Is Australia a victim of Chinese bullying? If you believe Australia’s liberal media, China’s trade war has brought Australia to its knees, and our national sovereignty at stake. “China is humiliating Australia as an example to others”, reads one headline from 2 December in Sydney Morning Herald. Other stories from the Fairfax press warned us of “Beijing's fresh threat to Australia”, while the ABC helpfully advised that “We don’t need to be licking the boots of China”. In its prolonged tirade against China, Australia’s patriotic media informed us that “China's patriotic media continues its tirade against Australia”.
After China put prohibitive tariffs on Australian wine in late November, an international campaign to buy it was launched by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) as a show of solidarity. “By drinking a bottle or two of Australian wine, [we are] letting the Chinese Communist Party know that we will not be bullied," says a right wing Swedish Member of European Parliament, in a video that has to be seen to be believed. Australia was also hit by steep Chinese tariffs on barley in May 2020, so lovers of freedom will be relieved to hear that the theocratic dictatorship of Saudi Arabia has come to the rescue with an order for $200m worth of our pearly grains of liberty.
But the Australian state is nobody’s victim. We’re a member of the world’s worst gang of imperialist bullies. With the backing of the United States—whose military is the most powerful killing machine the world has ever known—Australia is the biggest power in the south Pacific, dominating and exploiting poor island nations. Australia used its de facto control of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to build refugee concentration camps in their territory. In 2004, Australia wiretapped the state offices of impoverished East Timor, in order to screw it over in negotiations and steal the majority of the oil in its seas. The government is currently prosecuting the two Australians who blew the whistle on this, threatening 10 years’ jail time. Australian federal police are stationed in Port Moresby, Solomon Islands, and Tonga, where they were used to suppress a pro-democracy movement against the Tongan king in 2006.
China’s rise challenges the US-dominated world order, and Australia’s significant weight within it. The current media obsession is a calculated hypocrisy, designed to legitimise any direct or indirect confrontation with China, even a military confrontation that might kill millions of people for profits and power.
Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. These tariffs certainly won’t reduce us to the state of Iran or Venezuela—places where Western sanctions have crippled economies and left populations without many basic medical supplies. Australia is undeniably dependent on trade with China, but the economic impact of the trade war has so far been small. In the first ten months of 2020, exports to China were valued at $121bn, compared with $123bn for the same period in 2019. The main result of China’s restrictions on seafood has been cheaper lobsters in Australia.
On the other hand, China’s coal ban, certainly intended to inflict pain on Australia, “is having a more visible effect on China than it is on the Australian coal exporters,” senior business columnist Stephen Bartholomeusz wrote in the Herald with obvious delight on 23 December. Increased demand from alternative suppliers such as South Africa and Russia has driven up the price for Chinese buyers. “South African coal, for instance, is now being sold into China at $US100 a tonne, a 65 per cent increase on its pricing earlier this year.”
Many commentators actually see the trade war as an opportunity to wean off economic integration with China so that escalating military tension involves fewer economic risks and sacrifices. “A new regional player in global trade and defence would give us some insulation against Chinese trade reprisals, and it might gain us more respect in Beijing,” Stephen Manallack wrote in a Fairfax opinion piece. India is touted as an alternative market for some exports as well as an important military ally
Last year, Australia participated in joint naval drills with India, US and Japan for the first time since 2007. Salvatore Babones, a hawkish Sydney University academic, called for the permanent stationing of a US fleet in Darwin, and for Australia to move its own fleet closer to the action in Townsville. “Does Australia want to be part of the free world, or does it want to kowtow to China?” Babones asked Sky News host Chris Smith on 16 December. Any confrontation between the existing powers and a rising China—even in peripheral theatres—could kill millions. Western liberal imperialists know this. They just want to make sure their side comes out on top. And they’ll say whatever they think convinces ordinary people that it’s for the best.
This cynicism was blasted at high volume with the howls of outrage over a political artwork shared over Twitter in late November by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Coming in the wake of findings that Australia committed heinous war crimes in Afghanistan, the picture depicted one of the allegations made against Australian special forces: that they slit the throats of two teenage boys suspected of sympathising with the Taliban. The sarcastic caption reads: “Don’t be afraid, we’re coming to bring you peace!” The Australian ruling class used the tweet as an opportunity to reset the discussion of our crimes in Afghanistan, with prime minister Scott Morrison calling it “an absolutely outrageous and disgusting slur” in a televised statement on the same day, and demanding that Twitter remove the picture immediately.
“BEIJING DIGS IN OVER WAR CRIMES” read the front cover of the SMH the next day. Fairfax and the ABC dishonestly hammered the line that the artwork was “fabricated”, “fake”, “doctored”, “concocted”, as if China claimed to have an authentic overhead shot of a boy holding a lamb on an Australian flag whilst a soldier held a knife to his throat.
Under the headline, readers were encouraged to turn to page 7 for analysis by chief political correspondent David Crowe, where he wrote: “This new attack is about national honour. It drives a shard of glass into the Australian psyche for many in this country, given the way the nation’s identity has been forged by military history.” It’s enough to make you sick: Australian soldiers murdered civilians in cold blood, and all these journalists can do is weep over stranded shellfish and ANZAC biscuits. It was hard to disagree with Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying when she asked: “Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not?”
It’s a shame that condemnation of Australian war crimes has been left to right-wing Chinese nationalists who obviously don’t care about human rights. Scathing commentary like that shared by Zhao should have been on the front page of every Australian newspaper the day after the Brereton report. Instead, the sniveling liberal press mourned the loss of face for our killing machine and barely gave an afterthought to the 100,000 civilians killed by US-allied troops in Afghanistan over two decades of occupation. America also murdered another 1 million people in Iraq with the help of Australia and Britain, but who would know when our media is staffed by professional amnesiacs?
Of course we should never give any support to the rotten dictatorship and imperialist project of the Chinese Communist Party. But no one in Australia is being asked to. The shrill chorus of toadies in the press want to convince us that the rulers of Australia and America are better, more decent, more democratic and humane, than the rulers of China. It’s a lie. The working class and oppressed of each country have a main enemy, and it’s their own ruling class. When ordinary Chinese people fight their rulers, they deserve all of our support. But when our capitalists and political elite fight their Chinese rivals, they’re also fighting to cement their control over us at home. There’s no amount of human life they would not sacrifice to that goal. They must all be defeated, not by a rival power representing the same thing under a different flag, but by the international working class, whose interests transcend the national borders of capitalist states.
Direct confrontation between the Western imperialist order and a rising China may not happen any time soon, but it the logic of capitalism is pushing us towards it. As the dominant voices in society—reformist, liberal and conservative—grow louder for confrontation and “national sovereignty”, it will be more and more urgent to point out that Chinese workers are our allies, and that the Australian capitalist class, far from being a victim, is a platinum member of the biggest gang of murderers in the world.