China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has revived Chairman Mao‘s doctrine of the “mass line”. The founder of modern China didn’t want the masses to have a vote, but he did think that it was vitally important to understand their views.
The “mass line” in Australia today contains an important message to Canberra, and to Beijing. More than a message to Beijing, it’s a challenge.
It’s contained in an opinion poll published on Monday by the Lowy Institute and it says three things very clearly.
First, the Australian people fully understand the historic scale and power of China’s rise. Three-quarters of people polled said the most important economy to Australia is China’s.
And the people know that, eventually, this means China will overtake America to become the world’s leading superpower. Six in 10 Australians foresee this.
Second, this does not make the people starry-eyed about China. Rather, Australians are increasingly wary of your country, Comrade Jinping.
Nearly six in 10 – 57 per cent – think the federal government allows too much Chinese investment.
And while most don’t think China is likely to be a military threat, a solid proportion of 41 per cent think it will be.
And the level of reassurance is falling. A year ago 58 per cent saw China as an unlikely military threat, whereas today that’s slipped to 54 per cent.
The overall measure of Australians’ “warmth” towards China is captured in the Lowy Institute’s “thermometer,” a gauge measuring how positively people feel towards a range of countries. Last year China was ranked eighth with a warmth of 59 degrees out of a possible 100, just under Malaysia and just above India. This year it comes in equal 13th with 54, below India and equal with Sri Lanka. But hold on – isn’t that just a result of the pernicious influence of the Australian media and Barnaby Joyce-style populism? Perhaps.
But there must be something else going on because the people’s impression of China has slipped in some other countries over the past year too, as measured by a poll for the BBC World Service released last month.
The annual BBC poll asked people whether China’s influence on the world was “mostly positive” or “mostly negative”. Of 25 countries ranked in the poll, China fell from fifth place last year to ninth this year. It was China’s lowest ranking in the eight years of the poll’s life.
It not only found that China slipped in the eyes of people in countries including France, Spain, India, Japan, the US and South Africa, it’s also fallen in China itself, by 8 percentage points.
A minority of the Chinese people themselves consider their country to be a positive influence in the world.
Professor Qiao Mu, of Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the BBC poll rating had put China in an “embarrassing” position.
“It seems China is getting rich fast but its influence ranking is dropping dramatically,” he told the South China Morning Post. “China is drawing more attention globally, for its increasing foreign aid and participation in international affairs, but now it turns out that the values and the political system China holds are not accepted by the world.”
He misses the obvious point. China’s values and political system had not changed from the year before. The new development was Beijing’s increasingly muscular stance in territorial disputes with its neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Like the people of other countries, Australians understand China’s rising power and are apprehensive of its intentions. That, apparently, leads to the third conclusion from the Lowy poll – Australians are seeking reassurance from their alliance with the US.
Overwhelming approval for Australia’s US alliance continues, much as it has for 50 years, with 82 per cent in support. This is as close as you get to consensus on any matter.
And while that’s down by 5 points over the year, support for the most recent intensification of the alliance is up; public approval for the deployment of US Marines to the Northern Territory strengthened by 6 percentage points to 61. The number opposed fell by 9 points to 34 per cent.
The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” is designed to offer reassurance to the Asia-Pacific as anxiety about China rises. Last week the new top US official for East Asia, Danny Russel, said that there’s no place for “coercion and bullying” in the region’s seas.
He rejected China’s policy of refusing to deal with the 10 nations of ASEAN collectively in crafting a code of conduct for disputes – Beijing prefers to deal one-on-one to intimidate the smaller states.
Russel described this as “unacceptable”. In this he has the support of almost every country in the entire Asia-Pacific, with the possible exception of China’s vassal state of Cambodia.
Australians are realistic enough to see that they don’t need to choose between the current superpower and the future one, or, at least, not now. Asked whether it’s possible for Australia to have a good relationship with the US and China at the same time, 87 per cent said yes.
This is a contrast to the near-panic on this question in elite circles. The public attitude is relaxed and demonstrably correct.
Because while Australia has embraced the US Marine deployment, it’s also signed up to an annual leaders-level meeting with Beijing and hosts more Chinese foreign investment than any other country on Earth. But if the people are forced to choose, the Lowy poll tells us which way they’d jump. Asked which relationship is more important to Australia overall, 37 per cent nominated the China partnership and 48 per cent the American.
So the challenge to you, Comrade Jinping, is clear if you are going to take the “mass line” seriously. The assertiveness of your regime is backfiring. It is not awing the Australian people with China’s greatness; it is driving the Australian people closer to your competitor, the US.
And if you force the Australian people to choose, you will not like their decision.Source: The Age – China’s bullying tactics backfire by Peter Hartcher
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