Sam Dastyari’s grasp of Chinese history must be among the least of his worries at present. He’s possibly wishing that he knew less about it rather than more, or at least that he had never had occasion to mention it, especially not in a public gathering standing beside a member of a political party whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned with those of his own party.
As we now know, that mention was to be his downfall. Last year, he recalled it as a murmured or garbled off-the-cuff response to a question. When the tape emerged it showed what he had really said: “The role that Australia should be playing as a friend is to know that we see several thousand years of history, thousands of years of history, where it is and isn’t our place to be involved.” What was he thinking?
On the face of things, it seems bizarre that a politician should voice approval of the policy of a foreign country on grounds not only satisfactory to the country concerned, but actually supplied by that country – in this case the “thousands of years of history” that China commonly advances as justification for its actions in the South China Sea, and many other places as well. But invoking those “thousands of years” has become common in the age of China’s rise. Dastyari may have picked up the habit from his sometime mentor, former foreign minister Bob Carr, who has urged that “the China story needs to be told and given credit for all that it has achieved… It has a culture and civilisation that goes back five millennia.” Carr may in turn have been influenced by, and has certainly quoted, Henry Kissinger on the importance of paying attention to “five thousand years of history.” On this point, all three men are in lock step with Xi Jinping.
It is difficult to understand what is meant by “five thousand years of Chinese history.” None of the commonly mentioned linchpins of Chinese culture were secured that long ago. The earliest forms of writing in East Asia have been dated to around 1200 BCE, or 1400 at a stretch. Confucius was not alive till the sixth century BCE. A unitary state — the Chinese empire, that is — was not founded till 221 BCE, and since then, a succession of states have existed in what we now recognise as Chinese territory. Through centuries and even millennia during those five thousand years, vast areas of this territory were occupied by non-Sinic peoples.
Probably the period is best viewed as something like the four thousand years of biblical chronology: a sacred period attached to a belief system. This would explain why the line between history and mythology is blurred. “China has a full rich history of over five thousand years,” writes Kang Ouyang. “From ancient times when the three emperors and five sovereigns started the Chinese civilisation, national wisdom began to sprout…” Ouyang is director of the Institute of Philosophy at Huazhong University of Science and Technology and is known for his work on the “national spirit.” He otherwise writes on Marxism, but in this account, a recently published book on The Chinese National Spirit, the true believer trumps the Marxist. The “five thousand years” is advanced at several points in the book, most fascinatingly as a label for the period within which China has been engaged in international relations.
What is the logic of the connection between the “five thousand years” policy positions on either China’s part or anyone else’s? In another recently published book, History and Nationalist Legitimacy in Contemporary China: A Double-Edged Sword, Robert Weatherly and Qian Zhang chart the ruling Communist Party’s purposeful use of history and historical memory as a legitimising strategy, to replace the foundations formerly supplied by commitment to revolution and Marxism. The point they make is not a new one, but it is worth reiterating until it permeates general knowledge about contemporary China. Every country has its national myths, most of which are grounded in or derived from history; but in China, history alone is the bedrock. The People’s Republic doesn’t have a religion, and it doesn’t have a constitution — or at least, not one that counts. It no longer even has a revolutionary ideology. It just has history, lots of it.
Needless to say, such “history” cannot be freely researched and openly debated. It is more akin to a religious doctrine. Its central tenets can be recited, as if from a catechism. What is the history of the Chinese Communist Party? “It is a history of leading the peoples of the whole country under the guidance of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought to undertake a socialist revolution and the establishment of socialism, with tremendous achievements…” What is the Chinese Dream? “It came out of the great experience of the thirty years or reform and opening up, out of more than sixty years of persistent searching since the establishment of the PRC, out of the profound conclusion of 170 or more years of development of the Chinese people, out of the enduring legacy of the Chinese people’s 5000-year old culture.”
When Dastyari first heard mention of “thousands of years” uttered in relationship to the People’s Republic of China, his instincts should have told him that it was a mantra routinely uttered in the service of a particular belief system, with no self-evident relationship to the South China Sea. As things stand, it is hard to understand why he would have chosen to recite it, other than that he might have been talking too much to Bob Carr, whose position on the South China Sea he echoed. The rather muddled sentence quoted above, in which he actually rephrases the term, suggests that he might have been somewhat confused as to what he was saying. As a citizen of a country with sixty-five thousand years of human settlement, and as a parliamentary representative in a complex society with a different sort of history — difficult, intensively researched and much debated — he was in a position to bring quite a different perspective to bear on regional disputes. That might have required greater sensitivity to Australia’s history, as well as a better understanding of China’s. •