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Will the real China please stand up ?

With the global health and economic damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the dis-information campaign has picked up steam. A consequence of this has been the increasing polarisation between how the West views China as a global citizen as opposed to China’s view of itself as sharing a common global human destiny.

Unfortunately, this is being translated into a “for or against” formulation, with little real discussion as each side digs into their respective defensive trenches. As an observer and student of China, this “anti or pro“ rhetoric raises the question as to whether there are in fact two Chinas. On the one hand we have China the accommodating and inclusive global citizen through measures such as the “Health Silk Road”. On the other hand, there is China portrayed as an autocratic and closed system.

The debate, at times vitriolic, around the issue of an independent investigation into Covid-19 reflects this polarised world view. Perhaps what is needed is a reflection by all parties as to what constitutes the real China as opposed to what they think the real China is. This reflection applies equally to how the USA is portrayed.

Unfortunately, this bifurcation is taking root in the declining international China relations. This is best exemplified in the very public spat between Australia and China. Matters have not been helped with Australian leaders stepping into the debate and conflating personal economic issues with that of geo-political considerations. Whilst China is Australia’s biggest export market, the USA is their biggest foreign investor.   

In getting some context through reading the two volumes of Xi Jinping’s collection of speeches, one is immediately taken with the insights it provides into the underlying principles of China’s soft diplomacy efforts. It gives a picture of what is meant when the Chinese leader talks of “restoring pride” or having economic and religious institutions with “socialist characteristics”. As with all translated works, some of the intent and meaning is lost in translation, but the speeches provide a comprehensive narrative of what China has said about having a shared human destiny with the world. It gives context to the soft diplomacy efforts.

An early iteration of this philosophical approach was the conceptualisation of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). When delivered in the initial phases, the shared human destiny was encapsulated in an ambitious geopolitical program that aimed at lifting large communities out of poverty. It would achieve this by connecting people and markets and allowing all to participate in global economic activity. With the setting up of financial instruments to facilitate connectivity through infrastructure, the first of many differences between the West and China’s philosophical approaches emerged. Whilst the West engaged in “debt trap” rhetoric based on existing Western economic business practice, China sees itself as applying its banking and financial systems that reflect socialist characteristics reflected in Xi Jinping’s speeches. Financial aid should not be limited by one’s ability to pay back in the short term but based on addressing economic and social need for the long term.

Whilst many critics of China have tried to find fault with the BRI and the alleged China’s “debt diplomacy”, there are many instances in which China has demonstrated its commitment to this shared human destiny approach. In most cases of debt repayment issues, new terms have been negotiated with extensions granted as well as seeing interest charges being reduced to 2%. Examples of this has been Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Another example is Beijing suspending Tonga’s loan repayments (US$115mn) made in 2018 to help their recovery from Cyclone Gita.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has seemingly brought this view of and by China into question. The purpose of this piece is not to resort to the blame game, or the defence / attack based on xenophobic fears. Discussion should be on trying to understand China / Australia responses as to whether these are indicative of a deeper underlying intent or an example of cultural insensitivity by all parties.

The deterioration of Australia / China relations around Covid-19 has been used as a platform to raise some difficult, if not interesting, questions as to the real intent of China. In the absence of reliable data, the dispute has been hijacked by emotion that has been exacerbated by casting the pandemic in terms of a war. Sparked by Australia’s call for an independent enquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, relations have spiralled downwards. With the pandemic’s warlike overtones, the pinch points reveal a poor understanding and respect for the cultural context by all sides of the debate.

From an Australian political and cultural aspect, this request is seen as reasonable, particularly as Australians see themselves as a transparent society and obsess with investigating all matters of concern. Afterall, Australia has already convened an enquiry as to how the virus was allowed uncontrolled entry via Sydney. So, calling for an independent enquiry seems reasonable, particularly as other international disasters have been investigated. Examples being the Bhopal gas leaks, Chernobyl and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These enquiries were important in that they look to find solutions so that mistakes are not repeated going forward.

China’s response to Australia has been interesting. Whilst many in the pro-China camp point out that the ambassador did not directly threaten trade boycotts, the delivery of his message can be seen as   nuanced threat based on previous responses. History has shown that the CCP’s displeasure has resulted in trade slowdowns through indirect means, such as slow custom clearance of products through their ports. This is not missed by those business leaders that have felt the wrath of China.  Furthermore, China has a centrally planned economy and policy settings determine the availability of products in the country, not reliance on market forces.

Is this response consistent with Xi Jinping’s writing and calls for China having a shared human destiny ?

From a Chinese perspective, has Australia triggered this impasse by ignoring the Chinese cultural context of not to be seen to “lose face” ? This is an important consideration as there is international agreement that Wuhan is the epicentre of the pandemic. By not first engaging with China at the outset before making this public call, has this played into the narrative that Australia is merely a puppet of the USA ?

What all of this points to is that the response has been not what China or Australia really is, but what each other thinks they should be. Not diminishing Australia’s contribution to the impasse, China has demonstrated an immaturity in coping with its newly acquired global status. They could have cemented their Belt Road Initiative’s shared human destiny aspirations by taking the moral high ground and called for private discussions on how to address legitimate concerns about a pandemic that has brought the global economy to its knees. This would have changed the narrative and gone a long way to undermine commentary painting China as a sinister force. It would have demonstrated that China is not only capable of being open, transparent and accommodating, but also accepting of cultural equality.   

The Covid-19 pandemic suggests that China has a way to go in fulfilling the Chinese Dream espoused in Xi Jinping’s collection of speeches. Until such time as it does, there will always be the discussion as to what people think China is rather than what China really is.

Picture credits: Reuters / Jason Lee

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