In Summary

  • In an opinion piece published in The Australian, Swinburne's Professor John Fitzgerald, Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy, discusses the value differences separating Australia from China. 

Since taking office, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has picked up where John Howard left off in highlighting the value differences separating Australia from China.

As prime minister, Howard correctly pointed out the dissimilarities. "Our values on many political issues are different," he told a Chinese community gathering in February 1997. "Australia is an open democracy, the People's Republic is not." But he went on to say that we respected our differences. Later that year he told Chinese premier Li Peng that we respected the right of each country to have a different value system.

Under prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the Labor government reverted to a more benign formula on the differences separating us from China, focusing on our distinctive histories, societies and cultures. Values were rarely mentioned. But last month, when Beijing rebuked the Abbott government for having the temerity to comment on its declaration of a military zone over islands administered by Japan, Abbott struck back: "Where we think Australia's values and interests have been compromised, I think it is important to speak our mind."

Abbott placed Australian values back on the agenda of relations with China at a time when the old values formula is being tested at both ends.

Howard's value formula certainly kept Beijing happy during his term in office. The Chinese government has long proclaimed there are no universal human values, merely national ones. With Howard's pitch on national values, Canberra appeared to endorse China's position. Howard supported freedom, equality and liberal democracy because these were Australian values, not because people universally aspired to be free and equal, least of all people in China. Under Howard, Australia acknowledged and respected the authoritarian values of the Communist government as China's national values.

It worked for Australia for a time as well. By emphasising our value differences over our cultural or historical ones, Howard could refer to the liberal-democratic values that underlay our commitment to the US alliance while arguing that a trade surplus could balance our value deficit with China. Under Howard we kept our values and alliance partnerships and we landed big trade and investment deals with China.

Win-win. Or so it seemed at the time. The formula worked well when China's leadership priorities and policy settings favoured domestic economic and social reforms over direct challenges to the sovereignty of its neighbours or the projection of Chinese values through soft power abroad. In bilateral dialogues with Australia, China did not mix trade with politics. Mutual respect was the name of the game and separating trade from values and alliance politics was a basic rule of play.

This began to change in 2008. With the collapse of Wall Street and the international reputation of the US going into free-fall across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Beijing began to show less reticence in proclaiming its authoritarian Leninist values as Chinese values and projecting its voice abroad. Today, China is promoting its national values as a serious rival to the values of liberal democracies in Australia and throughout the region through media purchases, by linking trade with alliance politics and, when necessary, projecting hard power abroad.

Universal values such as freedom, equality and solidarity are readily grasped and understood around the world.

National values are more difficult to get a handle on.

On the Chinese side, national values generally mirror the Asian values proclaimed by successive Malaysian and Singaporean governments since the 1990s: deference to authority ahead of freedom, preference for hierarchy over equality, submission of individual interests to the solidary group, and positive commitments to study, to work and to responsibility for one's fate.

In the abstract a number of these values have merit.

Chinese national values are not abstract, however, because the collective authority that must be obeyed is a specific regime, the Communist Party government of China. Today that government is the supreme authority, demanding deference from neighbours and extending Chinese national values in opposition to the universal values championed by countries working in the Western tradition, including Australia.

The Hudson Institute's Christopher Ford recently spelled out what extending these values beyond China could mean for states in the region.

The Chinese government aspires to refashion the international political order after its own hierarchical and deferential style of government. The new order that Beijing envisages "would reflect the Chinese predisposition to see political authority as existing principally along a vertical axis of hierarchical deference to a lead actor, rather than along a horizontal axis of pluralist interaction". All states falling under the spell of this new order would accept their place in the hierarchical framework, centred in Beijing, and all would "ensure that their conduct conforms to the norms established under the guiding hand of an ideally benevolent leader-state".

In paying deference, states would acknowledge that China's national values applied to themselves - that is, that China's values were universal values reaching beyond China's sovereign territory. States would remain independent but would never say or do anything to give offence to the government of China.

If they did, Beijing would strike back, because under this formula respect for values cannot be separated from respect for the specific regime that sets and polices them.

There would be no tolerance for another country's leaders or citizens expressing an inconvenient thought about the Chinese reg- ime or leader, not even on that other country's home soil.

What of Australian national values? Where Beijing is trying to universalise its national values, Canberra is inclined to nationalise the universal values embedded in the UN Declaration of Human Rights as Australian values.

As values go, Australia is not all that different from Britain, France or the US. But where French citizens swear to uphold the rights of man and Americans declare it to be self-evident that all men are created equal, Australians are asked to embrace basic human rights as national values. In point of fact there is little to distinguish Australian values from the universal rights of man. Freedom, egalitarianism and mateship are simply local idiom for liberte, egalite and fraternite - or, in UN charter terms, freedom, equality and solidarity - on the modern ethical principle that all people are born free and equal.

This principle was well established in early 19th-century Europe and America. By the late 19th century it had come to hold considerable appeal in China and Japan as well. But it was quashed by fascism in pre-war Japan and by communism in postwar China. In Australia, freedom, egalitarianism and mateship were quashed as universal values by the White Australia policy.

Historian Charles Price has framed the Australian values problem well. Australian conservatives, radicals and liberals a century ago held that all men had certain inalienable social and political rights, "but they were not inclined to include men from China in the category of 'all men' ". What made universal values particularly Australian was their selective application to whites. Chinese were to be excluded from Australia because they were held incapable of appreciating the universal values that made white people - and only white people - Australian.

This is of course no longer the case. Successive commonwealth governments began dismantling White Australia more than 50 years ago and today Australia is home to more than a million people of Asian descent. But our lingering insistence on nationalising universal values is a legacy of that earlier period. Howard's tacit acknowledgement as prime minister that we respected the fundamental value differences separating us from China implied that the universal values coded in the UN declaration did not apply to China. In the People's Republic, Chinese still don't qualify for the category "all men".

It is all very well to respect the value differences that divide us while each country goes about its own business. This may have been the case in Howard's day but it is certainly not the case for Prime Minister Abbott. Today, China is determined to change the status quo in the region, to project its values through public diplomacy, and increasingly to link trade and investment with political trade-offs. By reverting to the values formula, Canberra is behaving as if nothing has changed, as if we can continue to balance our value deficit with a trade surplus.

This will no longer do for Beijing.

How much things have changed since Howard left office was revealed in a recent comment by China's Foreign Ministry in Beijing. If Canberra was serious about negotiating a free trade agreement before the year is out, then it had best ensure that bilateral relations were favourable on all fronts: "I would hope the Australian side can do things which are conducive to these talks and to make sure we can achieve co-operation."

Early in December, at the third annual Australia-China Forum in Canberra, the official Chinese delegation pressed home the point that trade and security were inextricably bound together in our bilateral relations. It was time to let go of the outmoded Cold War alliance with the US. And as the year drew to a close, a researcher affiliated with the Ministry of Commerce is reported to have said that the main obstacle to the FTA was Australia's alliance with the US.

Howard used to say that Australia faces a phony choice between our economic interests and our basic values in balancing relations with China and the US. The problem for Abbott is that it may no longer be in Australia's gift to choose whether or not to exercise even a phony choice.

In arriving at this point, we have handicapped ourselves by ceding too much to China on national values - and perhaps not reflecting enough on the universal character of our own.

Professor John Fitzgerald is director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy at Swinburne University and the author of Big White Lie - Chinese Australians in White Australia.