The received wisdom in countries with a majority white, monolingual population is that learning a second language is good for the individual and the country. In Australia, for example, the election of Chinese-literate Kevin Rudd as prime minister has not only triggered attempts to revitalize and reorientate Canberra’s relationship with China, its largest trading partner, but also given linguists and think tank commentators hope that Australians can engage with the region more profoundly, starting with the learning of a second — Asian — language.
Admirable sentiments, indeed, though most of the time the real-world consequences are left to the imagination. Rarely addressed is the problem of the reciprocity of “engagement” and whether the term allows for hostile interpretations. Still, it would be hoped that a sea change in attitudes toward the region, and China in particular, might receive a warm welcome from other governments and ordinary people.
The Australian government has instead discovered that attitudinal and policy reform after several decades of promising and lucrative ties amounts to little when it comes to Beijing extending the Australian government basic courtesies on political difficulties, such as consular access to detained senior employees of mining firm Rio Tinto, or on cultural issues, such as not embarrassing Canberra by badgering the Melbourne Film Festival for screening a film about an exiled Uighur leader.
Like that of other autocratic states, this behavior sends a clear message: Better engage us on our terms, because we couldn’t care less about yours.
After all this time, the Chinese simply can’t help themselves. They refuse to come to the table on issues that promote universal interests and mutual respect, reflecting a stubborn philosophy of superiority and entitlement. And to their delight, the West has proven to be insipid in its response to human rights outrages in China’s border areas — a splendid dividend of growing economic integration.
As a result of this mindset, those who uncritically engage at any level with China will eventually be invited to ask if this does not in fact require the suspension of one’s moral code.
Australia is learning afresh something that Rudd surely knew all too well: Beijing plays by its own rules, regardless of the ramifications for bilateral relations or even its reputation as a major power.
This reputation is not set to improve. The Rio Tinto employees are in desperate trouble not because of the soundness of the evidence against them but because the Chinese legal system is designed to deliver verdicts consistent with the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party and its global agenda.
This domination will now extend to domestic disputes between Chinese and foreign commercial interests. The Chinese have made reluctant moves to reform the judiciary after years of local unrest, but these efforts will fail, because implementing them to meet minimum international standards of transparency and accountability would amount to a revolutionary act, and one with likely dire consequences for the party-state.
The consequences for confidence in doing business in China, not to mention the vulnerability of local and foreign staff in an environment of selective prosecutions, pervasive corruption and commercial espionage, are worrying enough, though a rather large number of investors are anesthetized to these long-term concerns by China’s magical annual growth rate.