The 70th Anniversary on Tuesday of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) coming to power, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, happened to be accompanied by some welcome doses of reality by Australian political leaders past and present. But not before a few commentators exhibited a familiar softness with respect to the Chinese regime.

Appearing in the Newspapers segment of the ABC TV News Breakfast program on Tuesday, ABC journalist Ashlynne McGhee commented on the report in The Australian that morning of statements made by Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia. She said that Cheng was “reminding Australia that our economic success is because of China, that our prosperity is because of China”. There was no critique of the ambassador’s self-serving assessment.

Later that morning, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer was interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on ABC Radio National Breakfast. Asked about Cheng’s remarks, Downer acknowledged that “China is important to Australia economically”.  However, he added that Australia has had “a very important role to play in China’s economic development”.  In short, a form of mutual dependence.

China does not buy Australia’s raw minerals and food because its leaders like Australia.  It does so because Australia produces high quality goods and services which the Chinese want to purchase.  Moreover, China’s leaders understand that Australia is a stable democracy with efficient industries and an independent legal system.

On Sky News last Monday, journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh appeared on the panel discussing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent speech in Chicago concerning China’s economic status. Morrison lent weight to the criticism of China that it receives unduly favourable treatment under the World Trade Organisation’s rules since it is classified as a developing nation.

Walsh criticised Morrison’s stance.   She maintained that if there is something wrong with the WTO benchmarking system, “then it’s up to a negotiation between countries”.  Walsh added that this “is not something where leaders of Australia and the United States need to lecture China”.  Her position was that countries should change the WTO guidelines if the current “benchmarking needs fixing”.

As anyone who follows international trade will know, it’s highly unlikely that a body like the WTO will reform its benchmarking guidelines anytime soon.  In the meantime, China will continue to benefit from its developing nation status and continue to engage in acts of intellectual property theft.

Interviewed by David Speers on Sky News on Wednesday, Morrison defended his Chicago comment that China is a “major world power”. The Prime Minister told Speers that China “is the second biggest economy in the world” with the capacity to put on a display of hypersonic weapons. The reference was to the military parade, led by China’s president for life Xi Jinping, in Beijing on Tuesday.

Morrison added that China is “a big developed nation with enormous economic resources” and “the ability to invest those resources” internationally.  He also said that China’s greatest achievement was “to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty”.

That’s true.  But it’s also true that this achievement came about only after Mao’s death in September 1976. In view of this, it is telling that Xi Jinping’s first official engagement this week was to pay his respects at Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen Square.  Xi was quoted by China’s state run China Central Television (CCTV) as saying:  “A promising nation must have heroes and a country with future prospects must have pioneers.”

Unlike some of his predecessors, Xi has refused to distance the contemporary CCP from its founder Mao.  Yet it is widely accepted that around 45 million Chinese died during what was called the Great Leap Forward, effectively a forced famine, between 1958 and 1962.  During what was called the Great Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, around 100 million Chinese were purged and perhaps two million killed.

On RN Breakfast on Tuesday, Professor Steve Tsang (director of London University’s China Institute) was asked whether Chinese living on the mainland would be enthusiastic about the 70th anniversary celebration. He replied: “Well, that depends on the age of individuals. For those who have lived through 1949 to 2019, I think they would not remember it as a continuous 70 years of steady progress and amazing achievement.  They will remember the first quarter of a century of Mao’s rule as utter hell.”

Perhaps it’s understandable why Xi, who himself was purged during the Cultural Revolution, wants to paper-over the utter hell that Mao inflicted on his own people, would be aware that de-authorisation of the communist dictator Josef Stalin (1878-1953) by his successors played a part in the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet Union regime in 1991.  In short, Xi has a reason not to criticise Mao.

What is not so easily explained turns on those in the West, Australia included, who supported the Chinese dictatorship in Mao’s time when it was at its most repressive.  As I mentioned in a previous column, on Mao’s death, Coalition prime minister Malcolm Fraser and Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam moved and seconded, respectively, a condolence motion in the House of Representatives. Five MP’s, including Labor’s Dick Klugman, walked out in protest.

But it was not just politicians.   Apologists for Mao included academics (C.P. Fitzgerald, Myra Roper, Ted Wheelwright), journalists (Wilfred Burchett, Eric Walsh, Mungo MacCallum, Francis James, Vincent Mathews) and businessmen (Ken Myer, Andrew Grimwade) and many more besides including students who visited China.

Writing in Harpers in February 1972, the British journalist Eric Gordon admitted that, in reporting the Cultural Revolution, he had “played down the violence of the Red Guards, never mentioning the beatings” of professors, former landlords, old women and the like. Gordon was a communist.

But other non-communists who visited China between 1949 and 1976 simply refused to see the purges, the starvation and the murders.  A few who travelled to China during Mao’s time have acknowledged such faults, but only a few.

The error made by many Westerners about China in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s was to not be realistic about the nation.  That’s why it’s good news that the likes of Downer and Morrison are telling it like it is today.

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Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au

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