research / Research reports

Australia-China: a series of reflections

February 26 2020

Note: ‘Australia-China: a series of reflections’ was originally published in December 2019 as the Pearls and Irritations China Series. Pearls and Irritations is a public policy blog founded and managed by John Menadue AO, who has had a distinguished career in the private sector and in the Australian Public Service.


It has never been more important to understand the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the last couple of years Australia’s relations with the powerful neighbour of Australasia have sunk to an all-time low. In consultation with John Menadue, I therefore invited some knowledgeable commentators to contribute essays on aspects of China that are relevant to the bilateral relationship, with the aim of demonstrating to the public the breadth of expertise and understanding of Chinese affairs that is available in Australia and New Zealand. These essays were published in December 2019 in Pearls and Irritations, the influential blog maintained by former senior Australian public servant and diplomat, John Menadue. Topics covered included: how China is finding its place in the world; how Chinese society is evolving; and what are China’s enduring core values. The twelve essays have now been gathered together as a series to be republished by the Australia-China Relations Institute of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS:ACRI).

Over the past couple of years, we have seen undue influence on foreign policy-making by a few strident voices, exacerbated by uninformed comments in the media. Criticisms of the PRC government and of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been many and varied. Some may be justified but too often they are based on flimsy evidence, supposition and innuendo. This is no basis for a serious relationship, which Australia certainly needs.

Key to the PRC’s international rise is how its national identity has been formed and what meaning is given to 'nation' – clearly, this influences how the PRC sees its place in the world. This view is largely shaped by its history and culture. When the country has such a vast geographic spread and includes so many ethnic groups besides the dominant Han, the Party and government give priority to national unity. Over the centuries China has often been labelled an 'empire', but it was not committed to maritime expansion like some European empires and the question arises whether the PRC has such ambitions or may have in the future as its economic power and influence increase.

Those countries and territories that border on the PRC feel its growing power and influence most intensely. The PRC government and Party certainly regard Hong Kong and Taiwan as integral parts of the nation and it is not clear how they intend to handle these territories in the future. The PRC and Japan at present have relatively cordial relations but there are historical differences. One major problem for PRC policy-makers is what to do about political developments in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Relations with Central Asian neighbours are evolving rapidly following the initiation of the Belt and Road Initiative. The PRC and Taiwan have fairly consistent historical geographic claims, including in the South China Sea. Australian observers have been suspicious of the PRC’s interests in the Pacific and wonder what the complexities of regional relations will mean for Australasia in the future.

It is common and confusing to speak of 'Chinese' or 'Chinese people' without distinguishing those whose ancestors emigrated many generations ago, those resident on the mainland of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, and those more recently settled in various corners of the globe. In fact, they have very different perspectives and political views. As outward people movement from the PRC increases, whether for business, study, tourism or other reasons, Chinese-Australians and Chinese-New Zealanders have complex identities in history. Many find it insulting that their loyalty is called into question. It is important to understand what major social and political issues are of concern to them.

Commentators on the soft power activities of the PRC frequently focus on the United Front of the CCP, without understanding its background history and current goals. The PRC does legitimately seek to win friends and increase international influence through the exercise of soft power but questions may legitimately be asked as to how successful it is, how it uses cultural diplomacy and what is the role of Confucius Institutes.

As the PRC experiences times of great change, the role of the CCP is evolving. We need to understand the relationship between the Party and the government and how its citizens regard the Party. As the private economy and civil society grow, their interaction with the central government is changing but this does not necessarily mean they present threats to the PRC's stability.

The PRC is giving priority to the development of new technologies as part of its 'Made in China 2025' campaign. Already we can see the nation has technological strengths in automation, space technology, genetic engineering and other fields. Australia could benefit from closer cooperation in these and other fields, but should also be aware of potential threats to our security.

The CCP is also critically concerned about domestic security and focused on national unity. This concern has roots in history and is supported by the general public, including CCP measures to maintain ideological correctness such as the 'social credit' system. The so-called 'Great Firewall' and censorship of the media and the internet are more problematic. Our businesses and our governments need to take these systems into account when developing policies.

The PRC is often accused of contributing unduly to global warming and few people outside the PRC know what actions the government is taking to address this, both domestically and through overseas aid and investment projects. The question arises as to what the implications of Chinese environmental policies and practices are for Australasia and the world and whether there is room for more cooperation in this area.

Turning to China’s enduring core values, we look at religion and where it fits in Chinese history. Some scholars say that China has always been a materialist society, while others point to the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism on contemporary values and policies. Christianity and Islam are 'foreign' religions that have found a place in the PRC, but both are increasingly strictly controlled and the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang is currently of particular concern. Many ask how this complies with the PRC government’s commitment to international human rights conventions and have called on the our governments to register concern.

China’s long history has shaped the thinking of the PRC government and people. The study of history occupies an important place in education curricula but Chinese understanding of heritage and tradition may be subtly different from what applies in other parts of the world and they are often applied consciously by the Party to boost soft power. It is commonly said that the Party and government leaders always take a long-term view and plan well ahead. Certainly, the government still relies on Five Year Plans.

The growing economy of the PRC is changing the class structure. The government claims that the PRC is still a developing economy but this is sometimes challenged in international circles. After decades of a one-child policy, demographic trends are changing and this has marked implications for Australian trade including the education and tourism sectors and consumer goods such as wine and dairy products.

The PRC health system has been increasingly privatised since the introduction of market reforms in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this has led to many people losing confidence in it. There are now opportunities for Australia to cooperate with the PRC in medical and health fields and indeed this is essential if both countries aim to prevent global epidemics.

Editor: Professor Jocelyn Chey AM is an Adjunct Professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney, Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and an Adjunct Professor at the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture at Western Sydney University.  She is a former senior diplomat specialising in Australia-China relations. 


Jocelyn Chey, Adjunct Professor, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney: 'Immutable China?'

Mobo Gao, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Adelaide: 'The PRC: a country with soft and hard power'; 'The PRC: social changes that impact relations with Australia'

Yingjie Guo, Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Sydney: 'How Chinese national identity impacts relations with Australia'

James Laurenceson, Director, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney: ‘The PRC and the technology race’

Colin Mackerras, Emeritus Professor, Griffith University: 'Religion in the PRC: what price freedom?'

Geoff Raby, Chairman and Founder, Geoff Raby and Associates: 'The Chinese Communist Party: does it stay or does it go?'

Wanning Sun, Professor of Media and Communication, University of Technology Sydney: 'The Chinese diaspora in Australia'

David Walton, Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies and International Relations, Western Sydney University: 'The PRC: developing its border relations'

Jingqing Yang, Associate Professor in China Studies, University of Technology Sydney: 'The PRC and public health care'

Jason Young, Director, New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre: 'The PRC's environmental problems, policies and prospects'

Haiqing Yu, Associate Professor in Design and Social Context and Vice-Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow, RMIT University: ''Social credit': the PRC's automated social control and the question of choice'

To read the full paper please download the PDF


Professor Jocelyn Chey

Adjunct Professor, UTS:ACRI

Professor Jocelyn Chey image