Trust in short supply

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 on the other, the two sides are like ships passing in the night. Business people 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 have gone as far as to argue that we should balance condemnation of China’s violations of human rights against its remarkable economic achievements. 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 that 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.