahead with publishing Silent Invasion. Its CEO and co-founder Sandy Grant, also published, when he was managing director of Heinemann Australia, Spycatcher by Peter Wright in 1987, a book which the British government tried to stop being published.

They were famously thwarted by a young Malcolm Turnbull acting for the publisher and Wright.

Peter Wright said at the time he’d only written the book – which went on to sell well over a million copies (though its accuracy and allegations were later challenged) – because he couldn’t get a proper pension out of the British government and so had to make some retirement money of his own.

A nice segue because now there’s a new fight about to erupt on behalf of residents of Australia due a British pension or part-pension – who are getting a raw deal from the British government – and the person who could bring the most influence to bear on the Brits is one Malcolm Turnbull who, as Australian Prime Minister, will be taking part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) between April 16 and 20 in London.

Except he doesn’t seem to want to.

In spite of constant representations to the government, he has argued against raising the issue at CHOGM. On the evidence of letters though, his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop seems more inclined to do battle.

On the same date, February 9, 2018, that the PM wrote to two campaigners, saying “the Government’s view is that CHOGM is not the right place to raise this matter”, Jurek Juszczyk of DFAT wrote to another affected person, “on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs”, that “the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in April will be an opportunity to press the UK on the issue again, as I expect other affected Commonwealth members will do”.

CHOGM is where Jim Tilley, the tireless campaigner on behalf of these some 250,000 residents, wants Australia to stage a major and decisive stand. He has been pushing for this for 17 years ever since he realised there was a huge anomaly in how the citizens of different countries were being treated by Britain, and have been since 1947.

The problem is that once someone resident in Australia starts claiming a full or part pension from Britain (because they once worked there), the amount is frozen at that amount from then on. While British pensioners resident in Britain get annual CPI increases, that doesn’t apply with the pensioners in Australia. (I will be one of them myself given I worked in Britain for some years in the 1980s.)

And so explains Tilley, Delysia Willmott, 98, who paid the compulsory National Insurance contributions all her life, was receiving 17.5 pounds ($32) a week after her retirement in 1979. But if she’d been getting the increases, she would have been getting 122 pounds ($223) a week. Mrs Willmott died here last week, just before Easter.

The attitude of the British government towards these Australians – and to the residents of another 48 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, like Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, who are in the same boat (though, very oddly, residents of the United States and the European Union and even Mauritius do get CPI increases) – was plainly expressed here in early 2017 by one Conservative MP, Peter Lilley, now retired.

“I’ll be perfectly frank,” he happily told a business function in Sydney. “The people who’ll benefit don’t have votes. And if we have [the money], that’s likely to go on people who do have votes. And that’s just a simple fact of life. I know it’s unfair but you’ve gone to a wonderful country, and you will prosper mightily here. I’m afraid, to look back to the mother country and hope that we’ll be generous and fair is an unwise hope.”

And yet, given the numbers of people who once worked in Britain but who now reside overseas – and who are therefore all off the health and social welfare books of the British taxpayer – the Brits are doing very nicely out of the arrangement. Altogether, over half a million residents spread over 120 countries are affected.

Each year, says Tilley, the British Government is now collecting around 100 billion pounds in National Insurance contributions. It would cost that government just 600 million pounds a year if they were treating pensions everywhere equally. And here, he says, that would push around $500 million into the Australian economy every year.

What’s more, this would also save the Australian government a substantial amount in Australian pension reductions as the extra income was taken into account, Tilley has estimated.

This year’s CHOGM theme is “Towards a Common Future” with the expressed hope that the Commonwealth will seek to deliver a “prosperous, secure, sustainable and fair future for all its citizens”.

Tilley, never one to miss an opening, has seized on the latter aim – fairness – as a weapon with which to challenge British PM Theresa May who will host CHOGM.

Tilley recently met with Turnbull to argue the case. He reminded the PM of his role in Peter Wright’s situation.

Pessimists mutter nothing will ever change given how old the issue is. But Brexit makes the Commonwealth countries – and their satisfaction and happiness with Britain – suddenly a lot more important to the future of the Brits.

Tilley says lustily of CHOGM’s “fairness” agenda and British recalcitrance on indexation: “We should be saying, ‘get your own bloody house in order’.”

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

I first visited New York in the mid-eighties where I was thrilled to be able to eat soft shell crab overlooking Central Park and buy a pair of shoes from an expensive boutique on Madison.

How many of us non-New Yorkers chimed with screenwriter Nora Ephron when she wrote, “I thought [New York] was going to be the most magical, fraught-with-possibility place … And I turned out to be right.”

On a visit there in February, I picked up a re-issue of the 1958 novel by Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything. One of her characters exclaims of this city which had by then become the epitome of 20th century American glamour: “How she loved New York! She had never seen anything like it in her entire life.”

That’s the New York we all know and love. But I hadn’t seen the city since the late 1990s, and over my eight night stay, was disheartened to realise that this glorious, brave, sensational, feisty town has turned into a kind of Disney theme park.

Oh yes, the time-honoured attractions are still there – the Met, MOMA, the Frick, the Cloisters, the Staten Island ferry, the accents – but it felt to me as if this city, the very epitome of American civilisation and aspiration – had been gutted.

Almost every shop and café in the central areas belongs to a chain. Workers rush in and out to get their coffee fix. The deluxe boutiques and stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys now cater only to the rarefied, hugely rich. I picked up a pair of Schiaparelli shocking pink flat slides in Bergdorf’s to check the price on the simple sandal’s sole: $US695. Glitz, shine and sparkle lorded over more discreet tailoring on every coat hanger and shelf. Meanwhile, outside there are beggars galore and homeless in every possible hidey-hole.

Just as the middle class has been pummelled in the western world, so the middle of cities like New York is being torn out, sliced and diced. For the first time ever, I was glad to get into the car taking me to JFK airport – and away.

THE ART OF CIVILITY

Having said that, there is one thing that was truly wonderful about New York and that was the politeness and agreeableness of New Yorkers – and that goes for almost all the Americans I met on my trip, on both the east coast and west.

Bus drivers, taxi drivers, librarians, passers-by, waiters, bar men, all seemed to be going out of their way to make people feel good.

I never once saw a cyclist, skateboarder or rollerskater on a footpath. As for cars, I only had to appear at a street corner in suburban West Hollywood – note, a corner without a cross walk in sight – for cars, expensive ones too, to come to a halt to let me cross.

Here, in Sydney, you’re lucky to get across a crosswalk safely given all the cars which have tried to race the lights only to crowd the intersection. When I recently remonstrated with a driver, pointing to the WALK sign, with cars braked hard on a steep hill and pedestrians having to risk their lives – and legs – he leaned out the window and abused me. Hello? In what universe did he think he was in the right?

A friend, also arriving back from overseas, said she knew she was back in Australia when, in the space of the first 30 minutes, three people had been rude to her.

We are turning into a nation of self-entitled, ungracious assholes and you can only wonder – given manners and concern for other people are taught first in the home and at school – what has been going on in Australian families and classrooms for the last 40 or so years?

MANNERS IN THE AIR

Of course, you could always try getting a drink flying this airline. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTnZVUuphlk