A common humanity behind that Great Firewall
In June this year, the Chinese version of the micro-blogging website Twitter - which is banned in China - erupted in protest.
The trigger? A graphic photo of a 23 year old woman, Feng Jianmei, from the Shanxi province lying dishevelled, in pyjamas, on a steel-framed clinic bed next to the corpse of her baby forcibly aborted at 7 months by local family planning officials because this was Ms Feng’s second child, forbidden under China’s one-child policy.
The photo and outrage spread quickly amongst the more than 350 million users of Weibo which means “micro-blog’’ - resulting in the suspension of the officials responsible.
This story was recounted recently at an Australia in China’s Century conference by Li Yuan, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s Chinese language online edition, as an example of the power of Weibo.
“I think it’s the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in 5000 years. Seriously,’’ said Ms Yuan, who has more than 400,000 followers on Weibo. “The legal system in China doesn’t protect the people, so sometimes people just use Weibo to explain what they’re going through.’‘
When Australians think of China, it is common for repressive policies such as the one-child policy, internet censorship and lack of free elections to spring to mind.
But, as Ms Feng’s story shows, there is much more to it - a common humanity that transcends the great firewall of China.
As the Gillard Government prepares to release its landmark white paper on Australia in the Asian Century, headed by former Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, Australians are asking themselves: how much do we really understand about China?
Conferences looking at the future of China are something of a growth industry. At a top level conference hosted in Canberra last week by Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the economist Ross Garnaut a former Hawke government adviser and ambassador to China said Australians were making progress in understanding our northern neighbour, but there was still a way to go.
According to Professor Garnaut: “The qualities we need for success in the Asian Century are the same we need for success in any other world: keeping our brains and eyes open to the humanity of other people; recognising that our responses are pretty similar across cultures, and becoming more similar over time.’‘
Indeed, the Australian and Chinese economies are already much more deeply connected than the shiploads of iron ore and coal that set sail from the Pilbara.
Mandarin is now the most common non-English language spoken in Australian homes, according to last year’s census, as Mandarin overtook Italian for the first time. China is the number one source of inbound tourism to Australia with more than half a million Chinese visiting Australia last year. And more of us are travelling to China every year to see for ourselves what the fuss is all about.
Most Australians are aware that China’s demand for our mineral resources has fuelled our rising living standards at a time when the rest of the world is going backwards. As the developed world undergoes a repeat of the Great Depression, China is embarking on its own industrial revolution.
The bigger story of the rise of Asia is not so much one of emergence, but re-emergence, as Asia returns to its historical role as the world’s economic superpower. In 1700, before the industrial revolution in England and the formation of the United States, Asia accounted for about 60 per cent of world economic production. Today that proportion is around 25 per cent. But as Asia industrialises, pulling millions of people out of poverty and into the global middle classes, that proportion is expected to return to around 50 per cent by 2050, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Asia is rising again. And we need to figure out how to make the best of it.
This is the central purpose of the government’s the upcoming Asian Century white paper. It will argue that Australia’s “comparative advantage’’ what we do relatively best at as a nation lies not just in our rich mineral deposits but also in our people. When China’s demand for our mineral resources wanes, there is an opportunity to sell services, like tourism and financial services.
Australia will face more competitors in selling services into China than it does selling iron ore and coal. But the sheer size of the potential market - $1.3 billion people - means even a very small slice will yield big dividends for Australian businesses.
To that end, knee-jerk hostility to Chinese investment in Australia does little to foster closer business relationships.
Fortunately, when most Chinese people think about Australia it is still of more positive things. According to a Wall Street Journal poll of Weibo users, the top three things Chinese people think of when they think of Australia are: 1) kangaroos and koalas 2) Sydney Opera House and 3) immigration.
It’s time for Australians to embrace the Asian Century. And as we do, let’s remember that the things that unite us, our common humanity, are greater than those that divide.
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