Features Australia

Fish or bear’s paw?

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

6 October 2018

9:00 AM

Last century, when Mao ruled China, shop assistants repeated daily, ‘We don’t have any more’ (Meiyou). I heard the phrase when asking for fish in a fishmonger or sausages at the butcher’s. This Mao-era chime meant ‘We don’t care a bugger.’ Six girls in a row would chirp Meiyou like a catechism. Unvarying. Maddening. Eyes were on the boss, not the public. The customer was always wrong. In 2018 tech-fed millennials and teens, more savvy than in most nations, love the phrase ‘Just a moment’. More likely it’s 30 moments. You want a taxi to the dentist? ‘Just a moment.’ Forty minutes later with a galloping toothache, you scan the traffic for a Didi or a limo.

Under Mao no one cared about commerce. Under Xi few in urban China have time to care about anything, except money. Heedless ones today are the small kids. Being mostly the only child in the family, the little one can do no wrong. At breakfast in the Jianguo Hotel a boy of 8 or 9, already fat, swallows an omelet; noodles follow. He pauses only to kiss his mother. She interrupts talk with her husband. Two pudgy hands grab her cheeks. The boy resumes his chopsticks and pushes chunks of cantaloupe into his mouth.

This week Wang Shaoguang, a longtime bigwig in the western province of Guizhou, was dismissed ‘from all posts’. His taste for golf and orchids ate up government funds and ‘politically improper foreign books’ muddled his mind. My publishers seem alert to the message. A table in their smart new lobby groans with titles on or by Karl Marx. In ten minutes no one stops at it. I thought of Mr Wang in prison with his orchids (maybe not). In China today, Wang’s improper foreign books and my publishers’ selection of proper Communism books fight it out.


Anhui, a modest province inland from Shanghai, boasts a School of the Gifted Young. I hear shocked cries from education gatekeepers in Australia and USA. We need Safe Places on our campuses! Not a talent struggle red in tooth and claw! Youths left behind will feel hurt! Those admitted to the SGY must first pass the gao kao (national university exam) years ahead of their age. Doesn’t opportunity feed on opportunity? Of course it does. And excellence spurs more excellence. And China surges.


Some foreign leaders speak rudely of Belt and Road Initiative, a nebulous plan now sometimes called China’s ‘connectivity project’. The Malaysian PM said he fears a ‘new colonialism’. A senior Chinese figure crisply reminded the ‘summer Davos’ in Tianjin last month, ‘Belt and Road Initiative is not a Chinese Marshall Plan.’ The money we pour in isn’t ‘a free lunch,’ he added. ‘We expect a reasonable return.’ The debt of Pakistan and other receiving countries rises by the month, and Belt and Road’s geographic reach expands like the waistline of Kim in Pyongyang. Last week Xi drew far-off Samoa into its orbit while welcoming its leader. Our new foreign minister might ask her Chinese counterpart: Name one nation on the planet that isn’t potentially part of Belt and Road. If there are none, that would make this ‘connectivity project’ startling. Retaliation for Western empires, perhaps?


Did two teenagers fool around 36 years ago after drinks at a Washington high school shindig? American left-wing media and their masters in the Democratic party weep that one boy may have planted an unwanted kiss on a girl. Outraged eggheads on CNN sound like a gaggle of schoolmistresses. A Chinese student watching asks me, ‘Don’t they care about the trade war?’ Silly us. We forgot that a virginal high school record is vital to fitness for the Supreme Court.

I am to speak at the Nishan Forum on World Civilisations in Qufu, where Confucius was born. My topic is tough: ‘Will American civilisation and Chinese civilisation clash or co-exist?’ Nishan is the ‘philosophic heartland’ of China, the province governor tells us. A professor declares, ‘Nishan is to China what Rome is to Europe.’ In Benevolence Hall of Grand Learning within a magnificent palace, carved statues of Confucius’s 72 disciples gaze down from vaulting walls. At forty tables carved from local wood, forty little boys brush-draw Chinese characters, supervised by forty calligraphy teachers. Before the Nishan Forum ceremonies begin, a stark contrast to the ethics mood brings a hedonistic documentary. ‘A Better Life’ shows girls in bikinis on a beach playing volleyball. Boys holding beer mugs join them to pluck peaches from succulent green trees. This is the ‘happiness’ promised by Xi. ‘Your future is in your own hands,’ Confucius and Xi both preach. Volley-ball in one hand, peach in the other, it sounds great.

Xi’s idea is that Confucianism will keep folk quiet and disciplined (social stability), while the Communist party handles the big stuff (political decisions).

‘Westerners say one’s own judgment eclipses everything else,’ complained a Chinese professor. ‘But Confucius said the individual cannot be separated from history and tradition.’ China’s greatest thinker would not pull down statues or trash old sports photos that lack females. Still, Deng pulled down thousands of Mao statues after 1978. It’s not a monopoly of the social justice crowd in the West, to bury history in the name of today’s ‘truth’.

Confucius’s ideas spelled out in the forum impressed some of the sprinkling of foreigners, including me. Sky (father) and Land (mother) as the wellspring of a religion beats the hell out of jihadism with its bombs and suicide murderers. But Beijing should go easy on using Confucius for political or nationalist reasons.

How will Beijing square its insistence on regional boxes with the amazing reach of Belt and Road? Daily, Chinese officials and scholars say ‘countries outside the region’ should keep their distance from the South China Sea. They correctly say, ‘Japan is not a party to any of the disputes in the South China Sea’ and Tokyo is quite far off. But Beijing disregards ‘regional’ boxes when convenient. China is busy all over the South Pacific, but China does not share a region with Papua New Guinea or Vanuatu. Australia does. Will Beijing respect Canberra’s higher claims in the South Pacific? Who from outside the region (if anyone) should poke their nose into the South Pacific? Happily, Premier Li Keqiang seldom plays games with regional boxes. He likes the ancient maxim, ‘You can’t have fish in addition to bear’s paw.’ Li understands the trade-off between the irritating Number One role of America in the world and the value to China of an East Asian security order led by the US.

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