Let’s Party Like It’s 2018

A friend recently shared an article by the former Australian Ambassador to China.

Australia is muddled on the middle kingdom

Now, I understand the author is close to him, so I aim to be respectful, but there were moments when I felt the piece echoed sentiments that is rather out of touch.

I agree with the author that politicians should be practical and well-versed in their dealings. In viewing of this, a diplomatic trip to Beijing might indeed be productive.

However, certain points in support of this stance struck me as questionable. For instance, the author’s claim that Beijing’s air quality improved mainly due to relocating steel plants seemed oversimplified. A conversation with Hebei locals might offer a more rounded perspective.

Regarding his comments on Hong Kong:

…little things have changed there, despite political freedoms and legal independence having been constrained.

This is a shockingly oversimplified view, glossing over some significant shifts in the region, to put it mildly.

What particularly caught my attention was the last paragraph:

Historically, envoys from neighbouring states visiting Beijing with tribute often returned home with gifts greatly more valuable than those that were given. The ritual of the relationship is what mattered. It was form, courtesy and respect. It was not transactional. So, in going, the prime minister may well leave with his saddlebags full and be a little more informed.

Man, as a Chinese, a not-so-easily-offended one, I do feel slightly offended by this part. It is basically saying, the Chinese are stupid, you only have to play their game of courtesy and you will be greatly rewarded.

Which is, admittedly, quite true in the past, as is known to almost everyone. However, even so, relying on this premise for a visit seems inadequate, especially with the current economic climate in China. Yes, you will probably get rewarded, but probably not so handsomely as you would before. There’s a diminishing pool of resources and not all Chinese are in favor of their government’s overt generosity to other nations.

If Australia approaches with too much deference, it could be perceived as acquiescence, potentially inviting more aggression from the Chinese side.

Throughout, the author paints an admirable picture of China’s infrastructural accomplishments.

the bridges, immaculate six-lane highways, spaghetti-like intersections of high-speed train lines, and cranes across the horizon

Yet, in our post-COVID era, surely we recognize that societal progress isn’t solely about infrastructure? The narrative felt reminiscent of the awe many felt in 2008 when the world marveled at Beijing’s new infrastructure for the Olympics. If not for the brief mentioning of Beijing’s air quality improvements, I would have said that this article was written in 2008.