State of disaster: Australia’s bushfires, a pariah state and the catastrophe of neoliberalism

What a situation:: a bushfire season like no other. No-one can recall anything like it. To be sure, Australian trees like fire and every summer we have bushfires, but never like this. The fires began in September (way earlier than usual) and by now thousands have burned across eastern Australia.

Some statistics might begin to tell the story:

12 million hectares burnt.

Half a billion animals killed, some species to extinction.

1600 houses destroyed.

23 people killed directly by the fires.

And we have not even reached the peak of the fire season, which has already been underway for months. It will most likely get worse. Already the fires are so fierce they cannot be contained. Flames leap 50 metres in the air, turn the sky black, yellow and red, create their own tornadoes and even weather systems.

The smoke clouds – known as pyrocumulus – suck up moisture from the trees, generate their own lightning and set more fires alight. Embers fly 15-20 kilometres ahead of a fire.

 

By now you can see that a state of emergency is somewhat limp in light of these developments. Indeed, a couple of days ago, the state of Victoria declared a ‘state of disaster’. This is the new normal.

catastrophic bush fire warning 的图像结果

But there is another disaster behind all of this: the disaster of neoliberal policies over the last four decades. Coupled with the fact that Australia is a pariah state due to its regime’s denial of climate change, it is also one of the last holdouts for neoliberalism, since most of the rest of the world has turned its back on such an approach. Let me put it this way: many of the fires are ‘fought’ by volunteers. Yes, volunteers. We have catastrophic fire conditions and a state of disaster and volunteers are expected to front up. Even more, there is so little government support for such ventures that the firefighters have to crowd source for face masks and safety equipment.

Further, the infrastructure has proven completely inadequate, as have the few government services left after all the cuts. Australia has terrible phone converage, so text messages sent out by the fire service cannot always be guaranteed to arrive on your phone. People have had to bunch around radios to find out the latest emergency warnings. Supplies are running short and fuel is scarce. Roads in many areas are inadequate, so people ordered to evacuate cannot do so. In the end, the navy has had to sail in with a couple of humanitarian relief vessels to evacuate people from the water’s edge in the southeast. Finally and on the other side of the volunteer firefighters, they and those stranded by the fires are now relying on donations of food, clothing, water, and so on to get by.

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It can be different. I have been discussing this with comrades in the local CPA branch. Countries like China with a socialist system immediately mobilise the massive government resources during times of natural disaster. Communist party officials are at the forefront, getting into the area, overseeing relief efforts and rolling up their sleeves. Ah yes, you do need a socialist system for such an approach. Or at least one that has turned its back on neoliberal dogma.

On retirement and other matters

A slightly more personal post than usual these days. A little over a week ago, I retired. It was an early retirement, since I am not quite yet 59, which is the average age of retirement age in Australia. I have worked for the last 11 years at the University of Newcastle in Australia, although I only ever had one foot in the door since I worked at no more than 50 percent. I must admit that I feel incredibly good about retiring.

Why? The negative side is that universities in Australia – like most universities that claim a heritage from the ‘Western’ liberal tradition – are in a spiral of decline. Governments keep cutting funding in the vain belief that the US model is the one to which one should aspire, so periodic ‘restructuring’ is the order of the day. It goes without saying that ‘restructuring’ is a euphemism for cutting costs and thus positions. For example, I recently witnessed the University of Newcastle axe whole disciplines, such as philosophy, (Western) classics and religion. Given that my training was in precisely in these areas, I felt somewhat alone.

But the negative reasons for retiring are a relatively minor matter. They can continue their downward spiral and lose international pretige and – increasingly important for the bottom line – international students. On a distinctly more positive note, I have been engaged in China for some years now. I first came to China in 2007, but for the last six years or more I have been engaged more closely with a few universities, initially in Beijing and more recently elsewhere.

I have experienced at first hand not only how central Marxism is to the Chinese project, but also the incredible level of work and innovation, forging ahead to continue to build the new China.

So what do I do with all this inspiration from the Chinese experience? I am trying to put all of this in ways that non-Chinese people who are interested in a rapidly changing world can understand. In this light, I am reshaping this blog so that it provides more information for those who are interested, including relevant downloads from my recent (last ten years) of publications.

What is the world’s second most popular destination for international students?

In 2018, 22 percent of global international students ended up in the United States, although this percentage has been in consistent decline over the last few years.

In the same year, 10 percent of international students went to the UK and 10 percent to China.

Yes indeed, China is now equal second as a favourite for international students. It has outpaced 3 of the traditional post-WWII big five – Australia, Canada and New Zealand are now behind China.

How could this happen? The key is that a sign of a country’s openness and confidence on the global stage is how welcoming it is for international students. And of course how willing it is to provide financial support for such students. Scholarships are available for students from countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially students from Africa, Central Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. If you are young enough and prepared to spend a year of intensive language study before beginning your studies, you too could land a scholarship. Even more, facilities at many universities have been upgraded, and the post-degree job opportunities in China or in the country of birth are bright indeed. As Matteo Giovannini observes: ‘Generous scholarships, investments on facilities and programs, unrestricted access to student visas and introduction of long-term residency permits for talent in specific fields of knowledge all have contributed to make China a friendly environment for talented foreigners’. And this is only the beginning: China is aiming for a staggering 500,000 international students by 2020.

So why is the Anglophone world declining. Perhaps Ahmed Baghdady, the manager of research and content development at WISE, says it best: ‘We’re seeing several movements of nationalism, and even hate speech and racism against international students from some countries’. His reference is of course to the United States, which has been demonising international students from more and more countries. But so also have Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Obviously, this approach is a sign of decline and weakness. As for the United Kingdom (an imperialist project that will come to an end in my lifetime with the independence of Scotland and the reunion of Ireland), the sheer uncertainties over its future are beginning to make it a doubtful destination.

Let me go back to an earlier observation: a sign of a country’s confidence on the global stage is how much it welcomes foreigners to engage, especially foreign students. Come to study, learn the language and culture, gain a world-class degree and perhaps even stay to work for a while. That was the UK in the 19th century and the USA in the 20th century. But no more. Increasingly it is China.

How anti-China stories are concocted (updated)

The gossip-scoop formula of a few media outlets in a small number of former colonising countries seems to have developed a fondness for anti-China stories. We know well enough at a general level that they are based on selective misinformation, but recently two clear examples of how such a process functions came to light.

The first concerns a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, who claimed to have been ‘tortured’ by ‘secret police’ (playing on an old anti-communist trope) while visiting Shenzhen. Actually, he was arrested for visiting a massage parlour and imprisoned for the standard period of time in China, before being released. You can find the story here and here, including video evidence.

The second concerns a convicted fraudster from China, who has already served time and is wanted for another fraud case. He skipped China on fake passports and turned up in Australia, where he is trying to pass himself off as a ‘spy’ who wants to ‘defect’, with inside information. Although I do not read Australian papers, you can bet that they are doing their best to tell another tall tale. You can find the whole story here, here and here.

Update: In regard to the bogus ‘spy’, who turned up in Australia recently, the spooks in that part of the world have decided that the man in question – Wang Liqiang – is at most ‘a bit player on the fringes of the espionage community’, and some have realised at last that the whole case is a ‘spy farce’.

 

An effort to understand Australian Sinophobia

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.