Flat White

Time to drain the China lobby swamp

21 May 2018

1:29 PM

21 May 2018

1:29 PM

“Where have all the grown-ups gone when it comes to China policy?” exclaimed Geoff Raby last year, in a newspaper piece which Australia’s former ambassador to Beijing still has prominently displayed on his Twitter account.

It is an excellent question. It’s just that he is probably not the best guy to ask.

Raby has long been a source of mirth and incredulity by those of us in China circles for his political and personal immaturity. Until recently the most ridiculous (printable) story was his attempt to recreate Kevin Spacey’s famous scene from “American Beauty” by posting on Chinese social media a picture of himself nude in a bathtub covered in roses. It was done on Valentine’s Day apparently to impress a partner (he has had two former marriages), an ex-newsreader from a Chinese state-owned broadcaster about half his age.

His recent call for Malcolm Turnbull to “sack” his Foreign Minister falls in the same category of oddball behaviour.

Incidentally, one of the many things wrong with his free advice is that it is unclear he even properly understands the political system of his own country. Julie Bishop is Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and was elected to that position by her party colleagues. One of the customary privileges of this role is the right to select her preferred ministerial portfolio – she chose to be Minister for Foreign Affairs. Thus, short of a new leadership spill, it is difficult to see what was so presumptuously recommended could even practically happen.

That said, the issue of whether a person has the skills and attributes to perform his or her current role is always worth considering – particularly by Raby himself. Indeed, his current activities should invite far more serious scrutiny in Australia than they have.

To recap: on finishing his term in 2011, our formerly most senior Beijing-based diplomat stayed in the city to establish a consulting firm. This is most unusual. Those cool with this career change should consider whether they would feel as comfortable with our current diplomatic representatives in say, Teheran or Moscow, doing the same thing.

Raby now acts as a director of Yancoal (a Beijing-controlled resources company), but it is hard to work out precisely what services he actually provides for this company or anyone else. He is, after all, a career public servant and has no real-world legal or commercial expertise. By his own admission, he speaks notoriously poor Chinese despite having been the beneficiary of two diplomatic postings to Beijing and generous taxpayer-funded language training.

Like so many self-styled “China experts” who appear short on core professional competencies he loves to engage in the classic pony trick: first, claim that the Australia-China relationship is terribly fragile; second, implicitly suggest that only someone like him – the indispensable man – can set things right.

He has a regular column for the Australian Financial Review where he pushes this line. His pieces, like so many apologists for Beijing, are also invariably such that if you replaced the author’s by-line with that of a senior Chinese government official you would not notice much difference. There is always so much boundless understanding for Beijing’s position; yet always so much criticism for Australia and Australians. China’s state-owned media, of course, like nothing better than something like this — a former Ambassador trashing his own country and their leadership — and have made much of the current controversy.

Raby also clearly likes the booze. He is invariably described in profiles as a “bon-vivant”, likes to tell how he has beaten Zhou Enlai’s drinking record for moutai (a Chinese liquor), and now even has a wine label “The Ambassador” in China with his face on the front. It all makes for fine newspaper copy over long lunches (although I would not dare suggest that any Aussie journos are inclined to think more fondly of someone who shares their drinking habits). But in our more sober moments as a nation, it might be worth asking whether what Raby is doing is really serving the national interest.

There has been well-founded criticism (including from many in the press) about the Australian government’s proposed legislation targeting Chinese foreign influence. They are largely right that it is badly drafted piece of legislation which captures far more than it should, threatens basic rights, and is likely unconstitutional. But the legislation also has other flaws in that it fails to address real issues that it should.

Most notably, it does not adopt what the much-maligned Donald Trump announced soon after taking office: a broad ban on former government ministers and former senior government officials from acting on behalf of foreign governments (or the entities controlled by them). For some reason this was not considered necessary by former Australian government ministers or former senior government officials.

If an intelligently crafted Trump-style ban were introduced in Australia my wager is you would soon see a noticeable and salutary change about the discussion of China in this country. It would also have the added bonus that we would likely not hear much from a certain former Beijing-based ambassador (or indeed many other former Australian government ministers) on the subject of China ever again.

Dan Ryan is a board member of the Australia-China Council. He worked as a lawyer for many years in Greater China. The views expressed are his alone.

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