Our prosperity is intimately linked to that of China. We have avoided a recession over the past 28 years, including during the Global Financial Crisis, only because a middle class emerged from the economic reforms introduced in China 30 years ago.
Whereas previously few Chinese could afford to travel overseas, more than 1.4 million visited Australia as tourists in 2018. The Chinese middle class prefers Australian produce and, as a result, we exported more than $11.8 billion of produce to China in 2018, about a quarter of all our agricultural exports.
And it is the rising standard of living of the Chinese middle class that has enabled us to export massive quantities of iron ore, gas and coal to China (worth more than $79 billion a year). Not only are the middle class significant consumers of manufactured goods, but millions are employed in manufacturing goods for export to other countries.
But just because we sell a lot to China, and buy almost as much, does not mean we have shared values.
China has no history of individual rights and freedoms. Each of its various dynasties has been autocratic and intolerant of dissent. Equality before the law, presumption of innocence, freedom of association, free speech and freedom of religion, for example, have never been available to the Chinese. Their tradition is respect for ancestors, conformity and obedience to authority.
China’s current government is no less authoritarian; indeed, its system of internet censorship and social media monitoring is positively sinister. Its justice system is deeply unjust, much of its government corrupt, free speech and freedom of religion do not exist and, for groups such as the Uyghurs and Falun Gong, it is potentially genocidal.
Internationally, China is also a bully. Its claims to the sea off Vietnam and the South China Sea, for example, have strained relations with multiple countries. Some claim it has no friends apart from those it has bribed.
The current regime under Xi Jinping promotes a vision of Chinese greatness, to which non-Chinese must pay tribute. What this means for Australia is of considerable importance.
“Australia can demonstrate that a free, democratic society is so much better than the controlled society in which they live.”
It is often said that countries that trade with each other are unlikely to engage in war. That is one of the assumptions underpinning the European Union; war is highly disruptive to trade, hugely expensive and very destructive of prosperity. Middle classes, in particular, do not appreciate such things
China’s rulers are sensitive to middle-class sentiment based on the belief that rising prosperity compensates for the absence of political and legal rights. Unless it can engage in war without disrupting prosperity, it will be wary of military conflict. Even an attack on Taiwan or a military takeover in Hong Kong would cost the Chinese economy dearly because of the backlash.
That said, middle-class impoverishment has not prevented governments in Venezuela, Cuba or Iran from retaining power. And if China’s economy suffers a serious decline because of the coronavirus or the collapse of its unprofitable and heavily indebted state-owned enterprises, all bets may be off. There are many precedents for military aggression in the name of nationalist pride.
But prosperity or not, Xi Jinping will not remain emperor forever and his successors will have their own ideas. Australia’s ability to influence China’s future is limited but is certainly not zero. In addition to the tourists who visit there are two million Chinese students studying in Australia plus 5,000 on working holiday visas. What they learn about our values can potentially influence what they say and do at home.
We know this is true because U.S. and Western democracies were a beacon of hope to those behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Australia can demonstrate that a free, democratic society is so much better than the controlled society in which they live.
That makes it essential that our values are defended against those who would compromise them in order to kowtow to China. No watering down of free speech, no compromise on freedom of religion, association or assembly, no wavering on the presumption of innocence, the right to silence or the onus of proof. These are the values that distinguish a free society from one like China.
And perhaps one day there will be a Chinese government that not only likes to trade with us but wants to emulate our freedoms.
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats.
Illustration by Josh Spencer.
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