Growing Pains: Who decides the rules of the game?

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By Tom Parker

Over the past month, there has been a visible increase in the Australian media reporting and commentating on the dislocation and unease of Chinese behaviour based on a different set of values and beliefs. 

This has included an article published by the Australian Financial Review warning Australian universities of the "red hot patriotism" being displayed by foreign students from China who are now the frontline in China’s ideological war given the growth in conflict between Australian academics and Beijing’s patriotic ideas on sovereignty as expressed through outraged Chinese international students.

In the same week, a convoy of European cars driven by cashed up Chinese protesters revved their engines outside the Indian Consulate in Sydney to make clear their concerns on the China-India border standoff. The drive-by was held on India’s Independence Day and featured a large car sticker suggesting that "Anyone who offends China will be killed”. 

This tasteless tagline comes from Wolf Warrior 2, China’s largest grossing film. 

These spot fires were framed by the chaos of Cambridge University Press (CUP) that played out over four days across the international media, where it had been revealed that China Quarterly, a leading journal on contemporary Chinese affairs had agreed to requests from Beijing to block readers in China from accessing sensitive articles. 

The decision, no doubt was made by CUP to continue to receive China’s party state approval and access to the Chinese academic market and international students. However, the negative international media attention and threat of academic protests coupled with reputational brand damage may have swayed Cambridge University Press to reject the request to remove contentious articles and restored them back online. 

The China Quarterly non-decision highlights the vexed issue of China’s influence and the complexity of engaging with China. 

In 2002, China scholar Perry Link penned an article that introduced The Anaconda in the Chandelier, where he likened Chinese censors to a dangerous snake coiled overhead resting in a fancy light fitting, where the snake sits silently and motionless. Perry suggested the snake doesn’t need to move as there is a constant silent message that makes you decide for yourself and ensure that the shadow overhead requires you make adjustments accordingly. 

In business, often the shadow appears as China’s economic ascendancy - where China may use its growing economic wealth, and the market access of opportunity to create the desired outcome or result. 

Chinese expatriate writer Ha Jin called this type of behaviour the Censor in the Mirror. 

At the Asia Society’s Australia 20th Anniversary Gala in Sydney last week, former Prime Minister John Howard declared that Australia should recommit to foreign investment as well as open trade provided Chinese investors knew and obeyed the existing rules around foreign investment. 

The rules of the game with China are changing and as China is creating a new form of multilateralism, one in which it sets the tone and defines the rules of the game. This includes the $1 trillion, transcontinental infrastructure One Belt, One Road Initiative, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which started operation last year. 

These actions coupled with its eventual overtaking of America as the leading world economy  will displace Washington’s soft power in global institutions that helped espouse Western ideals of democracy, and free markets. 

The disputes and disquiet over maps, border stand offs, and ‘sensitive’ articles accessible online in China are the issues at the margin of a bigger theme around whose rules are we going to follow in the future and what are the consequences for Australia and our economy as China expands its economic and geopolitical influence. 

Australia, since white settlement has dealt with two economic superpowers that share Judean-Christian values, rule of law, and Westminster system of government. That may change, and from a business perspective, are our institutions aware and ready for a different set of rules? 

Global Times, a mouthpiece for China’s propaganda and often hawkish views suggested that the Cambridge University Press fiasco was a battle of values, suggesting ‘free discourse and academic freedom sat at the core of human society.' This is indeed reflective of the West’s strengths but when China becomes stronger, Global Times vowed ‘China will call the shots’. 

In a suggestion that Beijing is aware of the long game, the op-ed continued “The real issue is: whose principles better reflect the age in which we live? In this case it’s not true that ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion”. This is about power play. Only time will tell who is in the right. 

In a twist, that highlights the complexity and absurdity of the current state of China engagement, the Chinese media, in a scene from Utopia mixed with Seinfeld, was banned from reporting Cambridge University Press’ non-ban of the initial ban. 

Perhaps some rules are meant to be broken.