Scott Burchill
27 min readSep 24, 2020


The revolt against the West and the rise of China

In his 1983 Hagey Lectures, Hedley Bull defined the revolt against the West as “the struggle of non-European or non-Western states, peoples and political movements to challenge the dominant position of the Western nations in the international system”.

At the time he was writing, Bull identified five demands for justice from nations then described as comprising the Third World:

1. Equal rights of sovereignty or independence for non-Western states;

2. Equal application of the principle of self-determination (the anti-colonial struggle);

3. Racial justice or equality for non-white races;

4. Economic justice, including compensation, reparations and a fairer distribution of the world’s wealth; and

5. Cultural independence from the dominance of the West.

Some uneven progress has been made with the first two demands, though forty years on many aspects the latter three claims remain unrealised. The struggle for racial, economic and cultural justice continues, both between and within many societies.

Bull could not have foreseen that since he delivered his lectures in Canada, the revolt against the West has taken two striking new forms. The first has been the wave of Islamist terrorism, which has intensified over the last two decades. The second has been the rapid economic rise of two non-Western states, India and China.

Before it became an economic behemoth, Bull described China as “the greatest non-Western civilisation, a principal object of external dominance in the era of imperialism and the scene of one of the principal nationalist movements that undermined the European-dominated international order earlier in this [20th] century … .” Here are the origins of China’s successful defiance of three hundred years of world domination by the West, which eventually became an affront to the natural order in the eyes of those who arrogate to themselves the right to shape the destiny of humankind. Political elites in the West neither forgive nor forget resistance to their control.

China has many historic grievances, including foreign occupation and intervention by Japan and the West during the “century of humiliation” (1850–1950) and what Bull called “badges of inferior status” such as the “so-called ‘unequal treaties’ imposed on them by more powerful Western countries, as well as the “system of extraterritorial jurisdiction, which meant that Western persons resident in … Asian and African states were not subject to the laws of those states but had their own courts and special legal privileges”. [1]

The Chinese have long memories of how they were treated even if many people in the West do not, have never known about these outrages, consider their interventions in China normal, or still admonish themselves for “losing China” in 1949 as if it was theirs to keep. It was not until 1971 that the People’s Republic of China was even recognised as the legal representative of China at the United Nations.

In the capitals of the Western world, China’s extraordinary economic growth since 1978 was welcomed because it soon became a low wage, high repression locus for transnational manufacturing by Western corporations and a site for lucrative foreign investments. There was still a naïve expectation that as China modernised it would also Westernise. And unlike leading states in the West and its neighbour India, China had not fought in any wars during its unprecedented economic rise.

Although tensions between Beijing and Washington were intensifying just prior to the 9/11 attacks, outside of the Taiwan lobby in the United States Congress, China’s communist political monopoly was largely overlooked providing it remained a highly profitable investment site for US and European capital. This largely explains why the West treated the other great communist superpower, the Soviet Union, so differently right up until its demise in the early 1990s. The USSR refused to consider adopting capitalist relations of production and didn’t open its economy to foreign investment.

What changed, and what should have been anticipated, is that China’s rapid economic rise would be matched by increased, or more accurately commensurate military spending, and a reasonable demand for a seat at the table of the world’s great powers. China now had the resources to not only ignore International Monetary Fund and World Bank strictures, but to also project its power and influence as its colonial overlords in the West had routinely done for decades: in the case of the United Kingdom, for centuries. This development may have been of marginal interest to corporate executives at Apple, Microsoft and Google, but for the Deep State in the United States — especially the intelligence community and the Pentagon — it was a very worrying turn of events. The Western club is not supposed to admit outsiders, especially former subordinates who no longer take orders, let alone orientals who had been subject to centuries of horrendous racism by the West.

To make matters worse, with such a large domestic market China was no longer as dependent on the West for its economic modernisation. In fact for fossil fuel exporters such as Australia, the roles had been reversed. Australia depended on selling minerals to China in order to avoid the recession induced in much of the world by the global financial crisis which began in 2008.

Amongst Western political and commercial elites, the rise of China had a very specific meaning. China’s success was defined in terms of its capacity to complement the economic interests of transnational capital in Japan, North America and Western Europe: to be a manufacturing base for consumer goods sold back into Western markets. It was not to challenge the overwhelming preponderance of US maritime power in East Asia, often misleadingly described as constituting a “balance” in the region. At that point the rise of China became a threat: not to the security but to the hegemony of the West.

Australia changes its approach to China

In a perspicacious address delivered in November 2019, former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby said that “today, the Australia-China relationship is at its lowest point since diplomatic relations began 46 years ago”. At the level of official contacts, especially at heads of government level, Beijing has put Canberra in the deep freeze. Raby said the blame for this desultory state of affairs is shared by both countries, though not evenly given the spate of diplomatic errors made by recent Liberal-National Party governments. According to the former ambassador, “Australia needs China more than China needs Australia”, Canberra has mistakenly adopted Washington’s hostile view of China, and our neighbours “all seem to be handling the rise of China and finding their feet within the new international order better than Australia seems to be doing”. [2]

If any reinforcement of this view was required, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attack on Beijing’s influence over the World Health Organisation (WHO) and his call for an independent enquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus in China midway through the pandemic (after a phone call with President Trump) was not just very odd timing. It was difficult to understand what Australia could possibly gain from such a unilateral demand, beyond pleasing Washington. [3]

It is easier to see what Australia stands to lose. Immediately, a market for Australian barley, and restrictions on wine and beef exports to China, as well as warnings by officials in Beijing to Chinese students contemplating studying for a degree at one of Australia’s cash strapped universities that they will face racist abuse. Potentially, much more damage may be done to our most important trade relationship. All pain and no gain: for what?

The Morrison Government is often reluctant to make independent decisions in foreign policy, whether it be towards China, the International Criminal Court (ICC — where, on behalf of the US and Israel, Australia unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Court not to consider Palestine a party to proceedings against Israel), moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, opposing self-determination for Palestinians at the UN Human Rights Council and refusing to criticise Israeli plans to further annex — more accurately colonise — Palestinian land in the West Bank. The Morrison Government acts as if almost every foreign policy of significance must first be cleared with Washington. [4]

Because of public concerns about President Trump, the US lobby in Australia was at pains to distinguish between the former occupant of the White House and the alliance, as it was when George W. Bush was president. The problem for alliance boosters in Australia who want to separate the strategic relationship from the White House incumbent is that Trump, whilst extreme in so many ways, was not such an anomaly. Most US presidents start illegal wars, promiscuously intervene in other states and become mass murderers who are never brought to account for their crimes. Compared with his predecessors, much of Trump’s foreign policy was restrained.

Regular bilateral meetings result in ritual incantations by ministers about “shared values”, a “close friendship”, and the dubious claim repeated by one of Washington’s foremost boosters in Australia, that “the United States remains, overwhelmingly, a benign force … in the world”, unless you happen to live in Venezuela, Palestine, Bolivia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, China, Mexico, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, Vietnam, Pakistan, Lebanon, North Korea, Russia, etc, where the United States is regarded as the greatest threat to world peace.

Canberra says that it remains committed to a rules-based international order and in July 2019 told the United Nations that, consistent with an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling, it formerly rejected China’s “historic rights” maritime claim to contested waters in the South China Sea, which it considered to be in violation of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is worth noting that Canberra had previously rejected the ICJ’s jurisdiction on a maritime boundary dispute with Timor Leste in order to maximise Australia’s access to the oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea.

Canberra remains conspicuously silent about its ally’s efforts to rip what’s left of the rules-based international order to shreds, including Washington’s recent attacks on the International Criminal Court (ICC), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), withdrawal from arms control and environmental agreements, and explicit support for Israel’s numerous violations on international law. [5]

There was a brief glimmer of Australian independence. In light of the 2003 Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) scandal which was used to justify an illegal invasion and occupation of that country, an acceptance of evidence-free intelligence from the United States about the origins of the coronavirus outbreak was considered a step too far by Australia’s intelligence community: no links between the virus and a laboratory in Wuhan were produced, despite attempts by the Trump Administration to blame China for creating the virus and distract attention away from its tardy domestic response to the contagion.

The Morrison Government decided that Washington’s interference in Australia’s domestic politics via a disinformation campaign handed to a willing Murdoch media commissar would not be investigated further. Perhaps it is just too common? Only interference from China and Russia is of any interest to Canberra. [6]

When Australia’s foreign and defence ministers, Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds, eschewed teleconferencing during the pandemic and flew to the US to meet their American counterparts for Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) talks in late July 2020, they were accused of complicity in Washington’s new cold war with Beijing. The appearance of taking instructions from Washington forced Payne to reveal a nuanced, if not fundamentally different approach from that of ultra hawkish US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There was some product-differentiation, with Australia’s foreign minister declaring that Pompeo’s “speeches are his own”, that “Australia’s positions are our own” and that Australia and the United States “are very different countries”. Alliance management allows for limited rhetorical differences of this kind, especially when the dire consequences of joining Pompeo’s crusade for regime change in China are better understood in Australia. Senior CCP apparatchiks, however, are unlikely to be swayed. They regard Canberra and Washington as co-conspirators in recent attacks on Beijing and nothing Payne or Reynolds said in Washington was likely to change their minds.

Forgotten background

A resurgence of Sinophobia, anti-communism, the ‘yellow peril’ and ‘the China threat’ has gripped the media, academic and political classes in Australia, so some context and background is in order.

Seventy years after Mao Zedong came to power, a number of journalists, politicians and commentators in Australia have only just noticed that China is ruled by a communist party. It is not immediately clear why Cold War concerns of the 1950s and 1960s were suddenly being revived in 2020, though most of the noise comes from a new generation of jejune ideologues who have no personal memories or experience of those days.

Oddly, these self-described “wolverines” rarely expressed any fears until three years ago, and certainly not earlier when China became Australia’s most important trading partner, helping to eliminate a serious trade deficit and stave off recession during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Remarkably, this new generation of China critics, including think tanks such as the Australian Stategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which is funded by both government and the arms industry, seems to have missed all of the academic discussions about the rise of China — a topic which has been endlessly debated at Australia’s universities for over two decades.

Like Soviet leaders during the last years of their revolution, the Chinese political elite do not believe in Marxism-Leninism or communism, and haven’t for decades. They know that economically it does not work even if they ritually incant its nostrums to justify one party rule. The only people who take the idea of Chinese communism as an expansionist ideology seriously are Cold War warriors in the West — ambitious people who have carved lucrative bureaucratic, journalistic and academic careers out of anti-communism.

The CCP is full of ruthless pragmatists who use the repressive, authoritarian nature of their rule to enrich themselves and their friends. However, the party is not monolithic and just below the surface it is riven by factional battles over both the direction of policy and the quest for political supremacy. Like their counterparts in the West, the ideological predilections of the Chinese ruling class are overwhelmingly for state capitalism, following an act of grand larceny in the 1980s and 1990s only matched in scale by privitisation in post-communist Russia.

As Susan Shirk and others have argued, the CCP is rightly preoccupied with serious domestic challenges, including poverty and inequality, human rights abuses, corruption and the prospect of diabolical demographic movements if economic growth suddenly subsidies on the eastern seaboard. For a great power it has been unusually reluctant to manipulate events beyond its shores, in contrast to the promiscuous interventions of the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. [7] Despite fears stoked by intelligence briefings to receptive journalists, China’s military and technological strength remains decades behind the United States.

There are two broad theoretical approaches which explain the foreign policy behaviour of states.

Endogenous approaches stress internal political and economic factors such as the political culture of liberal democracies, one party authoritarian rule, the needs of capital and tyrannical monarchies. This is the approach of liberal internationalists and Marxists alike: the internal political complexion of states determines their external behaviour. This is Peter Hartcher’s approach to China. for example. [8] He explains China’s external behaviour in terms of CCP ideology and the growing personality cult of Xi. This account assumes that the CCP is a unified entity, not a contested space in which power shifts and swirls, leaders frequently change and ideology is reinterpreted.

Endogenous approaches tend to be binary in structure. They were common during the Cold War, and are still popular on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Neo-conservatives under George W. Bush are more recent exemplars of this approach, as was Trump’s last Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The alternative, exogenous explanation is known as realism. Realism largely ignores the internal political and economic complexions of states. For realists, states are socialised into the anarchic international system, a self-help world where there are no guarantees of survival. Regardless of their internal natures, the foreign policies of states are homogenised by their common quest for survival in a dangerous, uncertain world. Military power and alliances are the only protections available in this world — and they are no guarantee of permanent survival — so states which look very different internally behave very similarly externally: they must prioritise their security. Power is the key, and great powers such as the United States and China exploit their disproportionate means to achieve their national aims.

The counter to Hartcher’s argument is that China’s external behaviour — the projection of its power, seeking greater political influence and economic opportunities — has little to do with its political system or the CCP. It is simply the way all great powers have always behaved. In this sense, China is little different to the United States, though its capacity to influence the world is much less. The new moral panic about ‘the China threat’, and the comparative indifference in Australia about significantly more intrusive forms of foreign interference by the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel, for example, is orientalist and often racist: China is not a member of the Western club so it is suspect.

The irony of this, which is completely lost on China’s new right wing critics, is that it has been the country’s transition from a centrally planned command economy to state capitalism over the last four decades which has enabled the Middle Kingdom to become one of the largest economies in the world and assert its authority as a great power. This is an economic development conservatives in the West would normally applaud. What Martin Jacques has called “hegemonic angst” in the West at the end of Pax Americana is a product of China’s success in the state capitalist game.

Policy development and outcomes in liberal democracies are often hotly contested. Bureaucratic demarcation disputes, battles between the permanent arms of government (sometimes called the Deep State) and the transient executive, as well as straightforward differences of opinion, are normal. In Australia, China policy has been characterised as a struggle for supremacy between the hawkish national security agencies (Defence, ASIO, the PM’s office) and the more dovish approach of economists and diplomats (Treasury, DFAT): according to former prime minister Paul Keating and Geoff Raby, the hawks are currently ascendant. [9] The unanswered question is why things have suddenly changed when China’s economic importance to Australia —as its largest export market and source of imports — has never been greater or more profitable for the Australian business community?

China’s GDP says more about its population size than it’s economic might. Corporate wealth — ownership of the world economy — is in many ways a more meaningful metric. Through its transnational corporations the United States effectively owns about 50% of the world economy, including a very large proportion of “Chinese” manufacturing. The extent to which Chinese manufacturing is actually “Chinese” is, of course, widely debated, and in the manufacturing sector it is no longer clear how any state can accurately define its own exports in purely nationalist terms.

One thing we can be sure of is that power has increasingly shifted from the global workforce to private capital. Since the adoption of neoliberal economic policies in the 1990s there has been a steady decline in the share of wealth held by workers around the world. China’s economic rise, like India’s, is accelerating and exacerbating this trend.

China is ranked eighty five on the Human Development Index, which is a good measure of how difficult life there is for working people. It is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Western media coverage of China rarely ventures west of its glamorous eastern seaboard, so internal disparities of wealth and income are largely hidden from external observers.

China’s immense foreign reserves, mostly held in the form of depreciating US dollars, and its willingness to keep buying US Treasury bonds, has allowed the United States to spend beyond its means, including wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Even if there were no other factors, such as extraordinarily high levels of US direct investment in China, the fact that Beijing is underwriting Washington’s growing and unsustainable debt ensures that both countries will remain economically intertwined regardless of fluctuating strategic perceptions of each other or short term trade “wars”. Suggestions from within the Trump Administration that the United States could “break with China” were nothing more than populist fantasies.

Leaders of the CCP know just how important economic globalisation and interdependence are for China’s economic stability and their own prospects of staying in power. It would be irrational for them to endanger this by reckless foreign adventures or harsh repression in Hong Kong. A military “invasion” of Taiwan, which the world considers to be legitimately under Beijing’s sovereign control, would only jeopardise one of the mainland’s most important financial and lucrative trading arrangements. Keeping trade routes open through the Straits of Malacca is, first and foremost, in Beijing’s interests.

Implied suggestions from conservative media, academics and ambitious bureaucrats that Australia could (and should) join the United States in a war with China over Taiwan are nothing more than a right wing fantasy which, if ever seriously considered, would result in national suicide. The fact that such an absurd idea even features in the mainstream media is testament to how debased Australian foreign policy “analysis” has become. One can only imagine the howls of indignation from the very same people if the situation was reversed: a renegade state in the US (eg California), receiving arms from China, which for decades has opposed reunification and played host to a wealthy and influential secessionist lobby, despite formally committing to a “one US policy”.

Another interpretation of these comments is that they form part of a campaign which is trying to divert attention away from the Morrison Government’s domestic failings, including a grossly mismanaged COVID-19 vaccine rollout and a series of charges brought against Government MPs by female victims of sexual violence, and well-founded complaints of misogyny pervading Parliament House. The Morrison Government’s incompetence, indifference and inaction over these concerns is starting to appear in opinion polls and party bosses are worried.

Of course if “freedom of navigation” was really a maritime principle of concern to the West, why is it not invoked in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza, where Palestinians are subject to a brutal and illegal blockade by Israel? There is never any talk of the Royal Australian Navy testing its maritime rights in this part of the world.

Imputing motives from capabilities is an age old strategic mistake. Yes, China is spending more on its intelligence-gathering capabilities inside and outside the country, but this is commensurate with its growing economic resources. There is no evidence that its strategic objectives have significantly changed and in terms of military bases and armaments, it remains a minnow compared with the United States.

Chinese and Russian efforts to interfere in the domestic politics of Western countries pales into insignificance when compared with interventions by the United States and United Kingdom around the world for decades, including the overthrow of democratically-elected governments which are not congenial to Western interests. The dishonesty and hypocrisy of this debate in the West — particularly the feigned outrage at Russia — is an impressive tribute to propaganda in so-called free societies.

To make two obvious comparisons, why isn’t Turkey subject to sanctions for illegally occupying northern Cyprus when Russia is for incorporating the far more strategically important Black Sea ports of Crimea? And why is Israel immunised from international law for illegally colonising Palestinian land on the West Bank and continuing to blockade Gaza?

Why is Morocco’s illegal occupation of the Western Sahara cost-free? Why is Indonesia allowed to colonise West Papua without sanctions or threats of military force? Why is the United States occupying land in Cuba (Guantanamo Bay)? When will the United Kingdom hand the Chagos Islands back to Mauritius?

Does anyone think this hypocrisy and these double standards are lost on Beijing?

How the West imagines China

The United States has viewed China with hostility since the middle of the last century. According to historian James Peck:

In the 1940s, Washington labelled China a “puppet”; in the years of the Sino-Soviet alliance, the early to mid-1950s, Beijing was Moscow’s “independent junior partner”; in the 1960s, it became an expansionist force and a feared “revolutionary model.” Other Chinas followed: China the skilled geo-political player in the Soviet-American-Chinese triangle of the 1970s; the human rights violator with economic development potential of the 1980s and 1990s; and now China the uneasy ally against terrorism and, at last, economic behemoth.

Each of Washington’s Chinas have been simplistic ideological formulations, largely intended for domestic audiences. As Peck argues, none were ever accurate: “they were assessments of China not as it was but as Washington needed it to be in order to pursue specific strategies”. Even before 11 September 2001, Washington designated China as the greatest long-term challenge to America’s ambitions to retain global hegemony. [10]

This remains the case today, with Western leaders lecturing Beijing about the role it must play in complementing Washington’s strategic and economic interests. The so called “rules-based international order” is little more than a euphemism for a US-run world, which Australia has sometimes benefitted from (World War Two, intelligence sharing) and often paid a very high price for (involvement in Washington’s wars). China is now seen as a disrupter of this “order”, though the United States and its friends such as Israel and Saudi Arabia do not consider themselves bound by these “rules” or international law generally: they are self-exempted.

In Australia, US military preponderance in the Asia-Pacific is considered normal and desirable, though in the Orwellian tradition it is described as “balanced” power. Realists in International Relations privilege the “balance of power”, but because they strongly identify with the nationalism of their own states, insist on a power “balance” in their country’s favour — a fundamental contradiction in terms.

Accordingly, many realists cannot understand why a “rules-based order” designed by and for the United States (and to a lesser extent its friends and allies) would be rejected by Washington’s rivals once they had the power to do so. They make no attempt to see the world through Beijing’s eyes when, for theoretical consistency, they should be lauding the rise of China as a counterweight to US military preponderance in East Asia. Patriotism, it seems, trumps theoretical purity.

Double standards and hypocrisy also rule. The Unied States can increase its already massive arms budget and militarise much of the world (an expanding military presence, even in outer space), while China cannot build airstrips in the South China Sea close to its homeland. Land reclamations and the construction of new landing strips in the region are rightly criticised but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to clear-headed observers. It is a rational response to efforts by the West to contain China and maintain American preponderance with advanced military technology and an ever expanding number of US bases in the region and around the world.

The United States can launch illegal wars of aggression in Central Asia, Central America and the Middle East, break multilateral trade rules to start a trade “war” with China, abandon nuclear arms control treaties with Russia and a related agreement with Iran, unilaterally walk away from the Paris climate change agreement, move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in breach of international law, unilaterally recognise the legality of Israel’s illegal settlements on the West Bank and occupation of the Golan Heights, and attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela, and probably that of Bolivia. And yet it is China that apparently threatens the “rules-based international order”.

In Australia, outrage is expressed when Beijing bans two critical conservative MPs from a study tour of China — Andrew Hastie and James Paterson. What has Beijing got to hide? Why is it so sensitive to criticism? Isn’t it better for dialogue to be maintained between countries and differences aired in honest and frank discussions? These are fair questions to pose.

And yet these very same critics of China remained uniformly mute when the Netanyahu Government banned two United States congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting Israel. This was despite that country’s economic and diplomatic dependence on the United States, in particular enormous financial support that is leveraged out of Congress. Apparently banning them was justified and a reflection of their anti-semitism — now a euphemism for legitimate criticism of Israel — not the pathology of a deeply insecure, colonial state.

Canberra has never seriously engaged China on political issues. As Beijing knows, its role is to balance Australia’s trade deficit. Nor have Australian governments ever shown any interest in China’s political liberalisation. Australia engaged with China in the 1990s without any expectation that the Middle Kingdom would develop into a liberal democracy. It knew about human rights abuses in Tibet, the totalitarian nature of its political system and the travesties of its legal system and re-education camps. Australia witnessed the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. None of these were deal breakers. Canberra was only interested in China’s appetite for its fossil fuels. Australia strongly supported, enabled and enormously benefited from the economic rise of China, despite knowledge of domestic repression which some younger politicians and journalists now suddenly find objectionable.

The repression of the Uighur in Xinjiang Province, the crackdown on political dissidents, cyberattacks, and the growing personality cult of Xi Jinping are not new trends. They continue the modern currents of Chinese politics. Claims that Beijing has become significantly more authoritarian over the last decade are exaggerated and unsupported by concrete evidence, but they have become a pretext for the latest outbreak of Sinophobia by impressionable backbenchers and journalists. The former head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, told Peter Hartcher that foreign interference in Australia (by China) represents an “existential threat”. This charge is absurd and only further damages the reputation of ASIO. There is no possibility China, or any other state, could “take over Australia” as he claims. The suggestion is fear mongering and risible.

As Brian Toohey and Geoff Raby have argued, the latest moral panic about China takes many forms. Banning Huawei from 5G telephony and the National Broadband Network, claims that Chinese students in Australia’s universities are spying for Beijing, hysteria about Confucius institutes in the higher education sector, the auditing of research collaboration between Australian and Chinese academics, opposition to property purchases by offshore Chinese interests, suspicions that the federal and New South Wales parliaments have been infiltrated, are either overblown or unsupported by evidence. They persist, however, and tap into nineteenth century racist tropes of Chinese hordes descending on Australia. [11]

Political protests in Hong Kong are cited as further evidence of Chinese repression, despite Beijing’s restraint in the face of increasingly violent provocations and its reluctance to intervene — compare its response with the behaviour of the Saudis in Yemen and the Israelis in Gaza (both materially and diplomatically supported by the West), to say nothing of Indonesia’s state terrorism in West Papua, domestic repression in the Philippines or India’s violence in Kashmir (which the West remains largely silent about). [12] Can anyone imagine authorities in Melbourne or Sydney allowing Hong Kong-levels of violence and destruction of public property to occur without more coercive intervention by authorities, especially when foreign states have celebrated and actively encouraged the rioting? [13]

In response to China’s imposition of new security laws in Hong Kong, Australia and several other Western states have cancelled their extradition treaties with the former British colony. This is understandable, but it is yet another barrier in the path of resuming a policy of co-operative co-existence between China and the West.

Much of the discussion of events in Hong Kong during 2019 has been ahistorical. As Martin Jacques reminds us,

Hong Kong never had democracy under the British. For 156 years, it was ruled from Britain and was a British colony. There was never universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In fact, it was only right at the end of British rule that they even began to mention these things because basically it was being handed over to China. So Hong Kong’s never been democratic. It had the rule of law, it had a relatively free media, but it never had any kind of democratic system. Hong Kong can’t look back in that sense to the romantic days of democracy, because they never had any democracy. This is a complete illusion. [14]

Undoubtedly both Taiwan and the foreign investment community were watching these events closely, but one lesson to be learnt is that protesting against the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong is permissible, as conservative Australian MP Tim Wilson personally demonstrated in a conspicuous, risk-free photo op.

Another lesson is that the erosion of political liberty in Hong Kong and the growing intrusion of direct rule from Beijing may not upset the business community for very long. As the Australian Financial Review’s correspondent reports,

as business professionals absorbed the news [of Beijing’s more direct rule], an opposing view emerged. The prospect of an authoritarian clampdown on protests that last year turned increasingly violent is seen by some as good news for the city’s battered economy. While some US and other foreign investment is expected to leave the city, the mainland Chinese money is returning. [15]

Who said capitalism needed political liberalism?

Recent criticisms of China in Australia was initially designed to support and please the Trump Administration in its self-declared trade war with China and in new attempts at military containment of the Middle Kingdom. This is despite Australian and American interests not being aligned here. Canberra has long promoted free trade and opposed protectionism. The containment of China seems as unnecessary as it is provocative and self-defeating, leading to regional instability and uncertainty.

In an election year where President Trump required a distraction from America’s growing COVID-19 death toll and unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, China became a convenient scapegoat. As it displaces the United States as the most powerful player in the world economy, Trump’s protectionism was the only card left for him to play, a sure sign of America’s diminishing economic influence. Of most concern to Washington is that China, like Russia, doesn’t take orders from the United States and, although disobedience is a sin never forgiven inside the beltway, on this occasion and at this time, there was little that Trump could do beyond pulling faces at the CCP. His successor, Joe Biden, appears to understand the realities of geo-political change a little better, though it is still early days and little of lasting significance has been done to lower the temperature of bilateral tensions.

Beijing wants to peel Australia away from the US alliance. It won’t work but it makes perfect diplomatic sense to try. And there is nothing wrong with backbench MPs and journalists belatedly discovering the nature of Chinese politics and society, expressing concerns that close observers have been publicly noting for decades. If they have been asleep for thirty years and failed to notice countless university studies and courses that have focused on the implications of China’s rise for the world, they should, as Peter Hartcher urges, “wake up”. But a self-defeating panic about a rising great power in the region, designed to ingratiate ourselves with a reckless ally that is dedicated to the pursuit of its own very different interests, is not in Australia’s short or long term interests.

Hedley Bull knew that, although it had no say in the construction of international society, China’s acceptance of its norms, rules, conventions and institutions was vital if it was to survive beyond its Western origins. A confected confrontation with Beijing by Washington and its vassals such as Canberra will not only do little to thwart the ultimate success of China’s revolt against the West, it will undermine the expansion of international society and the contributions that has made to the maintenance of order in international politics. The end of Western primacy is already an uncomfortable reality for those who are used to ruling the world.

— — — — — —

This is an expanded version of an article which appears in Arena Quarterly, №3, September 2020.

[1] Hedley Bull, Hagey Lectures, Ontario Canada 1983

[2] Geoff Raby, ‘The lowest ebb — the decline and decline of Australia’s relationship with China’, Annual La Trobe China Oration, 29 October, 2019 —

For an elaboration see Geoff Raby, China’s Grand Strategy And Australia’s Future In The New Global Order (MUP, Melbourne 2020)

See also ‘‘Don’t join China COVID-19 ‘blame game’, Gough’s man in Beijing warns’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April, 2020 —

[3] China Mounts Aggressive Defense to Calls for Coronavirus Compensation, New York Times, 28 April 2020 -

[4] Australian government tells ICC it should not investigate alleged war crimes in Palestine, The Guardian, 10 May 2020 — and

[5] Michael Fullilove quoted in QandA, ABC Television, 4 May 2020. On the polls which show the US to be considered the greatest threat to world peace, see: Noam Chomsky: US is a rogue state and Suleimani’s assassination confirms it, Truthout, 7January 2020 — Some of Trump’s more extreme measures, including sanctions on the ICC and withdrawal for the Paris Environment agreement, have been reversed by his successor, Joe Biden.

[6] Australian concern over US spreading unfounded claims about Wuhan lab, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2020-

See also ‘Blatant interference’: Former Australian foreign ministers lash Wuhan dossier, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 2020 —

See also Kevin Rudd’s response: The Murdoch media’s China coronavirus conspiracy has one aim: get Trump re-elected, The Guardian, 8 May 2020 —

See also Dennis Atkins: Trump using Australia to sell his crazy COVID-19 conspiracy theories, The New Daily, 9 May 2020 —

For a taste of anti-Chinese hysteria in Australia from the conservative side of politics, it is hard to go past Liberal Party Senator James Paterson who claims “it’s not worth sacrificing our national interests, and our sovereignty, and our values in order to preserve a trading relationship, because if you follow that to its logical conclusion, that is a path to being a vassal state” and that “no boycott or sanctions or trade disruption that China could impose upon us could be worse than what they’ve already done to the global economy by exporting the coronavirus around the world … they’ve already done the worst thing they could possibly do to the Australian economy.” Australia takes lead in backing Trump on China as Europe dithers, Washington Examiner, 7 May 2020 —

See also

On the escalating crisis between Australia and China, see Richard McGregor, ‘On China, Australia is left counting the cost’, Australian Financial Review, 4 December 2020; Eryk Bagshaw & Anthony Galloway, ‘From cordial to hostile: how Australia landed in China’s crosshairs’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 2020; Michael Wesley, ‘How the China relationship collapsed’, The Saturday Paper, 12 December 2020; Michael Wesley, ‘Trade war: Can the China relationship be salvaged?’, The Saturday Paper, 19 December 2020; James Curran, ‘What’s old is new again: Problems of the past and the future in Australia-China relations’, Address to the Australian Institute of Internatuiional Affairs (NSW Branch), 9 December 2020; and David Brophy, China Panic: Australia’s Alternative To Paranoia And Pandering (LaTrobe University Press, Carlton 2021).

For more recent commentary on China’s behaviour see Fareed Zakaria, ‘The New China Scare’, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020 & Aaron Maté, ‘Veteran Diplomat Chas Freeman on US v China’, The Grayzone, 25 December 2020 -

Imagine being a leading figure in the revival of Sinophobia in Australia and then complaining that its predictable consequences are inhibiting that revival. Here is Senator Paterson invoking the old chestnut that our fight is with the CCP not the Chinese people, despite Australian-based Chinese bearing the full brunt of his campaign: Anthony Galloway, ‘Anti-Chinese racism hinders efforts to counter foreign interference: Paterson’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 2021.

[7] Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (OUP, Oxford 2008).

[8] Peter Hartcher, Red Flag: Waking Up To China’s Challenge (Quarterly Essay 76, Black Inc, Carlton 2019).

See also William Briggs, ‘What Drives Peter Hartcher’, Pearls and Irritations, 5 May 2020 —

[9] John Kehoe, ‘Canberra Divided On How To Handle China’, Australian Financial Review, 3 December 2019.

[10] James Peck, Washington’s China: The National Security World, The Cold War, And The Origins Of Globalism (University of Massachusetts, Amherst 2006).

See also James Bradley, The China Mirage: The Hidden History Of American Disaster In Asia (Little Brown, New York 2016).

[11] Brian Toohey, Secret: The Making Of Australia’s Security State (MUP, Carlton 2019).

[12] For a comparison of how media reporting of Hong Kong and Palestine, see Ali Kazak, Hong Kong and Gaza: media dance to different tune

[13] Alex Lo, ‘US has been exposed for funding last year’s Hong Kong protests’, South China Morning Post, 2 July 2020.

[14] Interview with Martin Jacques: ‘Hong Kong’s future lies in being part of China’, Global Times, 9 October 2019 —

See also Martin Jacques, When China Rules The World (2nd ed, Penguin, New York 2012).

[15] Michael Smith, ‘Hong Kong No More’, Australian Financial Review, 31 May 2020.



Scott Burchill

Dr Scott Burchill taught International Relations at Deakin University for 30 years