OPINION

Hong Kong crisis highlights the new divide over Australia's future

What's happening, today, on the streets of Hong Kong takes us into uncharted waters. The way it plays out will shape our future - not because of what happens on a small, densely-populated island off China, but rather because of the way the dispute plays out back here.

Protesters gather near an information board during a protest at the Hong Kong International Airport on Monday, August 12. Picture: AP

Protesters gather near an information board during a protest at the Hong Kong International Airport on Monday, August 12. Picture: AP

Pause for a moment, and try to comprehend what's happening there. It began with ordinary people. On June 16, estimates put the number of protesters at just under two million. That's a lot of people in a city of just over 7.3 million. Ostensibly, the argument is simply about a law allowing residents to be extradited to the mainland, but this masks the real issue. Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the bill 'dead' back in July, but she's no politician. There's no way to get rid of this appointed hardliner democratically. Neither side will back down. The crisis continues.

Now shift your focus to Canberra.

Yes, firstly, immediate ripples from the dispute on the island are flowing here. Chinese students - on both sides - have understandably different and highly emotive reactions to what's happening over there. This is not simply because, as alleged, the Chinese embassy has been mobilising people to shut down protests. That's noise. The real dispute, and it's one that's suddenly coming into very sharp focus, is how we deal with the new geopolitical reality we suddenly find around us.

It was all so much simpler in the olden days. Back then it was a binary contest with simple, obvious answers: freedom or repression; democracy or communism; prosperity or poverty. Today those divisions are vanishing. Even in Australia Labor suddenly found, at the last election, that it could no longer rely on that old divide of wealth to provide its votes. People don't construct themselves simplistically as 'working-class any more. Instead, people inhabit multiple identities: financial; ethnic; religious. That's why the Opposition did far worse than expected in a number of ethnically diverse electorates in Melbourne and Sydney - the old shibboleth, 'migrants vote Labor' doesn't work any more. It's just the same with business.

Riot policemen face off with protesters over the anti-extradition bill in Hong Kong. Picture: AP

Riot policemen face off with protesters over the anti-extradition bill in Hong Kong. Picture: AP

The Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, is nobody's radical and, having worked for the coalition, is a highly skilled political operator. That's why it was so startling when he recently wrote an opinion piece urging a fightback against simplistic views of China. Most of those in the security establishment have simply (and understandably) taken it for granted that our alignment with the United States is so intimate that there's nothing to be lost by vocally calling Beijing out and looking for confrontation. "Not so fast", Willox appears to be saying, "there's a need, here, for some nuance and thought".

The point is we've got to find a way of existing with China and there are two simple models. One, favoured by many in defence circles, centres around the so-called 'Quad'. This is an imaginary construction, a pretend alliance between four very disparate countries. Australia, India, Japan and the US. It's about containment and it won't work.

The alternative formulation is to look at Indonesia. This country already has a territorial dispute with Beijing (over the South China Sea) and is concerned about Cambodia's role as a surrogate and projecting the influence of the superpower into South-East Asia. Jakarta has drawn its red-lines but is still managing to negotiate with Beijing. It has searched deep and discovered that overladen hype and division won't do anything to resolve problems.

This doesn't mean Andrew Hastie's opinion piece last week was (all) wrong. What the MP was attempting to do with his Maginot Line analogy was stress the need for flexible manoeuvre, rather than fixed defences. That's absolutely right. What's equally vital, however (and probably even more so), is the need to take heed of Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Simplistic commentary (and Hastie's piece wasn't simplistic - it's just been interpreted that way in an age of twitter and facebook) won't help anyone.

So where, exactly, has Scott Morrison been while this plays out? It's difficult to say.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says politicians should think before you speak about China. Picture: Sanghee Liu

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says politicians should think before you speak about China. Picture: Sanghee Liu

We've just had two Oxford graduates (Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull) perform like turnips as they attempted to negotiate with China: you never knew what colour they really were. A self-proclaimed Mandarin-speaking genius (Kevin Rudd) was similarly unable to master the relationship. Morrison, however, hasn't pretended to be anything other than extremely ordinary and perhaps that's good. The last thing Australia needs is a PM who thinks this country strides the world stage like a colossus, capable of fixing other people's problems and showing them the right way to behave.

It would be good to sort out China's attitude to democracy, but that's probably a bit beyond us at the moment. Regrettably, we probably need to focus on getting things right here first.

Democracy is terrific. Nevertheless even this simple structure comes in many different flavours; from presidential (the US) to multi-party (Germany) to first-past-the-post (UK). Rather than worrying about contested international concepts Australia needs to sharpen up its own game. It's no use laying claim to huge swathes of Antarctica, for example, and expecting China to allow us to do nothing with it.

Make moral judgments, by all means, but let's worry about sorting out the myriad of issues and problems here before digging trenches and engaging in wars we'll never win. Defend democracy, by all means, but do so by offering an inspiring example.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer
This story The new divide over Australia's future first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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