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Background Briefing


Sunday 18 September 2005


China: Thunder from the silent zone


Kirsten Garrett: This is Background Briefing on ABC Radio National. Hello, I’m Kirsten Garrett. 


China’s looming, rapid presence in global economics is overwhelming, with many predictions that China may, within a decade or so, challenge the USA as a world superpower.  


In today’s Background Briefing program, former China analyst for the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Dr. Paul Monk and Rowan Callick, Asia Pacific Editor for the Financial Review discuss importance of China. The event was held by Asialink of the University of Melbourne 


Dr. Paul Monk’s recent book is Thunder From the Silent Zone , published by Scribe. 




Paul Monk: There is renewed debate these days about literacy in schools. Do we teach young people such basic things as grammar, spelling and - punctuation. Well, I think the significance of punctuation is revealed in the simple fact that I have been asked to address you briefly this evening on the topic ‘Rethinking China COLON Australia and the World’, rather than ‘Rethinking China COMMA Australia and the World’. We catch the distinction in the inflection. Even so, the task is a formidable one and my remarks will be intended more to stimulate thought than to offer systematic prescriptions for business or public policy. 


Well, I have twenty minutes in which to address you on the subject of Rethinking China and how such rethinking is likely to impact on Australia and the world at large, or at the very least Australia’s place in the world. I am reminded for some reason of a quip by the old comedian of the 1960s, Shelley Berman, at the end of a comedy hour, “Well, I’m almost out of time, I’ve taken up way too much time, I’ve only got ten seconds left; so I’m going to take that ten seconds and discuss he fate of the world. That is, of course, on the assumption that it lasts that long.”  


But of course, I’ve been given a flying start, because both Jenny McGregor and Henry Rosenbloom have spoken about me and about my book, Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China. So, I want to take the twenty minutes and dwell on three things. The nature of ‘rethinking’; the nature of ‘China’ and the challenges for Australia, as regards its place in a world in which China is becoming a more and more substantial presence. The first of these, ‘rethinking’ is my most fundamental concern. It is the business I’m in, China and the book quite apart. The second, ‘China’ has been a particular preoccupation of mine since I completed my doctorate a decade and a half ago and went to work for the Australian government as an intelligence analyst on East Asia. The third, Australia’s place in the world is our common concern here this evening and in that respect I address you as a fellow citizen, or, in the case of those of you who are guests in Australia, as a fellow citizen of the world. 


The simplest way into the topic of ‘rethinking’, I think, is to draw a distinction I like to emphasise between predicting the future and engaging in scenario planning. There’s an old joke to the effect that prediction is a hazardous business, especially when it involves the future. Yet, time and again, prediction, and overconfident prediction at that, is what policy makers, intelligence analysts, business people and fortune tellers engage in. Such prediction tends to be based, in considerable measure, on extrapolation from what seem to be robust trends and on deeply held assumptions which are not subjected to very much critical examination. Therein lie the hazards. 


By contrast, scenario planning involves thinking about various possible futures and the different ways things could turn out depending on whether certain trends continue or are disrupted, on whether certain assumptions prove warranted or otherwise, and on what actions are taken by various parties to effect their preferences as regards future outcomes. Such thinking is much more intellectually interesting than prediction, but also much more demanding and much less superficially conclusive. The cognitive burden it imposes is the chief reason why it is not commonly undertaken or taken seriously. 


Let me underscore this point, because it has considerable relevance to China’s possible futures and their quite different implications for Australia and the world. Just over a decade ago, social scientist Philip Tetlock completed a longitudinal study of the confidence levels of experts in international affairs. He asked a representative sample of experts in various specific fields to make predictions in their own field looking anything from a few months to five years ahead - not long term predictions. Moreover, he asked them very basic questions, absolutely central to their field. For example, experts on the Soviet Union were asked, in 1988, whether, by 1993, the Communist Party’s grip on power would be stronger, weaker or about the same. Note that they were not even asked whether the Communist Party might have lost power altogether and the Soviet Union have ceased to exist.  

Experts on South Africa were asked whether the apartheid regime would have strengthened, weakened, become more extreme or more reformist. Experts on US politics were asked, in July 1992, whether George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton or Ross Perot would win the Presidential election in November that year and so on. The experts were also asked to rate the confidence with which they made their predictions. There were seven sets of experts, seven different predictions to make. Tetlock waited for the future to happen and then checked it against the predictions of the experts. He found two surely rather interesting things: first, across all seven cases, the experts performed no better than random in the accuracy of their predictions. Second, they were badly calibrated, which is to say that their confidence in their predictions was much greater than was justified by their accuracy. 


Why do I mention the Tetlock study here this evening? Because ever since China’s economy started to go gang busters, predictions about where things were heading have been increasingly common and commonly rather facile, but the actions taken on the basis of such predictions are or could be of very great significance. For a decade or more now, I have been struck by how unreflectively people have come to talk of China’s rise and its implications and how very much has come to hang off those predictions in terms of investment, foreign policy and strategic thinking. To give but a few of the more prominent examples, Malcolm Fraser has long since expressed the view that China is set to displace the United States as the number one economy in the world within a decade or two; Bob Hawke has long since said that China is about to resume its traditional role as the greatest power in the world; while Hugh White, just a few months ago, expressed the view that China could soon displace the United States as Australia’s new ‘great and powerful friend’. 


Quite a few years ago, now, bemused by this kind of prediction, I wrote a few papers taking issue with it and outlining how a more sensible and thoughtful scenario-based approach to China’s futures might be attempted. Those papers were the first seedlings of what has just become Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China. The bedrock idea I advanced then and have elaborated on in the book is that the complexities in the equation, the challenges China faces, the constraints on the growth of its power in the 21st world and the changes it may well undergo in the years ahead should compel us to think, at a minimum, in terms of four different kinds of scenarios for China’s future. Partly for mnemonic purposes, I call these four scenarios mutation, maturation, militarisation and metastasis. Each is distinct in both its nature and its implications from the tacit standard, uncritical scenario, which I call the Linear Ascent Model or LAM. Far too many commentators, I think, including many so-called experts are, as it were, on the LAM, which is to say, fleeing from the hard thinking tasks that the possible futures of China present us with. 

The basis for and implications of the four scenarios are spelled out in the first part of the book and I shan’t digress here to enlarge on them, except to note that mutation entails fundamental reshaping of the polity and economy in China, such that, for practical purposes, the China we are dealing with a little further down the track is not the People’s Republic, with Mao Zedong as its founding hero. Maturation entails a leveling out of the rapid growth we have been seeing, leaving China better off in some respects, but with enormous social, demographic, environmental and economic challenges. Militarisation entails a lurch into national chauvinism, whether out of hubris or frustration. Metastasis entails things coming seriously unglued, in part because the Communist Party fails, finally, to address the institutional problems it created during the first half century of its rule. 


The uncertainties in how things will play out and the very different consequences of one scenario compared with another are what should be driving analysis of and rethinking about China here in Australia. I do not see enough evidence of such searching, sophisticated analysis and I hope that Thunder From the Silent Zone will help to stimulate some of it. But I want to emphasise two things at this point. The first is that the book does not predict which scenario will occur, but it does argue consistently that it would be in the best interests of China, Australia and the world at large for the first scenario, mutation, to occur. Our strategic thinking should be shaped by sustained analysis of what we can do to help bring that future into being and how we need to hedge against the possibility that the future will be otherwise. 

I use the word ‘hedge’ here quite deliberately. We have all, over the past generation, become familiar with the concept of a hedge fund. One of the most famous, if ephemeral of hedge funds was a company set up in 1994 by a man called John W. Meriwether: Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). Last year, in a paper called ‘Meriwether and Strange Weather: Intelligence, Risk Management and Critical Thinking’, I pointed out how at LTCM a group of brilliant quants came spectacularly unstuck when overconfidence in their math models, their assumptions about market efficiency and their own intuitive genius led them to create a trillion dollars worth of exposure over four years, making remarkable profits, then lose almost everything in five weeks, in August and September 1998. How did this happen? In the simplest terms, because, ironically, LTCM failed to hedge. 


Hedging means placing bets on a risk weighted basis, given that we are uncertain about how the future will play out. How are we hedging our bets in regard to the possible futures of China? Who is even thinking rigorously about what this might mean? How are they quantifying the risks? Have they even specified what the range and relative gravity of the risks is? What confidence do they have that their quantifications are sounder than those of the brilliant quants at LTCM who blew a trillion dollars in five weeks? If they are confident, how well calibrated are they? Last year, around the time I wrote the LTCM paper, I attended a conference in Canberra on China’s economy and asked a senior DFAT officer, who had just returned from three years in Geneva working on WTO issues, whether he believed China’s accession to the WTO would be more likely to precipitate reform in its dangerously insolvent financial institutions or a banking crisis. He replied that he had never heard that there was a problem with China’s financial institutions. Hold onto your socks! 

I need not, I trust, dilate further here and now on the nature of rethinking, much as it would be a professional pleasure to do so. Let me turn, instead, to the question of the nature of ‘China’. Certainly, a major purpose I had in writing Thunder From the Silent Zone was to offer to a broad, intelligent, practical readership a book on China that would address this question in a manner at once accessible and rigorous. That did not mean simply offering a narrative history or a cultural survey or an economic update. It meant, rather, looking at China from a number of different angles and asking some tough questions about how it has become what it is and how it is changing or might do so. I have just touched, ever so lightly, on the economic aspect of China. Let me just as lightly make a few observations regarding three other aspects of it: Chinese culture in the modern world, the prospect for democracy and human rights in the Chinese world, and China’s claims to Taiwan. 


As it happens, these topics correspond to parts three, four and two, respectively, of Thunder From the Silent Zone. I leave Part Two until last, because it flows most naturally into the third part of my remarks to you this evening - Australia’s place in the world and its relations with China. As regards Chinese culture, nothing seems more common than the way in which tourists, diplomats and military officers who visit China, or even just read about it, get overcome by the mystique of the Middle Kingdom. This stands in striking contrast to the paradox, evident around the world, that American popular culture has universal appeal, but the United States is held in widespread disdain both by the Left for ideological reasons and by many cultural elites out of snobbery.  


One of my favorite tales of the mystique is that of Henry Kissinger, when he first visited Mao’s China, remarking to Zhou Enlai how wonderful it was finally to be able to visit “your mysterious country”. The Chinese premier is said to have responded, “There’s nothing especially mysterious about China, Dr Kissinger, once you know a little about it.” Given how deliberately and consistently the Communist Party had and has always played the Middle Kingdom game, this was unusually frank on Zhou Enlai’s part. It was also correct. A necessary corrective to much starry eyed or over-awed waffle about China is to think dispassionately about it, just as one can and should about any other subject. Three very basic observations should serve as points of departure in this respect. (1) The Chinese language is the world’s greatest creole, not some pure, primordial, mandarin tongue. (2) Confucius is to China roughly what Plato has been to the West and should be analyzed and evaluated not idolized. (3) The Chinese state now lays claim to the borders of an empire, not those of a nation state, and those borders were never the borders even of the classical Chinese empire, only those established by the foreign Manchus, who were overthrown in 1912. 


The real key, however, to understanding modern China is the debate that has gone on in China itself for over a hundred years about how to bring the hobbled old Middle Kingdom and its archaic system of governance into the modern world. That debate is deeply interesting and pivots on the calls by students during the years immediately after the overthrow of the Manchus for science and democracy to be brought to China. Those are still the catch cries. And no single consideration is more important to an understanding of what China is than the knowledge that precisely these two things have been much more hindered than helped by the Communist Party’s half century of dictatorship over China.  

When the Chinese Ambassador, Madame Fu Ying, asserted recently, in regard to the fears of defector Chen Yonglin, that “This is not the 1970s, China has moved on”, she was, at best, fudging the truth. The arrest of Ching Cheong on charges of espionage in April, simply because he sought to obtain a manuscript copy of the last interviews with Zhao Ziyang, was a stark reminder of how far the Communist Party still has to go with regard to democracy. The efforts of the Communist government to discourage Chinese scientists from investigating the origins of avian flu H5N1 in Qinghai, as reported in New Scientist in early July are an equally stark reminder of how far it still has to go in regard to science. And here’s the thing: these considerations are culture-independent ones. Neither abuse can be justified on ‘cultural’ grounds. Both involved repression of Chinese thinkers by the Chinese Communist government. Repression, not something mysterious about China is the issue and, Madame Ambassador, there is a way to go yet. 


But let me give a particular focus to the question of debates about the nature of China, from a cultural point of view. I enjoy Chinese cinema. Not the old Communist propaganda films, but the new wave of films made since Mao at long last died and his dead hand was at least partly lifted from the country’s throat. Two such films made a particularly great impression on me in the couple of years before I wrote Thunder From the Silent Zone. They were Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. In chapter 8 of the book, I systematically compare and contrast the two films. The first bears comparison with Shakespearean drama or the great films of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa. It is a powerful study, for a contemporary audience, of the effort to assassinate the tyrant of Ch’in in the 3rd century BCE, as he sought, by ruthless use of force, to bring all kingdoms in the Chinese world under his sway. The second film, Hero, is superficially an effort to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as a martial arts extravaganza. It is best understood, however, as a disturbing propaganda film comparable to Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious work of art of 1934, Triumph of the Will. 


Like The Emperor and the Assassin, Hero is about an effort to assassinate the tyrant of Ch’in, the founding emperor of China. The difference is that, in Hero, the Emperor is presented as a figure of overpowering courage, insight, vision and dignity, before whom, in the end, the assassin bows. There is no doubt that, in both films, the Emperor stands for the Communist Party. There are good reasons to believe that Zhang Yimou, director of the much more biting film Shanghai Triad, in which the Party in the late 1990s is likened, implicitly, to the brutal and corrupt Green Gang in pre-revolutionary Shanghai, has struck a deal with the Party, or embraced a new style of quasi-fascist nationalism, in Hero. By contrast, Chen Kaige, in The Emperor and the Assassin, has the violence and tyranny of the Emperor directly challenged by a series of figures, not least among them his sweet heart and mistress Lady Zhao, played by Gong Li. 


The contrast between these two films, both Chinese, takes us to the heart of the debate about what China is and what it might yet become. It is not a new debate, it did not begin with these films, or in the ill-fated Beijing spring of 1989, or with the ill-fated Democracy Wall movement of 1978-79, or the ill-fated Hundred Flowers period of 1957. It goes back to the late nineteenth century, when Yan Fu translated the works of John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu and Herbert Spencer into Chinese and reformers at the Manchu court called for political reform and a constitutional monarchy. This is the rethinking inside China itself that no responsible outsider has any excuse for remaining ignorant of and no sound reason for remaining aloof from. It is in this cause that Wei Jingsheng was sent to prison. It is in this cause that Hu Yaobang was sacked as nominal leader of China. It is in this cause that Zhao Ziyang was forced to resign as nominal leader of China. It is in this cause that Fang Lizhi was forced into exile. It is this cause that recent defectors to Australia have renounced their allegiance to the Chinese Communist dictatorship. 


What cause? The cause of bringing into being what I have called scenario one: the mutation of the polity in China into a democratic form, with more soundly based institutions than the Communist dictatorship has ever been able to achieve. Thunder From the Silent Zone is written in that cause. That is why seven of its chapters are devoted to examining aspects of Chinese culture and questions to do with human rights and democratization. That is why it is dedicated to the tens of millions of victims of communism in China: millions who perished in civil war atrocities and terror campaigns, millions who perished in concentration and so-called ‘re-education’ camps, China’s Laogai, millions who perished during the Cultural Revolution, the 30 million who starved to death as a direct consequence of the Party’s irrational and irresponsible ‘Great Leap Forward’ of 1959-61. That is why it is called Thunder From the Silent Zone, a phrase borrowed from the great 20th century Chinese novelist and poet Lu Xun and alluding to the anguish of those suffering and silenced in a repressive society. 


Now, some may recoil from this litany of criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party and ask, but is there not much truth in Madame Fu’s claim that China has moved on? Has it not compensated for the victims at least by raising the living standards of hundreds of millions since Mao died? Is it not now a force for stability and progress, the guarantor of reform and social cohesion in China? There is no simple, satisfying answer to this question, since so many considerations are in the balance. What can be said and should be said, however, is that living standards in China have not risen because of the Communist Party. They have risen just to the extent that the Communist Party has allowed market forces to overturn communist economics. It has left much of the economy, however, in a half way house and vast inequalities, massive inefficiencies and potentially disastrous institutional fragilities have resulted. At the same time, the Party has failed to replace communist politics with a healthy and legitimate form of democratic politics. In consequence, frustration, resentment, confusion and cynicism are building up in Chinese society, in a manner every bit as volcanic as the rumbles Lu Xun detected seventy years ago. 


Not the least of the rumbles that we hear every so often is the rumble of thunder that rolls across the Taiwan Strait. So significant is the question of the fate of Taiwan for the future of China and the whole Asia Pacific world that I have devoted four chapters of the book to it. You will not be particularly surprised, I trust, if I tell you that I call for and assay a quite fundamental rethinking of how this matter should be understood and the dangerous impasse at which it now stands might be transformed. Once again, however, I do not engage in prediction. I simply point out that there are assumptions at work which tend not to be critically examined and which, if revised, could bring into being a future that is waiting to happen - a free Taiwan securely within the orbit of a free China and the abatement of strategic anxieties around the Pacific Rim. 


The brilliant young Chinese scholar, working in the United States, Dali Yang, is the only author who gets two epigraphs in Thunder From the Silent Zone. Each heads one of the chapters in the Taiwan part of the book, although Dali does not himself write about the problem of Taiwan. In his excellent study of the Great Leap Forward, Calamity and Reform in China, he drew on cognitive science to try to explain the blind spots and biases behind the errors of judgment that human beings make and how setbacks and impasses can compel them to learn. Here are the two short passages I use as epigraphs. At the head of a chapter called ‘Conceiving a Paradigm Shift’, I quote him as writing, “Since beliefs about opportunities are crucial to human choice, a better understanding of belief formation and belief change is therefore vital to the social sciences”. At the head of a chapter called ‘Can Rationality Save Us?’, I quote him as writing, “Incomplete rationality coupled with environmental constraints leads to inefficiencies in history, some of which we call tragedies.” 


It would be a tragedy of historic proportions if there was a Sino-American was over Taiwan. It would be a tragedy, also, if Taiwan was abandoned by the United States and compelled by one means or another to bow to the will of the Communist government in China. There is another possibility: that the evolution of Taiwan towards a separate national identity and democratic self-government will finally be acknowledged graciously by a China that is itself evolving toward a different kind of polity. Let me repeat, I am not predicting this outcome. I do, however, articulate the possibility and the rational case for it at some length. By contrast with what I dub the ‘Hong Kong gambit’ - external powers cutting a deal with China which pushes Taiwan back under the aegis of the People’s Republic of China - I describe what I call ‘the Singapore gambit’ and ‘the Australian outcome’. Some forty years ago, Singapore was detached from the Malaysian Federation, in order to solve a problem of communal tensions. Just over a hundred years ago, the colonies in Australia were granted independence as a commonwealth without any need to wrest such independence from the British crown. The outcome has been a century of extraordinary, sportive amity and peaceful commerce. 


Thunder From the Silent Zone does argue for Taiwan to be granted its de jure independence by China, just as it does argue for democratization in China itself. For both these reasons, it is virtually certain that the book will be banned in China. That is, of course, exactly why the people of Taiwan do not want to be part of the dominion ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. It is exactly why there are so many democratic dissidents in China and or in exile from China. It is why there is a fundamental challenge for Australia in working out its relationship with China in the years ahead. That challenge is often cast as simply one of cross-cultural communication, but it isn’t. Certainly, there are issues of cross-cultural communication that need to be addressed, but the fundamental challenge is not cultural, because those raised in a Chinese culture and even within the Chinese Communist Party itself are demonstrably able to understand arguments about science and democratic principles every bit as clearly as anyone in the West. Just ask Fang Lizhi or Wei Jingsheng, or read their writings. 


There are many very good reasons for Australians to seek to understand and enjoy the roots of Chinese sensibility and art and the achievements of Chinese culture. These are not, however, where the challenge really lies for us. It lies in inventing ways to encourage scenario one, mutation, in the Chinese polity, while hedging deftly and intelligently against the possibilities of scenarios two, three or four emerging. There is a power of work to do in this regard and what cautious diplomats like to call ‘megaphone diplomacy’ is not, I concur with them, necessarily the most tactful or fruitful way to do such work. Rather, such work is for the most part for us to do, work on our own thinking and strategizing, on our perceptions and priorities. But, as far as possible, it will consist, also, in working with the Chinese, in a sustained dialogue about what is possible and about practical means for bringing better possibilities into being. I see wide scope for Australia and Australians to engage in such dialogue and I would like to think that Thunder From the Silent Zone will, at the end of the day, open rather than narrow the scope for it. 

Let me draw these remarks to a close with that hope, in order to give Rowan Callick the floor and then to open the space for a dialogue with all of you who have exhibited your interest in the broader dialogue I refer to, simply by coming along here this evening. Thank you.  




Rowan Callick: There is simply no more important subject today, in the realms of international politics and economics, than this one. It is a story that we in the West keep getting wrong, too. Towards the end of the cultural revolution period, I attended a residential conference in the UK that was devoted to the society that Mao had created in China. Speaker after speaker, focusing on the barefoot doctors, the education system, the economy, stressed that Mao had created the perfect society, where altruism was the sole driver and all benefited, none were left behind. 


Today we are going through a period that has, I believe, a few parallels in its naivety. 


I first met Paul Monk, whose elegant book is anything but naïve, at an intriguing talk by Latrobe University’s Tom Bartlett, on how the borders of China have kept changing through the last few centuries. It didn’t take long to recognise Paul’s keen intellect, his freedom from predictable influences. This book - for which the publisher also deserves high commendation; not all university presses or large international publishers would have had the guts to publish it - benefits from Paul’s extraordinarily broad range of interests, his discursive yet of course cognitive thinking, always logical and organised. 

I am pleased to be able to claim a role in ensuring Paul began to be published in the Review section that is contained in The Australian Financial Review on Fridays. Recently he produced there a brilliant review of the new Mao biography by Jung Chang and her husband Jon Holliday, in which he says “The book reads like a hastily written polemic and often has the dissatisfying character of a gossip column or muckraking reportage.” I’m sure he’s right, and he produces cogent examples to push home his point - though I must personally confess to a slight attraction to gossip and muckraking. 


Paul spoke at a tumultuous function organised by the China Studies Group a few weeks ago at which the main speaker was the defector Chen Yonglin. His was the voice of reason and of humanity in what became a rather chaotic debate. 

Through the chaos, though, what emerged was the passion, the conviction, the commitment to causes that so animate many in the Chinese community. Chen spoke of the 5 poisonous things (being pro Tibetan Buddhist, pro Taiwan, pro democracy as Wei Jingsheng, Falun Gong, or a Uighur pro Xinjaing independence), and all play their part in enlivening this community, in creating here the debate that is simply not allowed in the PRC. 


Perhaps some or all of the 5 are represented here this evening… 

The PRC mainstream is represented ably in Australia by Fu Ying. 


This all matters mightily to the mainstream Australian society because China is already our third biggest economic partner, and is already having a bigger impact culturally and politically and strategically on Australia than Japan did during those decades when its economic power was paramount. China, as Paul ably chronicles, is not only a state, it is a culture and an idea, that cannot easily be contained within the state. 


Is a new Chinese world in the 21st century attainable? A world of independent, innovative thinkers, where people might compare different forms of government, or explore new paradigms, where artistic endeavour might be freely expressed in ways that reflect today's world rather than follow (or rebel against) the templates of an ancient imperial culture? A place where schools of thought, in Mao’s deceptive phrase, might genuinely contend? 


There are already myriad Chinas in certain respects: the cultures still palpable in the provinces and prefectures, with their dialects, cuisines and stories; the autonomous regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia whose local people have never really thought of themselves as Chinese at all; the independently spirited inhabitants of the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau; and the predominantly Chinese city-state of Singapore. Further afield, there is the Chinese diaspora, with its often ambiguous sentiments about mainland China. And there is Taiwan, with its own currency, constitution, elected government, army a country in most senses that count except the arcane diplomatic arena. 


A few years ago, the Hong Kong Museum of History held the inaugural exhibition in its new home: "Heavenly Creations, gems of ancient Chinese inventions." "Ancient" was the key word. In a preface to the exhibition catalogue, the museum's particularly bright curator, Joseph Ting, asked: "Why did the inventions initially made in China go on to flourish in the Western world while science and technology came to a virtual standstill in China? Why did we lose our leading position in science and technology and come to trail a long way behind?" 


One answer can be found in Chinese Shadows, by Pierre Ryckmans, the great Belgian-born Chinese scholar (a former professor of Chinese art and history at the University of Sydney who now lives mostly in Canberra). Using the pen name Simon Leys, Ryckmans writes: "The image of China that the West received of a static, sclerotic, hermetically sealed empire reflects the state of affairs created by the Ming and perpetuated by the Qing." 


He says: "This image does not in the least fit the reality of China under the Han, the Tang, the Sung, even the Yuan. China's powers of invention, evolution and adaptation, its creative genius, its political, cultural and economic vitality, were both the result and the cause of a civilisation that was essentially open, even frankly cosmopolitan. 


"Because of this fatal historical accident the establishment of the isolationist and totalitarian Ming system, made worse by the new lease of life that the Manchus offered China confronted the modern world blind and paralysed, with the worst possible political heritage. 


"The totalitarian cancer, the organised cretinisation, the dictatorship of illiterates, the crass ignorance of the external world together with a pathetic inferiority complex toward it those traits are not the natural feature of the most civilised people on earth. 


"To understand how Maoism could temporarily lead them into a rut so unworthy of their calling and their genius, it would be necessary to retrace the historical events by which the nation was so incredibly derailed."  


Mao, soon after establishing his new dynasty, said: "The people have chosen their own government, which will exercise authority, autocratic authority." It has hardly wavered from exercising such authority. 


The Soviet Union survived 70 years before imploding. Can the People's Republic of China outlast it? It is trying to avoid such a fate by taking the nation down two routes. 


First, it wants to fulfil the unwritten contract drawn up by Deng Xiaoping between party and people: we deliver constant improvements in living standards, you shut up and let us make the decisions and get rich ourselves. 


And second, through the time-honoured tactic of nationalism, now the prevailing ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. The preamble to the constitution states: "It is the inviolable duty of all Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland." 


In his dark polemic The Tyranny of History, written soon after the Tiananmen massacre, Bill Jenner says: "Like any other state, China is a figment of the imagination, of many imaginations. There is no inherent necessity determining the borders of the present Chinese state. Those borders are more the product of the relative strengths of empires, Manchu and European, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than of anything else. 


"What we mean when we say China and Chinese, or the equivalent words in other languages, is rarely closely defined, even when referring to the present." Jenner writes: "China cannot manage without an emperor, and cannot enter the modern world with one." 


Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, identified early on the dangers of an unthinking nationalism. The historian Jonathan Spence notes in his Search for Modern China: "Sun had considerably changed his concept of nationalism since the late Qing. With the Manchus out of the picture, he seemed willing to play down the issue and, in fact, moved with more energy than good judgement to find foreign backing wherever he could." 


In Governing China, leading US Sinologist Kenneth Lieberthal says that domestic challenges naturally foster nationalist solutions: "China's new political leaders will want some moral framework to bolster their rule and energise the country during hard times. 


"The PRC differs fundamentally from Singapore, [Hong Kong] and Taiwan in its extraordinarily extensive rural areas and large regional differences. It is extremely unlikely to prove successful in maintaining stability through creating a nation of `economic animals'. 


"It will need something more as a cohesive force, and most likely China's leaders will turn to some form of nationalism to meet this need. How they cast this nationalism will be telling. It may be open and inclusive, essentially an assertion of pride in the success of `Chinese' in Asian and global terms. 

"This type of nationalism would permit the growing regional diversity that will characterise China's future and would see the successes of [Hong Kong], Taiwan and even Singapore as sources of pride and legitimacy on the Chinese mainland. But China's nationalism may also turn strident and exclusive." 


The magnificent success of China in bringing hundreds of millions out of abject poverty, the personal freedoms conceded in the Deng and Jiang eras, with widespread domestic travel, more open conversation and greater options in consumption and careers, point to the prospect of the "open and inclusive" China of which Lieberthal writes. 


But this range of limited freedoms is not going to prove enough. Demands will continue to grow, and with them, frustrations, especially in the times of economic stagnation that will inevitably come at some stage. 


Chinese people are assumed to take little interest in how they are governed, so long as the increasingly hereditary cadre caste keeps the gravy train on the tracks. How is the train travelling? In his influential Unfinished Economic Revolution, Nicholas Lardy writes: "Since the financial system is the last remaining powerful instrument through which the state and party directly influence resource allocation, they are naturally reluctant to give up this power." 


Yet reformers and the ultimate logic of WTO accession point towards relinquishing this grip. 


Many statements from Beijing start: "There is but one China in the world." Yet most people in Taiwan view themselves as Taiwanese first, Chinese second. The more and the louder the mantra about one China is repeated, the more hollow it sounds, and the more readily people, especially Asian neighbours, will accept that within reason, the more Chinas, the better. 





Kirsten Garrett: The audience was invited to ask questions, and the first was a plea for patience and help from the West, rather than too much pressure, as China evolves and changes towards democracy. China, he said, is going through the same sorts of historial changes as Europe did centuries ago 


Kirsten Garrett: The audience was invited to ask questions, and the first was a plea for patience and help from the West, rather than too much pressure, as China evolves and changes. China, it was pointed out, is going through the same sort of historical changes as Europe did centuries ago, and we must just keep talking.  


Paul Monk: There are several aspects to the dialogue and I think that most people here would be aware of one aspect of that. It has been going on between the Australian and Chinese governments for a number of years now and it is on human rights. And the criticism of that dialogue is that it’s conducted very secretly.  


Some of you may recall when the first round of this dialogue was held in Beijing, almost nothing was revealed about the proceedings. Both sides came out after the exchange, and there was a little press conference. And the Australian delegate stood forward and he said, ‘Well, we’ve just initiated this dialogue on human rights’, and so a journalist said eagerly, ‘OK, so what did you talk about?’ And the response was, ‘Well we asked the Chinese government some questions about a number of prisons; we gave them a list of people that we’re concerned about.’ Well the question was, ‘Well, who’s on the list?’ ‘Ah well, we won’t be revealing that’, was the response. 


So another journalist said, ‘Well how many people were on the list?’ ‘Well, we won’t be revealing that either’, said the delegate. ‘Well what questions did you ask about them?’ ‘Well, we won’t be revealing that either’, said the delegate.  


Then the Chinese delegate stepped forward and said, ‘Now we wish to make it clear that of course these talks do not involve political prisoners because China doesn’t have any political prisoners.’ The press should have fallen about laughing. Now that’s a plain untruth, China has political prisoners in substantial numbers. Briefly, if I may say so, I think we can compare that rather hobbled dialogue with what appear to have been much more constructive dialogues about various economic issues. There’s no doubt that in terms of economic reform, the Chinese government and party have been listening acutely for quite some time, and very interesting exchanges take place there. I just think we need to move the political and human rights dialogue onto the same basis. 


Kirsten Garrett: There was a statement from a member of the audience that there should be more recognition of the contribution of Chinese people to Australia and more emphasis on the need for Australians to learn not only about China, but the language. 


Paul Monk: It may not be irrelevant to comment that some years ago when one of my nephews was about to go from primary to secondary school, I wrote to his mother, my sister, and said, ‘Find him a school where they’ll teach him Music, Mathematics and Chinese, because that would be the basis for an excellent 21st century education.’ I’m fully alive to the desirability of as many of us as possible being bilingual. And the flipside of this of course is that large numbers of people in China, and indeed many other countries, are learning English. The complacency that sets in all too easily in countries where we grew up speaking English as a primary language, is that we think "Well that’s the lingua franca, why would we need to extend ourselves to learn another?"
The complacency that sets in all too easily in countries where we grew up speaking English as a primary language, is that we think "Well that’s the lingua franca, why would we need to extend ourselves to learn another?"  

If I may just add on other comment: as soon as I was asked to work on East Asia in the government, I made repeated approaches to the Department of Defence and later the Department of Foreign Affairs asking, ‘Train me in Mandarin’. When I became Head of China Analysis, they still hadn’t agreed to do that, and the answer in Defence was, ‘Well, you don’t need the language because all the stuff you need to read and understand is already translated.’ I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, think ahead; we need people really dug in, you know.’ ‘No’, the answer was. So I went to Foreign Affairs and said, ‘How about training me in Chinese?’ They said, ‘But you’re in Defence’. I say no more. 


Woman: I wonder if I could just trouble you to give a few comments about Taiwan, if you may, looking at it from the Taiwanese side, I’m particularly interested in light of the very close victory that the Taiwan government enjoyed last year, was a marker of perhaps political attitudes changing within Taiwan, and a softening of previous direct opposition to any ties with China. I suppose what I’m trying to say is perhaps a softening on the Taiwanese side and more of a willingness to engage with China. 


Paul Monk: Yes, sure. The simplest way I think to encapsulate an answer on that head is that it’s commonly said that the two main political camps in Taiwan are the Pan Blue and the Pan Green. Pan Blue stands for those broadly in favour of a Greater China at some point in some way; and the Pan Green stands for those who believe in Taiwanese identity, and independence sooner rather than later. And at a conference on this subject a couple of years ago, where people were talking about Well how big is the Blue and big is the Green, given that there’s now about five significant political parties, and debating whether there was more Blue or more Green. 


I think what we’ve actually seen in the last few years is that the middle of the spectrum, across quite a range of Taiwanese voters, has become aquamarine. It is common to political democracies, that people on the left who disdain what they call bourgeois democracy complain that there’s not enough distinction between any two major parties, and they miss the point. The whole point about there not being radical distinctions between major parties is you can get incremental adjustments in the competence and management while most constituents are catered for; rather than having polarisation and confrontation. What we’re seeing in Taiwan is that the Pan Blue have begun to realise, starting with the shock delivered to the New Party a few years ago, that advocating reunification with the Peoples’ Republic is electoral poison. The New Party was virtually wiped out. So what the Pan Blue have now started to say is, ‘Well we’re in favour of the status quo, not upsetting the balance and not offending China, we want to talk to China, all of which is perfectly sensible. But the status quo means the Taiwanese de facto independence, the status quo doesn’t mean that it’s part of China. That’s what’s moot, and they don’t go round saying, ‘Of course we believe in unification we’re just delaying it.’ They say, ‘No we believe in the status quo’. 


The Pan Green, on the other hand, as a party of government, have had to take greater responsibility for the security of the country, and so like most democratic governments, they have been a little more cautious in the statements that they’ve made.
In Taiwan now, the majority of people want stability. They do not want a war with China, but neither do they want to be pushed in to having to accept reunification. And Beijing’s very slow to understand that. And those that are not directly in government, as it were the Hard Green, have been more outspoken. So what I think we see in Taiwan now, is the majority of people want stability. They clearly understand they do not want a war with China, but neither do they want to be pushed in to having to accept reunification. And Beijing’s very slow to understand that. 


I think that the more intelligent policy-makers in Beijing are saying at the moment, or at least exhibiting this (they may be thinking even more interesting things to themselves), but they’re exhibiting an understanding that pressure has its limits and they need to try various forms of enticement. So they’re trying by economic engagement, and by various concessions to the Taiwanese businessmen in China, and Taiwanese students in China, to form more of a bond, to draw Taiwan closer to them. 



Kirsten Garrett: At this point, the forum drew to a close, and another notable China-watcher rounded off the evening with his observations about the future of China. Speaking now, from the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at the University of Melbourne, Stephen Morgan. 


Stephen Morgan: Although I live in a world of accountants and management people and economics, I’m actually an economic historian of China. 


Some weeks ago, I appeared before the Senate Committee inquiring into China and Australia’s relations, and at one stage I was asked, ‘Well, if we were to go to China, we Senators, and we wanted to discover something about what China was like today, what do you think we should do?’ 


And I said, ‘Well, you probably should get on a bus and go for a ride out of Shanghai, probably for a couple of hours, so that you go from what you might see as the future, to places that are about 200 years back in the past in terms of poverty. And the second thing you probably should do, is you should probably see if you can go and sit in a court and try to look at some part of the Chinese judicial processes.’ All those things that we think are important to being Australian, to living in a democracy, a vibrant democracy, a democracy that indeed Taiwan has become, the only truly Chinese democracy in the world, (aren’t there). Singapore certainly isn’t one, even though it is largely Chinese. But I am somewhat biased, having been banned from that place twice in my career. 


Just a couple of other things: I thought it was really nice the way Paul highlighted the fact that we do need to really be critical, we need to think about how we engage China and not get involved with facile predictions. Some of my brethren with whom I work think of historians as ‘Well tell us something about the past and we’ll mathematically crunch the data for the press, because that’s all that really matters.’ They don’t really want to get too deep into it. And this notion of crystal-ball-gazing; and I chose to remind the Senators a couple of weeks ago about the dangers of that for government officials or Senate Committees, and for scribbling academics such as myself. And I suggested ‘Pull out a really interesting report, written by Sir John Crawford and Dr Subor Akita (spelling not confirmed), right back in 1976 for the governments of Australia and Japan.’ It was published in the middle of 1976. They remarked about China, which was one of the Great Unknowns in their inquiry. That even if China achieves very remarkable rates of income growth and trade growth, she is likely to remain a relatively small factor alongside the established economic relations of the larger economies for some decades to come. 


Twelve weeks later, Mao Tse Tung died, two years later, Deng Shao Ping had initiated the very tentative steps through the plenum that took place in the later part of 1978. And I guess what I’m saying there is that I think we need to think through scenarios, not engage in predictions, because the future is basically unpredictable. 


Kirsten Garrett: You’ve been listening to a forum held by the Asialink Centre at the University of Melbourne. Speaking were Dr Paul Monk, formerly with the Defence Intelligence Organisation and now with the Austhink group; and Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific Editor of The Financial Review. Also Stephen Morgan, from the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at the University of Melbourne. 


Paul Monk’s book, published by Scribe, is called Thunder from the Silent Zone .

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