According to Queensland mining executive Clive Palmer, a long-time supporter of the National Party, Kevin Rudd and his colleagues are too tough on China. In an address to the Queensland Media Club last week, Palmer threw the switch to hyperbole and alleged that the Rudd Government’s policies towards China were motivated by racism. He maintained this was resented by the Chinese who don’t like the idea of being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin.
According to the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Rudd Labor is too soft on China. She maintains the Prime Minister should reverse his decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama when he visits Australia in December. She regards this as an act of weakness.
The exiled Tibetan leader is a frequent traveller. It is unreasonable to expect heads of government will be available to meet him on all occasions. Rudd met the Dalai Lama when Opposition leader in 2007 and said they discussed spiritual matters. John Howard had not scheduled a meeting when prime minister in 2007 but changed his mind when the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the idea. Howard was not prepared to be told what to do by China.
There will be complaints about Rudd’s inability to meet the Dalai Lama on this occasion. However, it should be remembered that the Prime Minister has not attempted to thwart the supportive stance towards the Tibetan leader adopted by prominent Labor backbencher Michael Danby. Moreover, the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, took the correct decision, in the face of pressure from Beijing, in granting a visa to exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who is based in the US.
Like Howard, Rudd wants to develop the best possible relationship between Australia and China. Howard was part of the anti-communist tradition in Australia. But from the time of his first visit to China in 1985, he understood the importance of the relationship between the two nations. By this time Mao Zedong was dead for almost a decade and it was clear China had renounced that part of Mao’s legacy which had resulted in the deaths of millions during the forced famine termed the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the killings and incarcerations that were a part of the disastrous Cultural Revolution which began in the mid-1960s.
Rudd comes from a different generation than Howard. Unlike many of his contemporaries, as a student Rudd never embraced the whateverist school of thought of many of the China scholars of his day namely, the tendency to support whatever was being said or done by the rulers in Beijing at any particular time. Rather, Rudd, influenced by Australian National University academic Pierre Ryckmans (who wrote on China under the pseudonym Simon Leys), studied the Chinese democracy movement with particular attention to the role of dissident Wei Jingsheng. Rudd met Wei in Canberra in 1999.
As a fluent Mandarin speaker, Rudd has a special interest in China. He has attempted to strike a proper balance between his concern for human rights in China and his understanding of the need for as friendly a relationship as possible between Australian and Chinese leaders. As someone who served as a diplomat in China not all that long after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Prime Minister understands how human rights have improved in recent decades.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, there is a tendency for some commentators in Australia to get the relationship between the two nations out of balance. Sure, China is important to Australia. But Australia is also important to China, especially as a reliable and efficient supplier of mineral resources. It is understandable that there is a degree of commercial tension involved. Australia is a free enterprise economy. For all its reforms, China remains an authoritarian regime where government controls business.
Palmer has classified as racist the recent comments by the head of the Foreign Investment Review Board, Patrick Colmer, on the need to regulate Chinese direct investment. Yet he does not use such an emotive term to depict the fact Australian firms are severely constrained if they wish to invest in China.
Likewise, no Australian company would have a realistic chance of opening a mine in a strategically important part of China. Even so, there has been some criticism of the Rudd Government’s decision, acting on Defence Department advice, to prohibit Chinese direct investments at Prominent Hill and Hawks Nest in the Woomera Prohibited Area weapons testing range.
The 60th anniversary of the Communist Party victory in the Chinese Civil War was celebrated last week with an ostentatious display of military power of weapons and personnel.
Contrary to some views, the Rudd Government’s 2009 defence white paper is not directed at China. Yet the Chinese leadership should not be surprised if nations such as Australia focus on the possible reasons for China’s military build-up.
Australia’s one-time infatuation with Mao’s China is a thing of the past as is evident in Bruce Beresford’s fine film Mao’s Last Dancer.
It should not be replaced by passion born of China’s wealth and the business and cultural possibilities this provides.
So far, despite criticism from the likes of Palmer and Hanson-Young, Rudd has got Australia’s China policy about right.