Kevin Rudd once upbraided then-Prime Minister Turnbull for his lack of ‘diplomatic sensibility’ to China. Last year he blasted Morrison for being ‘hairy-chested’ during Xi Jinping’s shadow trade war against Australia. Similarly, New Zealand’s trade minister Damien O’Connor lately advised Canberra to ‘show respect’ and act with ‘a little more diplomacy’ towards Beijing. But what if these PRC-explainers have got it wrong, much as the Germany explainers of the 1930s got it wrong?
Certainly, Bill Hayton, in The Invention of China, characterises the new political ideology of the Communist party as ‘national-socialism with Chinese characteristics’. How else to describe a system featuring a ‘core leader, insistent demands for natural homogeneity, intolerance of difference, rule by party not by law, corporativist economic policies, a focus on discipline and an ideology based on tactical exceptionalism – all backed up by a massive surveillance state’?
Great Han chauvinism, admittedly, is not identical with Nazi Aryanism. Exterminationist antisemitism does not lie at the heart of Xi Jinping’s so-called Chinese Dream. That said, notions of racial superiority are key to the Chinese Communist party’s modus operandi. Just ask the Uighurs, Tibetans, et al.. Moreover, the unbridled ambitions of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy reverberate with the hubris of the Third Reich in the lead up to the second world war.
How to explain the ultra-nationalism of today’s Communist party? It is, patently, the ideology that has superseded Mao Zedong Thought, the despotic creed that subdued the population for almost three decades. The millenialist madness of Maoism might have been harrowingly homicidal at times, but at least the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution forced everyone to direct themselves to the centre of all things – the Great Helmsman.
Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao market reforms were a welcome respite from all those interminable rectification campaigns and yet Deng’s capitalist-Leninism, with its emphasis on pragmatic self-advancement, could not be counted upon to bind the people as one in fealty to the Communist party. The crushing of the Democracy Wall Movement in 1979 and the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 were evidence enough of that.
Over time, starting in the mid-1980s, the regime developed the strategy of uniting the population behind (or underneath) it with nationalist-Leninism. This hybrid ideology insists that ‘the party’, ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’ are so intertwined that to betray one is to betray all three. As Xi explained in his closing speech at the 2018 National People’s Congress, ‘The Communist party will always be the backbone of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.’
Xi Jinping, a longstanding admirer of Vladimir Putin’s strongman persona, is now the fulcrum of ‘national-socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Nationalism, in combination with a burgeoning economy, has given the Communist party a legitimacy it lacked at the time of Mao’s demise. Last year, as a consequence, the party elite felt emboldened enough to elevate their ‘core leader’ to the status of Helmsman.
Every triumph for the PRC, domestically or on the world stage, is a triumph for the regime. The opposite, however, also holds true. The legitimacy of Xi’s rule depends upon him never losing or never seeming to lose. There must be no setbacks. No perceived slight, such as Morrison’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, can go unanswered.
While Xi has failed, up to this point of time, to make Australia bend the knee, it is still early days. The announcement of a new H-20 stealth bomber with the capacity to hit targets as far away as Australia might be viewed as one more turn of the screw. Beijing’s purported proposal to build a New Daru City complete with industrial zone and seaport, on the maritime border between New Guinea and Australia, could be interpreted as another.
Xi’s Chinese Dream, apparently, requires Australia to become a compliant member of his version of a Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way. Recently Prime Minister Ardern officially upgraded New Zealand’s free-trade deal with the PRC. The following week Beijing granted Air New Zealand new multi-stop cargo rights to Guangzhou Airport. This, Damien O’Connor might remind us, is what happens when you ‘show respect’.
The necessity to always appear triumphant in the eyes of his citizenry, fed a daily diet of Goebbels-like propaganda, might help explain the jarring disconnect – or, more likely, the connection – between Xi’s lofty rhetoric and ruthless actions. As recently as 2014, at the conclusion of negotiations for the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, Xi addressed our federal parliament with these stirring words: ‘Standing at the new starting point and height, we should… become real friends and soul mates, and become harmonious neighbours sharing weal and woe.’ Six short years later, Xi Jinping condemned Australia to ‘a walk in the dark’.
There is a history of Xi reaching out to a neighbour only for that relationship to sour soon afterwards. He and Prime Minister Modi acted like old friends during a celebrated visit to India in 2019. A year later, however, skirmishes high in the Himalayas sent twenty Indian soldiers plummeting to their death – and Sino-Indian relations went into deep freeze.
It is the same with all the nations adjacent to the South China Sea. President Xi once asserted that he and President Duterte were ‘neighbours and blood brothers’. But the Communist party’s ultra-nationalist ideology has resulted in Xi rejecting the decision of an international panel in the Hague and becoming increasingly paranoid and belligerent on the subject. Now Xi has ordered the People’s Liberation Army Navy to ‘take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction’ are ‘illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations and individuals’ in the area. This might, in the first instance, involve the PLA Navy firing on Filipino fishing boats. So much for blood brothers.
In the same week that Beijing strengthened its unilateralist approach to the South China Sea, President Xi was addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos with a speech titled, ‘Let the Torch of Multilateralism Lighten Up Humanity’s Way Forward’.
It was another ‘core leader’ who, in May 1933, made this promise to the world: ‘The German Government wishes to come to a peaceful agreement with other nations on all difficult questions.’
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