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BY PAUL DIBB
This article originally appeared in The Australian on 23 Jan 2019.
In the Australian debate about the priority to be given to the economic relationship with China versus the national security risks of that rising power, there is a strange silence about the stark difference in values between our two countries.
It is true that in relations between states, national interests generally trump values. But at the centre of why Australia’s values are so different from those of China is the role of the Communist Party and its abuse of basic human rights. These matters are too rarely raised as a critical impediment in our relationship - yet the main reason we need to be wary of China as an adversary is because our values are not compatible.
Democracies generally have not gone to war with each other. Major regional powers - such as Japan, India and Indonesia - are not seen as a potential threat because they are democracies with which we share core values such as freedom of speech, an independent press and a judiciary separate from the control of government. In the case of China we share no such values. Xi Jinping’s China is a repressive state increasingly restricting political and social views that may threaten the party’s absolute control.
In the polemic debate in Australia between economists and business on the one hand and national security and defence, the two sides are like ships passing in the night. Businesspeople and economists are correct to remind us of the economic importance of our relationship with China, but they rarely mention the critical difference of values. Indeed, some academic economists are of the view that it is not any of our business what sort of values or political system China possesses.
Some Australian politicians and academics, including a former prime minister even have gone as far as to argue that we should balance condemnation of China’s violations of human rights against its remarkable economic achievements and the fact its communist government has brought about “the largest, fastest increase in human material welfare in history”. They point out that in a single generation we have witnessed more than 700 million Chinese being lifted out of extreme poverty. But however improved economic conditions may be for many Han Chinese, the situation for certain minorities - particularly Uighurs and Tibetans - is far worse and continues to deteriorate.
This line smacks of moral appeasement, suggesting, as it does, that we should ignore the fact Communist Party oppression in China has been responsible for about 50 million deaths, including (according to Yang Jisheng’s meticulous book, Tombstone) Mao Zedong’s famine in the Great Leap Forward that caused 36 million Chinese to starve to death. Historical amnesia imposed by the Communist Party means some of the most harrowing and dreadful chapters of human history have remained substantially untold in China.
In today’s China the party continues to exert obsessive thought control over the Chinese people using a combination of metadata and artificial intelligence to impose a “social credit” system that, if trends continue, will make George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four look like a sideshow. That China spends at least as much on internal security as on external defence tells us a lot about the lengths the party will go to suppress dissenting views.
Those in Australia who argue that none of this is any of our business and solely a matter for the political system inside China to decide ignore the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is an illegitimate system imposed by violent revolution and with no vote by the people. This means the leadership in Beijing suffers from perpetual insecurity.
During the Cold War, human rights issues were a matter that assumed international salience in getting the Soviet system to be more accommodating to prominent dissidents. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 emphasised human rights, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, and freedom of the press.
In many ways, the Helsinki accords gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement and a thorn in the side of the Soviet regime. As Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Union’s ambassador in Washington for more than 20 years, acknowledged: the ultimate reality of the Helsinki Final Act “was that it played a significant role in bringing about the long and difficult process of liberalisation inside the Soviet Union”.
In this way, human rights became a standard, based on universal principles of justice, rooted in international law, and independent of Marxist-Leninist ideology. ls it perhaps time that a similar international understanding was negotiated to persuade the Chinese leadership into a more civilised attitude to human rights more consistent with its rise as a great power?
Australia’s interests in China are not only about trade and avoiding conflict. We now face in China a major power with which we do not share values that is increasingly capable of using military force against us.
Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University. In 1978 he was the first senior Australian defence intelligence official to visit China and inspect its submarines.