Since I spend my holidays in Australia, I find a need to understand the extraordinarily vicious Sinophobia thereabouts. In our time, perhaps New Zealand is the only country where it is worse, but that is not by much. Russophobia is part of the picture as well, but not as bad as in that very weird country, the United States.
So let me suggest the following:
1. The weakness of Australian governance, especially at a national level. No matter what party has been in power over the last decade or more, it has characteristically been weak and torn by inner strife. They spend most of their time turfing out one leader and finding another, so much that elections are a waste of time and money. When a government is weak, it likes to find an external threat.
2. There are two caveats here. To begin with, the general populace is largely positive with regard to China. Survey after survey indicates around 65 percent are positively disposed. Further, the political subclass is split, with significant portions across the limited political spectrum engaging with China. For now, the Sinophobic element is able to set the agenda, making use of a gaggle of rabid ‘commentators’ and ‘advisors’ who do not realise they are being used. Australia also has a compliant corporate and state-owned media (ABC and SBS) playing the same tune.
3. At a deeper level, the Sinophobic narrative – with its distortions and deliberate misinformation – taps into a vast storehouse of Australian racism from the past. This comes form a time when the population was less than 10 million and was largely descended from British immigrants. In this context, the ‘yellow peril’ was invoked, an obviously racist trope and part of the white Australia policy. This is really nasty material, which many of us thought had been left behind.
4. The Sinophobic propaganda is a signal of an ongoing identity crisis. Since 1972 and the end of the white Australia policy, Australia has seen British descendants become a minority. Western European descendants (like myself) will also soon be a minority. Most immigrants come from East Asia, the Subcontinent and Africa. For example, Chinese is the second most spoken language in Australia now. As this shift happens, with about 200,000 immigrants per year, the demographics and culture have been changing. In this context, the racist invocation has become more shrill as Australia makes the transition to a Eurasian nation. That it alienates a significant portion of the population should be obvious.
5. The rampant Sinophobia may also be seen as a symptom of the difficulty of figuring how to deal with a declining United States. That the USA is in decline is obvious to everyone. Asian countries have by and large figured this out and have been working to solve their own problems. But Australia is trapped. It gambled on alliance with the United States after the Second World War, but the governing bodies know full well that the USA today would neither want nor be able to lift a finger to help Australia. Further, for some time now, Australia’s number one economic partner has been China, which has enabled Australia to avoid a recession for 27 years. Australian policy setters, along with the woeful media, are unable to manage this situation. Either break with the United States or break with China. The latter option would have severe economic and social consequences, while the former would simply challenge the whole political culture of the last 70 or more years.
6. At the deepest level, this Sinophobia is part of the long-standing colonial and anti-colonial struggle. The anti-colonial project I have in mind is the one that came to the fore in the twentieth century. As the Soviet Union realised (in the 1930s) that the Russian Revolution was in part an anti-colonial revolution, and as it began to support at many levels the global anti-colonial struggle in the name of opposing capitalist imperialism, the century was determined at many levels by this struggle.
With its immense economic power and socialist political structures, China has now taken the lead in the anti-colonial project. We see this with the world-changing Belt and Road Initiative, Africa-China Cooperation, the Asia Infrastructure Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The latest element of this is the shift away from the US dollar in international transactions and reserves (for example, China plans in March to trade oil in Renminbi, the most significant shift from the last item that is still almost exclusively done in US dollars).
In response, a small number of countries – 15 at most – have made an effort to counter this anti-colonial project. Of course, they are former colonial powers, pushing a tired agenda that is too little, too late. The catch is that some of the former colonies have joined this new colonial bandwagon. These are not the countries that achieved independence in the twentieth century, but earlier. The United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are the culprits. While we may think this is perverse, it is useful to recall that each of them has been a colonial power on their own. Australia, for example, was for long a colonial master of Papua New Guinea and still sees itself as a master. That China has now engaged with Papua New Guinea and is doing what Australia never did – improve the basic infrastructure in Papua New Guinea so that it may actually develop economically – is seen as an affront to Australia’s continuing colonial arrogance.
Political weakness, a storehouse of racism, an identity crisis, a declining and angry United States, and the anti-colonial project – these are the factors that seem to be important. There may be more, but none are particularly pleasant. No wonder, then, that in 2017 and 2018, Australia was voted the least friendly country by Chinese surveys.