Three lessons on Chinese culture and politics

The animosity between the Chinese and Australian authorities is heating up, so we Westerners need to understand some of Chinese culture and politics. I do not have all the answers, but some 10 years of working and teaching on China have taught me about three traits that I hope might be of use to my fellow Australians in their interactions with the Chinese. Be aware that my Chinese friends find my descriptions hopelessly simplistic.

One, the individual IS the collective in China. Two, Chinese politics makes an absolute distinction between Chinese and anything else. Three, one can currently only be friends with the Chinese government if one is totally submissive on the issue of personal insults to its leaders (the rest is negotiable).

These three traits sound simple, but they are not easy to understand because ‘we’ are entirely different. We are individuals and don’t even know what ‘a collective’ means. We have shades of us and them, allowing for strangers to become part of us in a matter of just a few years. And our political commentators continuously insult politicians, both at home and abroad, without this being important for friendship between countries.

Let me attempt to explain these Chinese traits by sketching the kind of pressures that gave rise to them. The first two traits should become clear via a stylised story that very roughly tells you where Chinese collectivist culture comes from. Please ‘zoom into’ the story before you ‘zoom out’ again and consider what you might have learned from an Australian perspective.

How ‘I’ became ‘the collective’

Imagine you live in a village far away from the centers of power in your country. You and the entire village are simple peasants growing rice or wheat. You live and die in that village, as have your ancestors you worship for many generations. Tax collectors, bandits, rains, tradesmen, etc., come and go over the centuries. The one constant is that the whole village is held responsible for their dealings with the authorities. You are co-responsible for the taxes of the whole village, for delivering warriors when needed, and for following the law as a village. That collective responsibility is absolute and involves life and death.

So if your neighbour’s son goes to the imperial court and severely embarrasses the emperor, for instance by rebelling, it is not merely he who is killed, but you and your entire village are killed as well. Mild insults mean the neighbour’s son is killed. Bad insults will mean he and his family are killed. Severe transgressions mean its over for the whole village: it is raised to the ground, with the imperial forces leaving placards on the ruins of the village as a lesson to all other villages as to why this one was raised to the ground.

This is not just theory to you. Over the centuries, you have seen this happen to several villages in the region, so you believe it. You have no doubt as the supposed transgressions are plastered on the ruins of the villages destroyed by vengeful imperial troops: authority has made you aware of your collective responsibility.

Now, think of your relation to your neighbour’s children in such an environment. Do you see them as strangers and that their upbringing is none of your business? Or do you think their upbringing is entirely your business because they may get you and your own family killed if they behave poorly? The latter, obviously. Worse, your neighbour looks at you in the same way: you and your children are a liability to your neighbour as much as he is to you. So you watch each other very carefully, particularly for opinions and behaviour considered badly by authority. Similarly do you watch them contribute to the taxes by the village, the religious observances, and anything else.

In the first generation of such interaction you still have some individuality. You have your actual opinions and your own culture but hide them from your neighbour. After 10 generations though, any difference is washed out except the family ancestors which are unique to your family. Otherwise, you have become a totally uniform culture with your neighbours, with the few individuals who cannot control themselves expelled from the village over the generation. Or killed: if there is a particularly uncontrolled person in the village, the villagers have no hesitation killing him and then berating his mother and father for having raised such a menace to the village.

The self-censoring behaviour is entirely normalised and ingrained after 10 generations. You no longer wonder why it is that you feel responsible for the village, you just do. Indeed, you are the village at all times. You have no idea why you automatically fall in line with changes in the direction of authority, you just do. Your relation with authority has become one where you have pinned all your hopes and morality on them.

What authority says is good and proper has become your notion of good and proper. So your notion of what is good has co-evolved with whatever authority is: what started as self-censoring became what you saw as good and proper. Anything else would have gotten you killed long ago. Authority feels to you like the mind over the body. You feel as part of one whole making up China. Yet, you still truly feel that morality, so an authority who egregiously behaves badly for some immediate reason doesn’t feel like authority but an imposter and you want to resist it. So authority must appear the embodiment of good, if not the local authority then at least the more powerful distant one.

Within such a culture, rebellion is all or nothing: a total rejection of an authority in favour of a different authority, or no rebellion at all. That is because it IS all or nothing. The village chooses the winning side or gets destroyed, with no middle-ground: by rebelling one becomes an existential threat to authority.

Some examples of traits 1 and 2.

Now, please zoom out from the particulars of the story and consider the mentality I have described from an Australian perspective. What does this mindset mean for how to read the pronouncements of Chinese officials? You must see them as coming from one and the same organism: Chinese officials simply do not do things on their own initiative without checking with higher authority. Chinese journalists do not merely write things without political backing: all action by anything close to power in China has some degree of permission, either implicit or explicit. To do something with serious consequences without permission means you get killed in China, either literally or figuratively.

This also makes Chinese decision making towards new developments slow. The evaluating parts of the entity need to learn what is going on, adopt a position, and then have that position known in the various arms of the single political organism. An open position has real backing though: if a Chinese embassy openly sends a Western government a 14-point grievance, you should see that as a sign that the whole entity has adopted a position that will be hard to shift unless the very top changes its mind.

If you want a quick change of mind, you would need to convince that top because no-one else counts. The idea that the opinion of businessmen matters at such a point is naive: businessmen don’t have their own opinion with which they would dare lobby the top once the collective has taken a clear position. By the time the clear position is reached, all the lobbying is long over.

There are many other implications of the mindset I have described, from the enormous importance of ‘manners’, to the way in which Chinese corruption differs from Western corruption, to how they deal with African countries. But their actions all follow directly from the described relation: individual Chinese do try to do their best for themselves, but they have a very strong shared notion of ‘us’ from which morality comes and which they openly adhere to absolutely. They think of themselves as part of the same body, with a virtuous mind in Beijing. One of their mistakes is that they think Australia works the same.

Note the absolutism in terms of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Chinese politics does not do many shades of grey. There is no such thing as “a bit like us”: one is Chinese and thus is part of the organism, or one is not. The Chinese literally see it like a body, with its clear distinction between the body that responds to the commands of the mind, and everything else. It doesn’t matter what anything outside the body looks like, whether it can speak Chinese, or how it clothes. It is not ‘us’ and that’s the end of it.

Now, of course there are some tiny shades of grey, such as whether one is Hong Kong Chinese or Shanghai Chinese, etc. Yet, very quickly any open differences are resolved in an absolute manner: one rebels or subjugates oneself, and one does both wholeheartedly, totally winning or losing. Right now, the Hong Kong democracy groups are being show what losing means. The same holds for the Uygurs and any rebellious Tibetans: ‘normal’ Chinese absolutism is being enforced on them. Compared to how emperors of old would have treated them, they are getting off lightly, but that is only because they are not seen as a serious threat: the Chinese will think of them as small groups of deviants being reabsorbed into the body, even treated leniently because they are not really Chinese yet. They are reabsorbed for their own benefit, of course, because the whole is noble and being outside of it means one is lost.

The distinction Westerners like to make between ‘the Chinese’ and ‘the communist Party’ is basically a mistake, a fantasy. Whilst of course not every Chinese person is a fan of the Party, it is still seen as the head of the same organism. Why the Party got in power historically is unimportant. It is the head and cannot be separated from the body which it represents. When Westerners make such distinctions they are just seen as stupid.

Now, the third lesson has hopefully also come into view, ie the absolute need of Chinese political leaders to be above critique. What is rather unimportant in the West – that the rest of society adheres to a positive or a negative story about its leaders – is of total importance in China. The body is told the mind needs focus and unity. Chinese political leaders can only allow open flattery. Any open questioning of their competence or, much worse, moral purity, is political kryptonite.

The deeper reason for this is how Chinese politics works at the top: it is a single group playing very subtle games with each other as they are still each other’s rivals.

Chinese politics as a game of Survivor

The best analogy I can think of in the West as to how Chinese politics work is the reality game show “Survivor”. For those who don’t know how that show works, let me sketch.

Imagine a single tropical island on which you put 16 ambitious smart people vying for a single big prize, with every week seeing one contestant being demoted to ‘also-ran’. So over the weeks, the pool of ‘might win’ whittles down from 16 to 1, while the pool ‘can no longer win’ goes from 0 to 15.

Every week, the contestants engage in some tests with the winners of those competency tests being certain of remaining in the pool that could win. So competency matters. Then, at the end of each week, one additional person is voted out of the pool of ‘could still win’ by those still in the potential winner pool. So the politics are entirely internal: only the opinion of the insiders matters. This dynamic means that those within the potential winner pool play alliance games with each other, scheming up to rid themselves of opponents they dislike for some reason, lying and cajoling constantly, but in a way that it is as unnoticed by the other contestants as possible (though they do have to tell all in front of private cameras, for the enjoyment of the tv audience).

In the final round of Survivor, when there are only 2 left in the potential winner pool, those last two themselves are judged by the pool of 14 ‘also-rans’ who already lost, meaning that the winners remain polite to the losers in each round and try to make it appear others voted them out. Hence, Survivor is a game of internal alliances coupled with total insincerity and a bit of a role for competence.

Chinese politics at the top works pretty much the same: the top politicians live in Beijing and are constantly around each other. They judge each others proteges: the game is about whose junior party friends will get promoted to higher ranks and whose junior party friends get demoted. So the top party officials play a constant game of shifting alliances, with positions strengthened when previous rounds were won. Yet, all the time, there is a bit of an implicit voting going on for the top politicians too as they get judged by the entirety of the circles around the top politicians. Competence, money, and popularity matter. So anyone who is too openly ambitious, poor, or arrogant gets voted down very quickly.

Now, in Survivor, as in Chinese top politics, seeming is everything. Open conflict immediately gets resolved by isolating any accuser and voting them out. So the whole game is about forcing opponents into the open, isolating them, and destroying them. The top Chinese officials are absolute masters of this game who are extremely careful with language and outward appearances. Their game lasts decades, not a few months.

What that evolves towards is a system at the top of total outward compliance with a ‘Party line’. Anyone who criticises a higher leader in a noticeable way is killed off immediately. Higher leaders only very implicitly criticise each other via the juniors they help promote, but always using very circumspect wording and arguments. Any open personal criticism is a declaration of war, which is usually settled in a matter of hours in favour of one side. In the West one can run to an open rival, or another country, but in China there are no open rivals and certainly no other countries.

In very volatile periods, a kind of mass disobedience breaks out as lower officials take local opportunities, and the central system breaks down, but any period of stability means this dynamic is restored, leading to a total omerta on personal criticism of the leaders. That omerta then simply spreads out over the entire organism: the highest layer of observed critique is killed off, after which the omerta goes a level further.

In recent decades China has had stability. That has meant the omerta on leadership critique has spread far and wide, such that Chinese top politicians are now only criticised in the very extremities of the Chinese organism and abroad. And Chinese officialdom has become obsessed with those sources of criticism. When the New York Times a few years ago ran negative stories on top leaders in China, huge efforts were made by Chinese secret service agencies to disrupt the NYT website and to prevent a recurrence. The Chinese authorities have so far accepted they cannot force US politicians to toe their line, but they are trying to expand the omerta everywhere they can. What they hated about Hong Kong much more than its democracy was that Hong Kong businesses aired lots of open criticism of the top Chinese leaders, even printing salacious stories on their families.

Which brings us to friends of China. The omerta has reached Australia. It has shown itself on Australian university campuses where Chinese students do their own version of Survivor by enforcing the omerta on Australian shores. By criticising any other Chinese students on twitter if they show the slightest degree of disagreement with the Party line, they are showing their own deference.

The same omerta is now being asked of Australian politicians and higher level journalists. The price of friendship with the current Chinese government is an omerta on critique of its political leaders and anything they decide.

The price for not complying with the omerta is that the Chinese authorities will then want to shield other Chinese away from the ‘perverse’ influences coming from Australia. So no more Chinese students, tourist, and businessmen. Some of the less high-contact forms of trade might still go on for some time, but only if the insults are not loud enough.

So that is what Australia is now facing, in my opinion.

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40 Responses to Three lessons on Chinese culture and politics

  1. Alan says:

    There was no Chinese tradition of wiping out an entire village as a punishment. There was a practice of the Nine Familial Exterminations, but it was restricted largely to elite families and associated very strongly with tyranny. It was not practiced by most emperors and was a classic justification for rebellion.

    Essentialist explanations of CCP supremacy and diplomatic behaviour are about as persuasive as explaining Dutch colonial behaviour on a theory that they were stressed out by frequent flooding.

    • paul frijters says:

      good analogy. To understand Dutch consensus culture, the story of Dutch villagers needing to cooperate with each other to prevent flooding doesn’t have to have much historical accuracy (though it does have a bit: the water cooperations go back a very long time). What matters is whether the implied mindset of the Dutch in the story matches the one in reality. The fact that cooperation on flooding was just one of many pressures in the same direction is really neither here nor there for an understanding.

      I am thus trying to help Australians understand China here via a simple description, not give them a long history lesson.

      Whilst I am not after historical accuracy, the story is not totally fanciful either. The vast majority of the population throughout history was made up of peasants in long-running villages. There was collective responsibility, collective punishment, and the absolutist nature of internal conflict. This was all there for a long time. And the wiping out of whole regions on the wrong side of a civil war? Many occurrences of that type. So I don’t see what you’re complaining about.

      • derrida derider says:

        Actaully, a common view of traditional Chinese culture is very similar to the origin of “collectivist” instincts of the Dutch.

        The densely populated parts of China got that way by massive waterworks for flood control and irrigation. And that needed a large degree of local social solidarity overseen by a great deal of central direction. Try reading The Water Kingdom – a history of China seen through this prism.

        • As a student I read Karl Witfogel’s book “Oriental despotism” where he makes the point that these recurrent waterworks need an ongoing bureaucracy which then dominates cultural life. I found it pretty convincing as his thesis also worked for the Nile Delta, Persia, and the irrigation works in Pakistan.

          An ongoing bureaucracy does not imply collectivism though, with perhaps Egypt the best counter-example of a fairly uninterrupted bureaucracy but no collectivism. The Dutch waterproblem was more localised (villages and provinces protecting themselves). The egalitarianism of the Dutch is shared with that whole region, probably only marginally connected to the issue of water management (though it makes a good story).

          Collective responsibility and punishment is basically a fairly cheap means of control. Maybe that’s why it developed so strongly in China.

  2. Cameron says:

    Interesting stuff. I have noticed much of what you explain here Paul.

    I guess the interesting question is how this political process plays out from here. I’m thinking the Belt and Road investments, and tensions with Western businesses and governments criticising Chinese leadership, etc.

    What are some choices the Australian political class must make, and some scenarios about how trade/cooperation evolves? In my view there will be a growing number of points where the “body” of the Chinese social machine is bumping up against other systems where conformance is in conflict with other national interests— South China Sea, Hong Kong, Antarctica, Belt and Road, censorship, international finance.

    • paul frijters says:

      not so hard to predict how it plays out because that is about internal Australian pressures, ie the pro-American lobby versus the economic interests. If push comes to shove, the pro-American lobby will win, simple as that. They have the popular appeal, two large American bases on Australian soil, are close to the media empires running the stories in Australia, and are interwoven with the security apparatus. The basic job of the government is to balance the internal tensions as long as possible whilst not pissing off the Chinese leadership too much. On that, Morrison is not doing so badly.

      I am however not trying to predict, just trying to help Westerners understand those traits where I see journos and pollies make a lot of mistakes.

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        “…whilst not pissing off the Chinese leadership too much.” Are you sure that is the key criterion? Reducing exposure to their ire would be even better.

        Is there a world where we get all our produce to China via an intermediating country that is generally pro-China? Or would China pressure the intermediator to also refuse our goods? Are there any relevant historical examples?

        • paul frijters says:

          the obvious analogy is the cold war between the Soviet block and the West, which formed rival economic blocks. The Comecon basically only traded within, just as the West. There were some countries that could trade with both blocks (China, India), but I dont think there was much indirect trade.

          Trade blocks are of course a staple of wars. The Napoleontic blockade, the attempt of the Germans in WWII to block trade to the UK.

          Still, I doubt China would go out of its way to stop Australia selling its produce to others. Most of the things Australia now exports to China can easily be sold elsewhere, with the possible exception of iron ore where China imports more than the rest can absorb. Yet that will probably change within a few years as the market grows.

  3. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    The Foreign Service has clearly changed.
    The only analogy I can think of is Germany just prior to WW1.
    There are clearly no professionals in command. Their strategy is self defeating however they are imitating Trump in having a might is right approach only in spades.

  4. Chris Lloyd says:

    Interesting historical anecdote that you tell Paul about how the collective attitudes arose. I lived in HK for four years and I recall making the argument to a Chinese “friend” that we were genetically different in our attitude to authority. There have been 50 generations of executing anyone who confronted power. This selection to produce the current political gene pool. In a sense, Chinese are a different species to us.

    My ancestry is largely Irish and Scottish, who were far enough from the centre of empire to mount guerrilla resistance for centuries. Which makes me a dangerous SOB. 😉 #braveheart

    Politically correct types always stress that there is a distinction between the Chinese leadership and Chinese citizen. I am currently trying to stop my school from signing a joint venture with a Chinese business school and have made this exact point. There really is no distinction. The vast majority of ordinary Chinese are either fully on-board or unwilling to deviate. You can imagine how my claim goes down with my right thinking colleagues. You gotta love tenure! Glad to see you have come to the same conclusion.

    You cannot blame Australians for everything the govt does. Because roughly half of us vote against them and spend most of our lives criticising them. You can blame Chinese for what their govt does, not because they can stop it but because they support it. For those who don’t believe me, just ask them privately next time you are in China! (Not directed at you Paul obviously).

    Here is a challenge to all readers of this blog. Next Chinese you meet, ask them point blank if they think it is ethical to bomb and kill Taiwanese if they decided they want to leave China. This is official Chinese government policy. I have yet to hear ANY Chinese citizen, and almost no Australian-Chinese, who will say: “No, this is murder.”

    • paul frijters says:

      yes, we agree on how to read the situation. I am just trying to help my side understand the other side.

      Interestingly, Western countries have in the past had laws against insulting the leaders of other countries. The Turkish president Erdogan tried to use those laws to stifle critique of him in European newspapers. It’s known as “Lèse-majesté” and derives from a long history in which monarchs traded protection against insults emanating from the subjects of the other. Some of those laws are still being enforced in some places.

      So the West does have the legal infrastructure to outlaw insults against Chinese leaders. All we’d need to do is to declare them king-like and revamp the “Lèse-majesté” laws. We could even offer the Chinese the option of nominating persons on a protected list.

      I am not certain, but presumably Australia has or had such laws in regards to insulting the Queen?

      • derrida derider says:

        Well of course the Thais are currently having riots over precisely this issue.

        AFAIK lèse-majesté is still a common law offence, though I think it is a long time since anyone was prosecuted for it. Though you never know – the last time a person was jailed for witchcraft in England was in 1944, for adultery in the 1980s in the US, and blasphemy convictions still occasionally occur.

    • Chris Borthwick says:

      What, just as an unconnected irrelevance, is your view of A. Lincoln?

      • I dont really have a view on Lincoln. I dont know much about his life other than the usual headlines. I did wander through the Lincoln memorial and read some of his words, which I found unbelievably naive and over-the-top, but its hard to berate him for that because phantasms hold for any famous US president. Promising the totally impossible is a requirement to even run for US president, it seems. Trump didn’t invent it, he just spouted more of the same at a higher pace.
        Why? Is there something you want me to know about Lincoln?

        • Chris Borthwick says:

          Sorry, misaim.
          “Here is a challenge to all readers of this blog. Next Chinese you meet, ask them point blank if they think it is ethical to bomb and kill Taiwanese if they decided they want to leave China. This is official Chinese government policy. I have yet to hear ANY Chinese citizen, and almost no Australian-Chinese, who will say: “No, this is murder.””
          To which assertion one’s view of Lincoln, as a politician who joined in having hundreds of thousands of his fellow-citizens killed for attempting to secede, is relevant. There is a consistent theme here of things being evil when done by other people but defensible when done by us.

          • Conrad Perry says:

            Countries always warp their perception of good and bad. That’s why we learn so slowly. In this respect, the CCP doesn’t think the great leap forward and cultural revolution (the largest non-natural killer of humans in history), was bad. They have this crazy saying on Mao that he was 3 parts bad and 7 parts good (for all I know, even this is probably now eliminated in the school textbooks). They didn’t even change the name of their party after this event.

          • paul frijters says:

            ah, that is what you had in mind.

            Yeah, I don’t think it is useful to be moralistic about the Chinese or Lincoln in that way. It doesnt help them, us, or the Taiwanese. On such things one, I think, needs to be brutally, brutally, consequentialist.

            It’s a tough ask.

  5. Conrad says:

    One might also ask how they might actually get out of some of this mindset and become a successful country as has happened with many overseas Chinese populations before their rather rapidly aging population sinks them. What allowed those populations to succeed and drop some of this historical baggage?

    In this respect, I had some sympathy for the previous leaders who seemed more interested in engineering a good solution, whereas the most recent guy seems more like a Western-style politician, except with infinite power. If we get another decade of him, that’s a decade closer to Survivor with grandpa and going the wrong direction.

    • yes, the Chinese have a problem, one they have had throughout their history and have never found a solution for. Their collectivism naturally tends towards a focal point, an emperor, and once they have one the system atrophies and at some point violently falls apart in a bitter power struggle. Then the pieces reassemble as the more cohesive regions absorb the others. As a result of this recurring dynamic, China has been divided for longer than it has been united.
      In the 20th century they came close to adopting the Western model of having different centers of power compete to achieve an internal balance of power, but they were unlucky enough not to have been occupied by the Americans when they needed to be. I say this with no sarcasm: Japan, South Korea, etc., were lucky to have large American military bases on their soil at the right moment. Not so China. Whomever was more powerful within the Chinese leadership simply picked up any loose power going round.

      I think they have no chance avoiding the exact same dynamic another round. The imperial system is completed and the atrophying has already begun. There’s nothing we can do but deal with whatever they do to themselves. We can’t help. That’s why I put it in the basket of one of the six tough institutional challenges this century.

      I mulled over your precise question here, btw, years back: and

      • Conrad says:

        Yes, I see it fairly pessimistically like you — although obviously we could get some benefit from it by picking up smart immigrants from HK who are desperate to get out. As you note in one of your other posts, this is a large wealth transfer to Australia. That wealth would now also be largely be wasted in China, because anyone who doesn’t want to be governed by the CCP won’t be successful in China anyway, no matter how smart they are.

  6. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Does Paul’s thesis explain the somewhat violent change to wolf warrior diplomacy? I think not.

    • Conrad says:

      I think the change is due to a poor choice in leader, where you have gone from guys trying to engineer good solutions, who would promise endless compromise and do nothing (which worked rather well), to someone who doesn’t make dishonest promises of compromise as much anymore — basically, more of an authoritarian leader out for himself than an engineer. This may be because there is now more media focus on the leaders and what they do so he needs to appeal to Chinese nationalism more.

      It is also the case that militarily, China is vastly stronger, so being obnoxious with things like the South China Sea became quite possible — and you can combine that Trump who tried to do something and hence help provoke such responses.

      • The dynamic is quite different and it matters because it is not about the personality of the leader.
        Before Xi Jiping the entirety of the technocrats were in charge and they had a system of power rotation from the demise of Mao to Xi (with a leader no more than 10 years in charge: 2 cycles of 5, wherein the second cycle would have the intended new leader in the politburo, someone from a different faction). Xi managed to break that system and stay in charge (using the classic secret police method). What then happened is less due to Xi’s design but more the inherent tension described in the post: internal conflicts no longer get resolved because there is no (hope for) power rotation. Bad long-term economic choices no longer get reversed. Atrophy sets in. The opposition starts whispering about how the leader is not standing up for China (which is always the weak point of a leader: being outflanked in the direction of the military). So the whole constellation moves towards more aggressive foreign policy. On top of this is the other dynamic talked about above: in times of stability, an omerta on the leadership spreads far and wide to the edges of the political organism. So in Australia arrives the demand of the Chinese leaders to be sacrosanct, cloaked in nationalist demands (which are secondary but an easy excuse).
        Nothing we can do about it.

        • Conrad says:

          Sounds very plausible — although I still blame Xi Jin Ping for changing the 2 term limit which was clearly beneficial and wrecking the dynamics. Presumably this makes the PLA’s role even stronger now given they will be the only ones that can change the president.

          It will interesting to see what happens. If the PLA don’t end up being the selectors of the new president after Xi Jin Ping, I imagine who gets in next could be a bit like electing the Pope, where all the players who think they have a shot want the oldest, unhealthiest and most senile leader to get in because he will drop off more quickly and open the position again.

  7. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    They had the golden opportunity to be the world leader in a number of areas because of Trump and they blew it bigtime.

    • Conrad says:

      Brutal paranoid dictator makes himself head of state for life, moves China in the opposite direction to that which was largely successful for 30 years, and then makes other bad decisions on foreign policy. I don’t imagine that should come as a surprise.

  8. Hedley Finger says:

    Anyone more knowledgeable than me care to comment on the Victorian State Government’s dive into the Belt and Road swimming pool?

    • Conrad says:

      At the start of the 90s Victoria was basically broke. At some point people realised that the old economy was pretty much over. Like more or less all rich countries except Korea, low-tech and medium-tech manufacturing declined, of which there is close enough to none now. One problem Victoria faced and still faces is that the Australia dollar basically follows the mining cycle, but Victoria doesn’t have much mining. So there are many industries that are not practical because the dollar gets too high for too long. So what you saw is things relatively resistant to this. This included educational services, which is Victoria’s largest foreign capital earner by far, of which around half of the foreign students are Chinese (this even expanded to high school). You also see high-tech manufacturing (e.g. CSL), as well as things people think of as produce but could be seen as value-added manufacturing (wine, baby food etc.). A big market for these is China because not even Chinese people want to eat Chinese food or use medicines made in China (you can’t trust them and there have been many scandals). So Victoria’s main industries (excluding banking and finance) need China as a customer until other countries like India develop more. It is thus no surprise the politicians did everything to please China, like join the Belt and Road initiative. Other states like Perth, for example, don’t have this problem because China needs iron ore, and there is not much they can do about it.

      • ianl says:

        > “… Victoria doesn’t have much mining”

        That’s a deliberate choice by successive ALP Governments since the 1990’s to hold their inner-city seats against the Greens.

        The ALP has this problem in Sydney and increasingly Brisbane.

        “Gentrifying” the inner city areas has had a very large impact on both the ALP and the LNP, but especially the ALP as their traditional safe seats, long snaffled by the upper hierarchy because of their supposed safety, have turned green.

        The unstated issue is that the regional areas both feed and energise the inner cities, yet are under persistent attack from inner city politicians. Thus far, the fraught solution has been to embrace Chinese money.

        • Conrad says:

          The obvious problem with Victoria is not the Greens, it’s simply because it’s much smaller than other places and doesn’t have as many resources. It also has higher population density so there is more conflict. For example, I doubt too many people are going to be pleased about gold mining under Ballarat and then the rather toxic process of extracting the gold from the ore. But far less people would care if it was the middle of nowhere, which is most of WA and SA. Similarly, current arguments about getting oil off the Bight really do need to be evaluated with other industries already there. World-wide examples include rare earths which no-one wants to dig up for the same reasons, except China.

          As for regional areas — they contribute SFA in most of Australia excluding mining (look at the GDP numbers). All of Tasmania contributes less in taxes than it gets back in unemployment benefits alone.

    • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

      quite smart actually. you get vital infrastructure at lower interest rates than market.
      Victoria has no problems of paying the debt back.
      Hard to see what the problem is

  9. Chris Borthwick says:

    Call me an old pedant, but TOE the line. Not TOW the line, which means nothing.

  10. Chris Borthwick says:

    If Chinese historically-determined characteristics are the problem, then surely any problems we have with the Chinese government are minor distractions. 6% of Australians have Chinese ancestry, consisting of a hundred generations of village life, and thus (apparently) inevitably have the problem described and are unable to fit into the rational perspective of us westerners. The widespread adoption in Australia of concentration camps, a la Uighurs, seems to be the only solution consistent with the basic premise.
    Or one could reject the premise.

    • conrad says:

      I think you are confusing genetic characteristics with cultural baggage. One can clearly get over cultural baggage to create a stable government and system (e.g., Singapore, Taiwan), but the CCP hasn’t and isn’t moving in the right direction to.

    • one of the things the West is very good at, and Australia particularly, is to integrate new migrants into our sense of ‘us’. Its a huge advantage we have over China because it means we can be real friends and can absorb talent from anywhere.
      There is certainly a large cultural distance, but once ‘outside the body’, it is remarkable how quickly Chinese migrants adapt to Western culture. Again, this is particularly so in Australia where the inter-marriage rates with non-Chinese is very high. So whilst the collectivist mindset is not easy to shed and quite a bit of it remains in the following generations, that basically hasn’t proven to be a serious problem anywhere in the West. One might say it adds to our diversity!
      What is possible is that ‘we’ will make it harder for those of Chinese descent living in the West, demanding shows of loyalty. That might well be on the cards, as I explored in my recent post on three possible histories of 2020-2050. When that happens, it is the most recent migrants from China that will feel conflicted.

  11. Hedley Finger says:

    In contemporary China most of the population lives in large cities — owing to the government’s mad building programs accommodation is quite cheap. Family ties are still very strong but the village has been replaced by social media.

    It’s no wonder that the government has invested heavily in social control, with social credit, facial recognition, AI filtering of Uighurs from the Han population, filtering of keywords in social communications and doubtless others that have not yet come to light.

    The scope for inside hacks of this computerised infrastructure is tremendous, and there must be considerable resources applied to prevent hacking.

    Every repressive regime must continually increase the amount of resources required for effective repression until a substantial fraction of the economy consists of activity of no benefit to the population in general.

    At what point will a tipping point emerge, such that a significant proportion of the population is pissed off and begin to undermine the superstructure from within?

    • “At what point will a tipping point emerge, such that a significant proportion of the population is pissed off and begin to undermine the superstructure from within?”

      forget about it. That is not how it works. What you describe needs a vision of how different life could be that is communicated and upheld by powerful and respected examples, dreamed about and followed by large parts of the population. Europe had that kind of independent media and vision in the 16th century with its independent cities and guilds and such. Such independent centers of powers do not exist in China and there is no such culture of independent thinking. It would be suppressed long before it got anywhere.

      How it works is that tensions get solved via elite fracture or foreign invasion.

  12. Pingback: What to expect during a cold war with China? | Club Troppo

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