Tiananmen Square and the China Dilemma


Gough Whitlam meets Chairman Mao Tse Tung in 1973 Image courtesy of the National State Archives

We released a new CD around the time of the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or as it is known by China’s government, ‘June Fourth Incident’. I mention this not as some outrageous plug for ‘merch’ but to draw your attention to the historic photo on the album cover. (Ed is now cringing slightly at the thought of plugging ‘merch’.)

It shows Prime Minister Gough Whitlam meeting China’s then-president, Mao Tse Tung in 1973. The photo, provided by the National Archives of Australia, portrays these unlikely comrades in a congenial setting. The photo was taken during Whitlam’s visit to China, the first by an Australian PM.

This year I started attending a U3A course called China Today, curated by long-time China-watcher Neil Bonnell. The key topics at the most recent meeting were the end of the volatile Covid lock-down in Shanghai and other cities, the 33rd anniversary of Tiananmen Square and the pending appointment or re-appointment of the country’s next President. Not that we hear a lot about it here, but there has been speculation about the health of the incumbent, Xi Jinping.

Xi has been in charge of China since 2011 and presided over a burgeoning economy in an autocratic manner. He now faces some serious challenges, just as Australia’s new government battles to resume ‘normal’ relations with China.

The former LNP government fell out with China by taking an adversarial stance on sensitive issues. They include the decision to exclude Chinese technology company Huawei from participating in the rollout of 5G mobile technology in Australia. The Morrison government then announced it would conduct an inquiry into how Covid started (in China). Moreover, from 2018 the government became concerned over Chinese political influence in Australia’s governments, universities and media.

As the 2022 election approached, there was continuous negative feedback about the sale to China of ports in the Northern Territory and Chinese shareholdings in other Australian ports. (Despite the xenophobia this tends to produce, recent data on China’s level of investment in Australia (just 3% of the total direct foreign investment) suggest the boom is over).

All of these issues were handled by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a tactless manner, betraying that he did not fully understand what ‘losing face’ means to the Chinese. We ended up with import bans, a hostile reaction to our diplomatic endeavours to put things right and a refusal by the leadership to meet with their Australian counterparts.

Into this heady scene tiptoed the new Labor government, sticking to its ‘softly, softly’ script. China’s Premier Li Keqiang welcomed the new government in language the ABC interpreted as ‘warm’, as he mentioned the Whitlam government forming diplomatic ties with China almost 50 years ago.

Eminent Australian journalist Rowan Callick, who, for 20 years, was the Australian Financial Review’s South-East Asia correspondent, recently said that the Chinese Communist Party had ‘eaten’ China.

In delivering the Ramsay Centre’s annual lecture, Callick elaborated on this, listing examples of CCP manipulation of Chinese life to ensure its own survival. He discussed how “CCP control over media and social media, national celebrations and events, education, and even printing presses had worked to suppress traditional elements of Chinese culture so that only party-friendly elements remain”.    

But despite CCP control over Chinese society, Mr Callick believes the will and genius of the Chinese population will prevail.

“The party (CCP) has eaten China but it will not prove easy to digest. And China’s marvellous civilisation is being nurtured, if necessarily quietly or preferably silently, within the country by persevering scholars, artists and ordinary citizens, and overseas by people who are recreating it there.”

As Australia’s new foreign minister Penny Wong was flying around the Pacific shoring up relationships with our neighbours, China was being similarly pro-active. Despite the contentious agreement with the Solomon Islands and smaller Pacific kingdoms, it appears as if we are ‘back in the game’.

Given the long list of issues left to the incoming Federal Government, we’d assume making up with China would be a low priority – not if PM Anthony Albanese has read a book published in 2020 by former diplomat Geoff Raby.

In China’s Grand Strategy and Australia’s place in the new world order,  the former Australian Ambassador even speculated  then that China had ‘given up’ on Australia.

A review by James Curran published in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter tracks Raby’s argument that Australia needs to look at China “as it is, not as some fear it might become”.

“Since Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership, Canberra’s security and intelligence agencies have dominated the making of China policy. ‘Pushing back’ now assumes the status of near-canonical doctrine.” Raby sees inconsistency at the very heart of Australia’s China policy which “talks the talk of engagement” but “walks the walk of competition and containment”.

Curran puts Raby’s argument into context by summarising four periods in Australian history marked by intense antagonism towards China. They include the gold rushes of the 1850s, the 1880s push towards Federation and the 1960s Cold War. Since 2012, the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have rekindled this antagonism by defying President Xi Jinping’s ‘assertive projection of Chinese power’.

Warwick U3A tutor Neil Bonnell, who has been conducting a China class since 2005, says the major change he has seen in that time is the sheer volume of news and intelligence about China that is available to the public.

“My material in 2005 was gleaned from press reports, mainly The Australian, also the South China Morning Post on-line. The best (TV) material was from the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent.”

Then as now, Mr.Bonnell relied on Rowan Callick as “the most knowledgeable local authority on China that I have come across”.

The 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre passed with little reported trouble, given that authorities in Hong Kong clamped down on planned rallies. Hundreds gathered at peaceful candlelight vigils in Taiwan and in Hong Kong. Some nations defied authorities by lighting candles in embassy windows.

The US State Department’s view:

“We commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, where tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters peacefully joined together to call for democracy, accountability, freedom, and rule of law.  The 50-day protest ended abruptly on June 4, 1989, with a brutal assault by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military.  Countless numbers were imprisoned and the number of deaths is still unknown today.

“Today, the struggle for democracy and freedom continues to echo in Hong Kong, where the annual vigil to commemorate the massacre in Tiananmen Square was banned by the PRC and Hong Kong authorities in an attempt to suppress the memories of that day.” 

To the future, then. As Geoff Raby states, Canberra will “be taken less seriously and be less respected by regional partners if it is not able to manage its relations with China”. By aligning itself so closely to the US, Australia is also identified as a strategic competitor to Beijing.

There is speculation that Australia can perhaps build a bridge to China by persuading its Quad partners (the US, Japan and India) to offer China a seat at that table. It would become the less-catchy ‘Quin,’ but in the scheme of things, that’s a small quibble. (Somehow reminds me of a song..Ed)

All we need now is a chief negotiator who understands the Asian fear of losing face (being publicly humiliated). It’s not that hard to understand.

(If you did not know about our new CD, find it here)

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