David Walker

I began reading Peter Hartcher’s essay in China. I was teaching an MA class at Beijing Foreign Studies University on Australian responses to the rise of Asia from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. I had taught variations on this theme during my time as BHP Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University from 2013 to 2016. In the three months I was in Beijing late last year the skies were clear and the air quality good. Meanwhile, Australia was on fire. I left China more convinced than ever that the biggest national security threat facing our continent and our immediate region is not China, but climate change.

Hartcher’s essay is not confined to the here and now. He speculates on where China will be in 2049, when the Chinese Communist Party will have been in power for a century. But will it make it that far? Following the seventy-year anniversary of the CCP last year there has been discussion of the lifespan of authoritarian regimes. As I read this literature, it seems that reaching a century would defy precedent and is far from assured. In this same timeframe, the world will be dealing with the accelerating impacts of climate change. In our region these impacts may well be catastrophic for Pacific nations, generating large flows of climate refugees. And should we think of the residents and visitors in Mallacoota at the turn of the decade as climate refugees?

The next thirty years promise to be turbulent and difficult to predict. Hartcher should be applauded for offering a roadmap to this future. He is emboldened to do so, it seems to me, because he appears to know where China wants to be in 2049 and implies that what China wants China will get. We are told that where China wants to be in 2049 is clearly spelt out in the secret and sinister “Document 9.” Hartcher tells us that this document outlines CCP plans to achieve a tighter, more authoritarian grip on power within China while also working to make China the dominant global power. What credence should be given to Document 9 is an open question. More important is the willingness to believe that a document written in 2012 can be flawlessly implemented to accomplish stated goals by 2049.

This mode of thinking takes us into Orientalist territory, bringing to the surface yet again deeply held and persistent fears. For well over a century Australia has produced a body of speculative writing and conspiratorial thinking about a threatening Asia. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century produced invasion stories in which the challenge arose not from China’s remarkable/disturbing cohesion but from its collapse. As the Qing dynasty fell apart, pundits worried that “floods” of Chinese would flow into “empty” Australia, wiping out European settlement. Populous China, a country in turbulent disarray, torn by rebellion within and by the encroachment of hostile foreign powers, was seen as a distinct threat to Australia’s survival. This perceived threat prompted massive increases in defence spending in the early years of the new Commonwealth, from 1901 to 1914. In this way, imagined vulnerabilities had very real political and budgetary consequences.

China, at that point in our history, appeared to present two problems: there were far too many Chinese and they seemed able to act collectively in ways Europeans could not. One chapter in my book Anxious Nation is titled “One Hundred Act as One” – a phrase taken from goldrush Australia. On the goldfields the Chinese seemed to work together in uncanny ways, like bees or ants in their hives or anthills. A similar unease surfaced at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, when thousands of perfectly coordinated Chinese marched, danced and waved placards. Were these real human beings or automata?

If the collapse of China under the Qing posed a grave threat, so too did China united under communism from 1949. Visiting Australia in the late 1950s, the British writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge warned Australians that with Mao fully in control it would only be a matter of fifteen to twenty years before Australia was overrun. Journalist and author Donald Horne picked up on the widespread fatalism of this time, which was summed up, he believed, in the oft-heard phrase “we don’t have a chance.”

The Catholic intellectual B.A. Santamaria was very clear about what was going to happen to Australia. In the late 1950s, he was at his most influential as a Cold War warrior, broadcaster and newspaper columnist. Where his friend Muggeridge had wandered around sniffing the breeze in his endearing way, Santamaria had laid his hands on actual documents, hard evidence that revealed China’s plans. It would all happen in the next twenty years. China would take control of Australia. China’s planned “political warfare” or “revolution by stealth” would unfold in three carefully calculated stages, culminating in the complete incorporation of Australia into the Chinese “co-prosperity sphere.” Japan’s co-prosperity plan for Asia had been recycled to the Chinese. In formulating his views, Santamaria was influenced by Lenin’s prophecy of 1918 that for communists the road to Paris and world domination lay through Beijing. There it was. Lenin had a plan and it was being implemented. The fall of Australia, while not central, was certainly part of that long-term strategy.

Santamaria was not the only figure to have acquired written proof of Chinese intentions. Even the Murrumbidgee Irrigator had documents proving that Mao was planning the “ultimate absorption of Australia into the Communist empire of the East.” The front cover of Denis Warner’s Hurricane from China (1961) read, “What you MUST know about Mao Tse-Tung’s plan for world conquest.” In 1961, the invincible Mao had plunged China into the calamitous Great Leap Forward, at a cost of up to 30 million lives and perhaps the worst famine in Chinese history.

Of course, it does not follow that because warnings about a threatening Asia/China proved wrong in the past that today’s new warnings must also be wrong. But any application of “due diligence” principles would suggest that we should look very closely at the history of Australian predictions about the rise of Asia/China. This is not something we are keen to do. What do these recurrent anxieties about losing our nation to Asia tell us? What is the expertise or knowledge of the people issuing these warnings? What evidence do they bring to bear and how reliable is it? What kind of impact are they aiming for? Finally, any case that is made for a negative or apocalyptic scenario involving a threatening Asia/China should be “stress-tested” by measuring the case in favour against the opposing case. It is not naive to do this. It is simply prudent.

While in Beijing recently I asked a senior Chinese academic at Peking University, someone with considerable Australian experience, what was going on in Hong Kong. I put it to them that surely the Chinese leadership would be getting very sophisticated briefings about the situation. Beijing would know a great deal more than it was prepared to reveal. My colleague was wholly unconvinced, arguing that the Chinese government probably had very little real understanding of what motivated the demonstrators in Hong Kong and little idea of how to resolve the conflict. This person added that if Beijing knew so little about Hong Kong, it seemed likely they would know even less about other, more distant societies. This view appears to be borne out by Hong Kong’s recent municipal elections. It came as a great surprise to Beijing that its candidates were trounced. Where is the evidence of a masterful plan and how is it going? To that we can now add pushback from Indonesia and a negative response to Beijing in the recent Taiwanese general election.

Around this time, I attended a two-day forum in Beijing on developments in what the Chinese call “Oceania” – what we think of as the Pacific Islands. After several New Zealand academics had delivered nuanced accounts of Pacific Island cultures and political systems and their shared concern about climate change, I sensed that one of my Chinese colleagues was becoming quite impatient. At question time, he announced his Pacific solution. These small, doomed nations, he argued, just had to be summarily picked up and planted somewhere else. There was a problem and here was the obvious, if culturally insensitive solution from a senior Chinese exponent of international relations.

A society that has made brilliant economic and technical achievements over the last forty years may at the same time be culturally insular and poorly equipped to acknowledge that different ways of seeing the world might have their own merit. China can often appear (and be) harsh, clumsy and bullying when it meets societies, cultures and opinions its government does not endorse. I have no reason to doubt Hartcher’s account of the harassment, bullying and attempted bribery meted out to Australian journalist John Garnaut. Why would he make it up?

However, in the period when I was a visiting academic in China (even as a professor in its top university), I saw no red envelopes stuffed with cash, received no tempting inducements to change my opinions and there was no attempt to influence what I taught. That said, I do know of one visiting Australian academic who was not invited back after a student complained that he had shown a video critical of China to his class. Chinese academics will protest that they are free to discuss all manner of issues, but I remain unconvinced.

When it comes to the “China threat,” where does the Australian public stand? Drawing on Lowy Institute polling, Hartcher demonstrates that, while growing more uneasy, the public remains fairly measured in its response to China’s rise. When compared with citizens of other nations, Australians are neither extremely fearful nor unconcerned. But where the public sits does not correspond that well with what our security services are saying. Hartcher draws heavily on the opinions of former director of ASIO Duncan Lewis. None of his opinions is questioned, including his claim that China poses an “existential threat” to Australia. To be clear, Lewis claims that China is not simply seeking to interfere in Australian affairs in wholly unacceptable ways, but has a plan to subvert and control the nation. For him, Australia is the test case, the “canary in the mine” for China’s global ambition. For ASIO, the Australian public is not worried enough when it comes to China. The Coalition appears to agree: its task is to have the public worry more about China and less about climate change.

The problem for the public, myself included, is that ASIO works in an extremely shadowy world. We are instructed to heed its warnings and trust its judgment while being kept in the dark about the extent, depth and effectiveness of foreign influence from all quarters. We have seen the absurd spectacle of Senator Jacqui Lambie handing her vote to the government after a “national security” briefing. The government denies there was a deal, and our democratically elected senator will not reveal anything about the briefing. Some years after the spectacle of “on-water matters,” the government runs the real risk of turning national security into a selectively applied and all too convenient expedient to be turned on and off as opinion polls dictate. Will the latest dip in the polls mean a renewed focus on national security and the China threat?

Hartcher recommends a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption and effectively implemented regulations around foreign political donations. These seem sensible measures. We also need well-informed, disciplined debate and, as Hartcher argues, much more confidence in the strength and appeal of our own society and its democratic institutions. Our democratic freedoms are an important reason why so many Chinese want to settle here.


David Walker is the author of Stranded Nation: White Australia in an Asian Region.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 76, Red Flag. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 77, Cry Me a River.


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