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Brief #72: May 4th, war talks, Darwin port, NZ

Neican Brief is a weekly analysis of China-related current affairs. This series is made possible through the support from the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

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1. May Fourth: complex legacy

Tuesday marks the 102 anniversary of the May Fourth Movement.

On May Fourth 1919, thousands of students gathered in front of Tiananmen to protest the Treaty of Versailles. They were infuriated by the betrayal of the Allies (for granting Japan the German concessions in Shandong), and the weakness of the Chinese government.

A 1976 painting by Liang Yulong celebrating the May Fourth Movement.
A 1976 painting by Liang Yulong celebrating the May Fourth Movement. Landsberger Collection, via chineseposters.net

The May Fourth Movement catalysed intellectual, cultural and political mobilisations that profoundly upended China.

Its legacy is complex and defies simple (and politically convenient) readings. For many in the West, May Fourth was viewed as part of China’s march towards liberalism. With the wisdom of hindsight, this wrongly assumes that China would modernise according to Western ideas about human progress. Looking at recent history, the hypothesis that China’s path will eventually converge with those travelled by the West is questionable.

For the CCP, May Fourth is significant because it gave birth to the Party.

The problem is that the CCP was just one of the movement’s many offsprings. The Party, despite its claims about its noble inherence, has repeatedly purged May Fourth influences, such as individualism and free thinking, from its ranks. The persecution of intellectuals during the Yan’an Rectification Movement (1942-1945) is a classic case in point.

Today, the legacy of the May Fourth is claimed by many in China. This includes leftist intellectuals and Marxist students critiquing neoliberalism; ultranationalists keen to make China great again on the international stage; and liberal intellectuals dismayed by China’s recent illiberalism turn — so pretty much everyone along the ideological and political spectrum.

For us, every May Fourth is an opportunity to reflect on the twists and turns in China’s quest for modernity.

It also happened to be Adam’s wedding anniversary!

2. War war war

Something strange is afoot in Australia. There is an increasing talk of a possible war with China, including from the Minister for Defence, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, and a top general.

There are not many places in the world where there is so much talk of a war with China. Let’s just remember a few things:

  1. China is not an existential threat to Australia. It will not physically invade Australia. Economic coercion is fundamentally different from kinetic warfare.
  2. The only feasible pathway for Australia to go to war with China is if it goes along with the US in its war with China. Yet talks of war are louder in Australia than in the US.
  3. If prospects of a US-China war are high, then Japan and South Korea, both US allies and host US military bases, should be more concerned than Australia. Yet, they are not.
  4. China and the US both have nuclear weapons. War against China will not be like the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

On the first point, Beijing’s harsh words and trade sanctions are being exaggerated in Australia to heighten the fear of war. This fear, along with the “silent invasion” rhetoric of the last three years have further whipped up anxiety in Australia about China.

Yet, despite the increase in military spending, it’s nowhere enough if the government actually believed that Australia is heading for a war with China. And if we were indeed headed to war with China, shouldn’t we talk about it in a more comprehensive way instead of the “drumbeats” and “warriors”? We should be discussing what we are trying to achieve with a war; what is the end goal; and crucially, what price (lives lost) are we prepared to pay to achieve that.

Yet we are not doing this. So what is the talk of war actually about?

Simply, domestic politics. Focusing on an external enemy is an effective means of rallying public support. In addition, the new Minister of Defence wants to make his mark early; and the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs is eyeing the Secretary of Defence job.

Such irresponsible talks of war have real consequences. It lays the groundwork for more draconian national security powers that could further erode civil liberties. Already, the anxiety of China is affecting the lives of “everyday Australians”. Under this environment, many people (especially Chinese-Australians) are being told to “pick a side”.

During WWII, human rights abuses were justified in the name of war, including in Australia and the US. People were interned in concentration camps on the basis of their ethnicities. We may think this is impossible in this day and age. But, is it?

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3. Port of Darwin

Following on from the cancellation of Victoria’s BRI MOU, the Australian Government is reviewing the lease of Port of Darwin held by a private Chinese company Landbridge.

The Port of Darwin is a purely commercial port. It cannot be turned into a military port without notice or Canberra’s approval. And it’s not possible for a warship to suddenly appear in Australian waters and dock there.

There were no national security objections when the lease was signed in 2015. The then Defence chief Mark Binskin said “if movements are the issue, I can sit at the fish and chip shop on the wharf at the moment in Darwin and watch ships come and go.”

Yes, the national security landscape has changed since 2015. But despite that, it’s still unclear what new national security risks have prompted the new round of anxiety. China is now punishing Australia through economic coercion, but this deal neither aids nor prevents that.

Specific national security risks are not at the centre of most commentaries around the Port of Darwin. Instead, the argument is more general: since the bilateral relationship is continuing to deteriorate or since the war with China is inevitable (see above), Australia should start decoupling trade and investment links with China now.

The biggest opponent of the deal, Peter Jennings, suggested selling the port to another private operator. But if the port was indeed important to Australia’s national security, shouldn’t the Australian Government nationalise it?

The question is: where does it end? If the risk is about China and not about the specific transaction, then is this the start of forced sale of all big Chinese investment in Australia? Is Australia effective declaring it’s closed for business to China?

This appears to be another case of Australia demonstrating to China and the world the extent it is willing to go to confront China despite risks to the national economy and for no tangible national security upsides.

*Disclaimer: Yun was working for the Foreign Investment Review Board in 2015 when the port lease was signed. But she didn't work on this deal and didn’t see any non-public documents related to this deal.

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4. New Zealand’s balancing act

New Zealand’s parliament voted to label China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as “severe human rights abuses”. The “genocide” label originally put forward by the opposition was watered down.

Wellington is walking a fine line, trying to balance human rights concerns with economic interest. China is a vital trading partner, and New Zealand doesn’t want to end up like Australia.

Wellington is also trying to reconcile the need to chart an independent, “principles-based approach” relationship with Beijing with pressures from other Five-eye members to be tougher towards China.

Recently, it opted out of several joint statements issued by other Five Eyes members on human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Instead, it issued separate statements of concern. For this, New Zealand has coped a fair bit of flak from some Australian and US politicians and commentators.

But Wellington’s misgivings about expanding the remit of the intelligence-sharing alliance to publicly criticise China is understandable. In essence, how you make your criticism matter. In the words of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern:

We have shown [our approach to China] quite clearly over the past year by deliberately choosing when we make public statements on issues of concern, and with whom…

During this same speech on Monday, Ardern highlighted the two tensions we mentioned earlier, and tried to strike a nuanced tone:

as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile.

This is a challenge that we, and many other countries across the Indo Pacific region...are also grappling with.

As a significant power, the way that China treats its partners is important for us.

We think New Zealand’s China policy choices will get harder in the years to come.