Increasingly frustrated by the airy pontifications of British politicians, public figures and lobbyists who rediscovered that place called China after the pandemic began in early 2020, I decided to do something. For my own sanity at least, I set aside time to work out why Britain, despite its long relations with that vast Asian country, had arrived at a policy so barren, contradictory and self-defeating. In fact, it’s worse than that: even to talk about a policy is to flatter incoherence, visceral panic and opportunism.
The evidence isn’t hard to find. For a few hours during last month’s debates between contenders for the Conservative crown, prime ministerial aspirants Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak talked tough about how they were going to deal with the People’s Republic. What did they plan to do? Close down a few barely functioning Confucius Institutes, set up an inquiry and stand up to Beijing. In other words, they plan to pretend, Yes Minister–style, that action is happening where inaction prevails.
Truly, I wondered to myself, is this the best we can do about such an important issue?
So I started to read as much as I could about Britain’s relations with China — going back to the beginning, to the moment at the end of the sixteenth century when Elizabeth I sent three letters to the Ming emperor Wan Li. Those messages had two striking characteristics: first, they were purely about trade, and second, they never arrived. The ships carrying them either foundered or gave up trying to reach their destination.
More than 400 years later, Britain’s messages still don’t seem to be reaching their intended recipient. And trade and self-interest are still at the core of its approach to China.
The mercantile ambitions that determined British policy during the first 200 years of contact became mixed up with something more potent once the first Anglo-Chinese war broke out in 1840. Industrialisation, colonisation and economic efficacy had made Britain stronger than Qing-era China. That asymmetry, in a relationship driven by the era’s supply chains and economic flows, almost inevitably led to conflict. Britain, as the more powerful, prevailed.
The modern Chinese history of that period recounts exploitation by the British, who carried in their wake the United States, France, Germany and then, most destructive of all, Japan. Strangely, Britain doesn’t have an identifiable narrative of those events. Most debates about the period concern whether the imperial project, more broadly, was in any sense justified. China figures as a minor part in the Oxford History of the British Empire, for instance.
Looking over the post-1840 history I was struck by just how strongly Britain’s mindset rested on a view that China’s weakness and dysfunctionality were both a curse and a blessing. London’s policy through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was to exploit the country’s weaknesses while doing what it could to ensure that the Chinese empire — what Lord Palmerston, the British leader most associated with gunboat diplomacy, called “a rickety ship of state” — stayed afloat to perform whatever useful tasks it could.
This strategy helps explain Britain’s odd decision to help the teetering Qing defeat the Taiping rebellion in the 1860s. It also explains the remarkable fact that the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, a significant part of the Chinese state, was run by a foreigner, Ulsterman Robert Hart, from 1863 to 1910.
A China that was frustrating and sometimes fickle — a country that didn’t like foreigners but had to endure them, that needed propping up because the alternatives were less palatable — was a place Britain and other developed nations grew comfortable with. Reading the history, it dawned on me that this mindset has lingered, even to this day, and underlies the increasingly panicky response to Xi Jinping’s dramatic rebuttals of the tale of rickety dependence.
Nineteen forty-nine, the year Xi’s communist predecessors took power, is one of those dates that becomes more significant as time goes on. Despite the parlous state of the Chinese economy during the 1950s and 1960s, and despite the often self-harming policy contortions and mass campaigns of the Mao years, 1949 was when China started not just saying no to the outside world but also behaving like it meant it.
Clues as to how the new rulers intended to do business came thick and fast. Regarded as unlikely to intervene in the clash between North and South Korea in 1950, they mobilised more than three million “volunteers” and stopped the UN forces in their tracks. Seen as mere lackeys of the Soviet Union, they detonated their relationship with Moscow by the end of the 1950s and went it alone.
Whether Britain has ever really come to terms with that new, pushy stance is moot.
Has Australia been any more adaptable? As historian James Curran writes in his new history of the Australia–China relationship since the second world war, Australia’s China Odyssey: From Euphoria to Fear, both Britain and Australia briefly flirted with the idea of conferring diplomatic recognition on the newly established People’s Republic in 1949. Like London but unlike Washington, Australia didn’t view the victorious communists as an existential threat needing to be repelled at every step. Canberra’s view was ambiguous and pragmatic. But while Britain made the leap in January 1950, antagonising the Americans was a risk Canberra couldn’t take.
Just like their British counterparts, Australian leaders from Robert Menzies to Gough Whitlam, Malcom Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard were gripped by the notion that China needed to be handled dextrously, with a view to the long term — while all the time keeping an eye on how the Americans reacted.
The high point of this attitude came in the Hawke era (at least before 1989) when, as Curran reports, the Australian leader apparently enjoyed such rapport with leaders like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang that he had twenty-hour meetings on visits to Beijing. Hawke and Hu even held each other’s hands from the airport to the city when the latter came for a visit to Perth in 1985. It’s hard to imagine such bodily intimacy between Xi Jinping and any recent leaders of Australia.
The lingering notion of China as a place to be engaged with — not so it could carry on as it was, but so it might become something else — always offered a decent counterargument to the many in Australia who worried about its rising economic and military power. Even after the dark days of 1989, when the Tiananmen massacre saw Hawke overrule his officials and tearfully grant 20,000 Chinese people the right to stay in Australia on compassionate grounds, the language of engagement was quickly reasserted. The problem was that no one in China had ever been asked what they thought of the hopes being projected onto them.
The thwarted expectation that the Chinese would change has been exacerbated by China’s mastery of plot twists. On Mao’s death in 1976, Australia’s ambassador to Beijing, Stephen FitzGerald, was one of the very few to wonder whether the country was about to do the wholly unexpected and renounce radical leftism. Within two years his maverick view was proved prescient, and Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up era began.
By then, China’s political system was generally assumed to be on its last legs. Tiananmen had been its moral unmasking. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, its isolation seemed complete. Yet, against all logic and predictions, the Chinese economy began experiencing one of history’s most explosive periods of growth. In fact, after 2001, it could be called the most explosive.
Australia was an early beneficiary of this new economic power. But the fact that China was not behaving quite as expected created deeper and deeper quandaries. On a prosaic level, though, Whitlam and Fraser’s gambit had worked. Engagement had yielded a huge material and economic dividend for Australia. During John Howard’s prime minstership alone, from 1996 to 2007, Chinese–Australian trade grew more than fivefold. By 2007, as Curran reports, China had become the country’s largest trading partner. Other countries always hoped for Chinese trade to make them rich, and even during the great financial crisis Australia proved this might actually be possible.
This plotline would have been fine had a friendlier and more politically and diplomatically compatible China emerged alongside it. In another twist, though, the richer China got, the more entrenched its one-party Marxist-Leninist system became. Even the missionary zeal of the Americans sputtered out by the mid 2010s. From 2012, under Xi Jinping, the world faced a partner that not only didn’t perform to the West’s expectations and ideals but also, to add insult to injury, was brazen and outspoken in its defiance and increasingly regarded the West as chaotic, incompetent and lazy.
When the facts change, as John Maynard Keynes famously counselled, then so should minds. What is truly puzzling is that the main response to China’s defiance of expectations — in Australia, Britain and elsewhere — has not been a deeper reconsideration of why we are where we are but little more than an intensifying resentment.
This attitude is widespread, but in Australia its emotional depth has been truly striking. Curran provides a good summary of what Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership, that key period of 2007–10, reveals. What was not to like about Rudd as an interlocutor? A Mandarin speaker with a stellar understanding of Chinese history, language and culture, he knew more about China than any other leader of a major developed country.
The enigma of the Rudd era was not that it was incoherent but that it was so deeply bifurcated. Rudd veered between declaring that Australia would fight alongside America against China (in ways that unsettled even the Americans) and intensifying the language of engagement in China itself. Visiting Beijing straight after Washington in 2008, having thought deeply and had long discussions with Australian scholar Geremie Barmé, he decided to use a new term for the bilateral relationship — not pengyou (friends) but zhengyou (true friends).
There was nothing wrong with the idea, in theory at least. What was truly baffling was Rudd’s decision to announce it during a public lecture at Peking University, and only formally communicate the shift to elite leaders later in the day. Is it really too hard to understand why politicians on their home turf might be rattled by a visiting dignitary declaring a significant policy change in a public meeting before even bothering to run it by them? Rudd’s idea was that Australia wanted a relationship in which both partners could talk frankly and critically to each other. He got it in spades when he met the then premier Wen Jiabao, who was furious at his diplomatic tactlessness and apparently made that clear.
While Curran’s chapters on the period from the 1950s up to Rudd are driven by a narrative coherence and internal logic, after this the story falls apart. This is no criticism of the author: he does a sterling job of tracing a lamentable series of events and decisions. The story he tells is disjointed and sometimes bewildering simply because he is trying to track rapid shifts and panicky changes.
Julia Gillard just about maintained some stability, but since then Australia has been blighted by abrupt changes of prime minister. That lack of stability, combined with what Curran calls a stunning poverty of ideas, contributed to the parlous situation we see today. Symptomatic of the lack of imagination is the way Malcolm Turnbull and then Scott Morrison shuffled through the words of Menzies, Howard and other former PMs to dredge up ideas that worked before to see if they could be recycled.
The result was sloganeering rather than sound policy, reinforcing an unsettling sense that what really drives contemporary Australian policymaking is a visceral fear, bordering on obsessional, of abandonment by the United States and a rising self-revulsion over the country’s lingering addiction to exporting commodities to China. Australia, seemingly economically dependent on its worst enemy, is unable to stutter out even a barely audible word of thanks.
Curran supplies what is usually absent from contemporary Australian discussions of China — a well-grounded sense of historical perspective. As I’ve already indicated, Australia is not alone. Becoming a little more familiar in recent months with Britain’s own long engagement with China, I’ve concluded that the one policy recommendation I would make to any major country is for the government to commission a trusted, objective historian to write a comprehensive history of its relations with China, a history that would help it work out where it has come from rather than always obsessing about where it wants to go.
As Curran writes in his introduction, until Australia picks up a mirror and looks at itself and its behaviour towards China more critically, its fears will continue to undermine good policy. Only by facing the past, as James Curran does in this book, can Australia move beyond panicky responses to Beijing’s shrill and unpleasant tone. That might not solve all the problems, but would at least help understand them, and even that modest step would be a huge improvement. •
Australia’s China Odyssey: From Euphoria to Fear
By James Curran | NewSouth | $34.99 | 352 pages