Xi Jinping’s China and the Australian left’s dilemma

The arrest in Beijing last week of the Chinese-born Australian writer Yang Hengjun has sent shockwaves through the community of writers, academics, journalists and activists engaged with China. That someone so experienced in handling the vicissitudes of the party state could fall victim to its machinations points to just how perilous China’s politics have become.

Australian blogger Yang Hengjun was detained by secret police as he arrived in China.Credit:Sanghee Liu

But Yang’s arrest is only the most recent case in a period during which the future that Australia once imagined with China at its centre has been upturned.

From 2016 and the Sam Dastyari affair through to the vitriolic debate about PRC party-state influence in our political life and the international reporting of mass internment camps in China’s western region of Xinjiang, plus a multitude of other issues, has come a dawning awareness of the hard political realities of China under Xi Jinping.

Yet the heavy lifting in this critical national debate on China has been led by a small and unlikely coalition of specialist academics, journalists and policymakers, rather than a broad spectrum of our political and public life.

That the right wing in Australia would be absent is hardly a surprise. It has largely retreated into a hypertensive reactionary echo chamber and is unserious on substantive national questions.

More dispiriting is the silence of the progressive left in Australia.

Mainstream progressivism has studiously diminished, deflected or looked away from China’s direction under Xi. The Dastyari affair was reduced to partisan politics or insinuations about the role of ASIO. The national shame of offshore detention has been turned into a moral equivalence to neutralise any response to the internment camps in Xinjiang.

The accusation of anti-China xenophobia has been readily used to close down debate about the nature of the PRC party state and its implications for Australia.

There are important exceptions to the left’s silence. Clive Hamilton has pushed the boundaries on the debate over PRC party-state influence. A special mention must go to the Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor, who has been uncompromising in highlighting the activities  in Tasmania of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, the peak United Front organisation that lobbies to change Australia’s One China policy to align with Beijing’s One China principle.

Yet O’Connor, like Hamilton, has been subject to the most extraordinary opprobrium for her stand, even from within her own party, and as China has continued down its path under Xi, the equivocation of mainstream progressivism has become ever clearer.

To understand why means understanding the place of progressive politics in Australia’s neoliberal turn since the 1980s. These are, on the surface, adversarial forces, but in truth progressive politics has been intrinsic to Australian neoliberalism, together forming the two parts of the same story of social and economic change in modern Australia.

It has often been a difficult partnership, but when a subject has emerged that has been able to reconcile both forces, our public and political life has embraced it.

China has been such a subject. China offers both a progressive, cosmopolitan vision for a new Australia at home in Asia, and also a market of hundreds of millions waiting for the goods and services of new, competitive Australian businesses.

On no other issue have progressive politics and corporate Australia deployed their respective arguments so wholly to the same goal. It is no surprise that our universities, the key public instrument for reconciling neoliberalism and progressivism, have built the relationship with China into the core of their institutional purpose.

Therefore, for progressives to imagine a future for Australia’s relationship with China that faces fully the reality of its party-state system, accepting the profound social, cultural and economic implications of doing so, means seeing the complicity of progressive politics in the neoliberal project and beginning the task of disentangling them.

This is not a call for grandstanding or belligerence – those are the traits of the right – but to recover the qualities of realism and understanding, tempered with moral and political conviction, that should be at the heart of any progressive political engagement with China and its current system.

Dr Mark Harrison is senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Tasmania.

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