[Reader-list] Australia on Tibet

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Mon Apr 21 09:41:13 IST 2008

PM makes great leap on China
The Australian[Saturday, April 12, 2008 18:16]
By Greg Sheridan

LU Kewen, as our Prime Minister is known to tens of millions in Mandarin, is
usually no Red Guard.

In fact, he is a counter-revolutionary, having written his honours thesis
admiringly on the famous Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, who wrote a
brilliant large character wall poster on the ³fifth modernisation²:
democracy, which China¹s leaders have refused to embrace as part of their
economic modernisation.

But Kevin Rudd this week has produced his own cultural revolution. He may
have transformed the way the world deals with China. He may have produced a
great leap forward in the broad international project of making China a
normal nation.

For Rudd has shown the world that it is possible to be a good friend of
China and still speak to the Chinese leadership frankly and in public about
its appalling human rights practices. This is a profound revolution.

Let no one tell you it is not a change from the past. I am sure Australian
officialdom advised against this approach and it is a radical departure from
the practice of John Howard, who preferred to concentrate on what he and the
Chinese had in common.

Australian officials may perversely try to play down the radical nature of
what Rudd did. Don¹t buy it. That is a nonsense interpretation.

No Western leader, with the partial exception of US presidents, does what
Rudd did this week: criticise the Chinese over human rights abuses in Tibet
before he arrives, in fact in a joint press conference with US President
George W. Bush. Repeat the criticism in London. Absorb furious official
Chinese protests in Beijing and Canberra, then go to China and repeat the
offence in public, in front of a Chinese audience.

It¹s true that the Chinese censored this part of Rudd¹s speech at Beijing
University. That is not the point. The Chinese were ropeable at Rudd¹s
statement and millions of Chinese will hear about it one way and another. It
figured prominently in CNN and BBC reports this week, as well as coverage by
Deutsche Welle and countless other news services. I myself did an interview
with Al Jazeera¹s global audience explaining Rudd¹s statements. These
statements featured heavily in The Economist, as they did in newspapers and
journals across the world. Given the internet, much of this finds its way
back to the Chinese public.

Nonetheless, Rudd had a positive visit to China. Although the Chinese
leadership was furious with him and took the unusual step of having party
spokesmen denounce Rudd¹s views while he was in China, nonetheless it
continued with the positive side of the visit, simultaneously embracing and
honouring Rudd as it denounced his views. This is why his performance
constitutes a cultural revolution in doing business with China.

His approach, of course, was immensely sophisticated. In his speech at
Beijing University he said he wanted to be a zhengyou to China. This Chinese
term means a friend who is such a good friend that he will tell you
unpleasant truths. This is where Rudd¹s approach, which was very high risk,
much higher risk than anyone will now admit, has paid off handsomely, indeed
beyond anyone¹s wildest dreams before the trip began.

In his speech to the Chinese students Rudd suggested the marriage of two
concepts. One was the official Chinese description of its national
development as a ³peaceful rise² or ³peaceful development² or more recently
promoting a ³harmonious world². The other was the formulation of former US
deputy secretary of state Bob Zoellick that China should become a
responsible stakeholder in the global order.

The next sentence of Rudd¹s was critical. He said: ³The idea of a
Œharmonious world¹ depends on China being a participant in the world order
and, along with others, acting in accordance with the rules of that order.
Failing this, harmony is impossible to achieve.²

As much as his comments on Tibet, this sentence produced a stony silence in
Rudd¹s listeners. But this goes to the very nub of how the world deals with

The best way to treat China is as a normal nation, which has the normal
rights and responsibilities of any other nation, which plays a role in the
world commensurate with its importance and standing, and which honours basic
norms of civilised behaviour and the international order.

The Chinese, for the past 30 years, have been pulling a confidence trick by
claiming that previous Western colonisation of China means that any Western
criticism hurts the feelings of the Chinese people. The resort to crude
nationalism and old-fashioned communist propaganda is evident in the
reaction of China¹s state-controlled media to the worldwide demonstrations
in favour of human rights in Tibet. To express concern for the human rights
of Chinese citizens, in this twisted world view, is to be anti-Chinese.

China¹s apologists in Australia often reinforce this paradigm by their
support of the ³whateverist² school. Whatever the Chinese Government does is
right and any criticism of it is wrong. Sometimes this is justified as being
sensitive to China; at other times it¹s defended with a kind of tawdry
ersatz realism: China is too big to offend.

Rudd has completely transcended this sterile paradigm and he has done so
while moving forward on a positive agenda with China. Rudd¹s positive agenda
was solid. He got a climate change co-operation agreement and the
establishment of several new co-operative bodies on it, one at ministerial
level. He got an agreement to work together on reducing deforestation which,
if you are serious about climate change, is vital. And he got agreement to
inject new political energy into the free trade agreement negotiations
between Canberra and Beijing.

He also made various economic representations to the Chinese and prosecuted
a lot of other business. It¹s not absolutely earth-shattering but it is more
than respectable. But to do it while publicly criticising the Chinese over
human rights and telling them that they have to abide by the rules of the
global system: that is earth-shattering and unprecedented.

The Chinese will not like it much because it tells other Western leaders
that they do not need to be so mealy-mouthed as they normally are with the
Chinese. Of course China badly wants Australia¹s resources, so Rudd was in
the strong position of not going to China as a mendicant with a beggar¹s

Similarly, his Mandarin language and his undeniable love of Chinese culture
provided the best possible context for his harder messages to Beijing. But,
still, there was no guarantee at all that the Chinese would not react by
cancelling his high-level appointments and humiliating him.

It may be that circumstances partly pushed Rudd into having to make public
statements on Tibet. But he could have wimped out of it without any serious
political damage in Australia. Rudd took a risk for human rights and it was
a well-judged risk.

Whether his cultural revolution represents a new international pattern of a
more normal China or whether it is a false spring, soon to be followed by a
new wind of Chinese hostility, is perhaps now the most fascinating question.

Greg Sheridan is the most influential foreign affairs commentator in
Australia. A veteran of over 30 years in the field, he has written five
books and is a frequent commentator on Australian and international radio
and TV. 

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