OPINION: AS THE China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) was being ratified, it was also revealed that in 2014, China’s millionaire population had jumped from three million to four million..
Because of China, the gravitational centre of the world’s private wealth is shifting away from Europe and the United States to the Asia-Pacific region. On current trends, the Asia-Pacific (excluding Japan) will have the world’s largest concentration of private wealth by the end of next year.
Here’s some other facts worth pondering: China has used more cement in the past three years than the USA used in the entire 20th Century. Much more. China’s High Speed Rail network, which carries trains at 300 km/h and is equal in sophistication to any high-speed service in the world, will by 2016 cover more than 20,000 km within China. That’s just a start. China hopes to extend the system to Fairbanks, Alaska, to the east, and London, England, to the west. 123 countries regard China as their major trading partner.
China, in short, is a phenomenon like nothing the world has ever seen. It’s the industrial revolutions of Europe and the United States rolled into one, and sped up from 150 years to 20.
I was in China late last year (and made a video) with the University of New England Business School, which has wisely started taking its students to experience the new epicentre of global economic activity.
What did I learn? I learned that my ignorance of China is vast.
Australia has been viewing China largely through the prism of economics, and money is an international language. That bit is easy.
Not so readily translated is the cultural dimension. Some of the Chinese State’s behaviour, which looks sinister from this side of the fence, has deep cultural roots.
Its aversion to media scrutiny, for instance, has cultural parallels in the Chinese preoccupation with “saving face” and not airing dirty washing in public.
Stuff-ups and errors of judgement within families, business and government are dealt with out the back, away from the public gaze - at least notionally. Without a free press, it’s hard to know how effectively corporate and government transgressions are dealt with, if they are dealt with at all.
Similarly, the Communist Party’s fortress mentality (to Western eyes) has deep roots. I wasn’t allowed to enter China with a journalist’s visa, and in-country foreign correspondents are finding it harder and harder to get their visas renewed. While guarding within, the Communist Party is running the world’s largest censorship project to shield its citizens from unwanted information from without.
In some ways, there is nothing new here. After the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci landed in Macau in 1582, it took him more than a decade of complicated diplomacy to be invited into the Imperial Palace.
Chinese institutional suspicion of the barbarians goes way back, and Western behaviour towards China over the past 170 years hasn’t done much to dispel that distrust.
So while talking to China through ChAFTA, in the universal language of money, we should be acutely aware that our major trading partner has views about freedom and behaviour that are sometimes diametrically opposed to our own.
That probably won’t matter much while Chinese engagement with Australia is strictly on Australian terms. (Parts of ChAFTA aren’t helpful in this respect).
But as China’s power grows, so will its influence. China shows no slackening of appetite for investment in Australia’s primary resources, and its influence on management of these resources will presumably grow too, even if indirectly.
There’s no reason for an outbreak of xenophobia over foreign investment: modern Australia is built on it. But in the case of Chinese investment, it is prudent to heed the classic sign of the London Tube and “mind the gap”.
In this case, it’s a cultural gap, and we need to be aware of it if the Chinese-Australia partnership is really to be just that.