In June this year, the Chinese version of the micro-blogging website Twitter - which is banned in China - erupted in protest.

They have a big wall, but it's not so different

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.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST.

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    • Steve says:

      06:07am | 24/09/12

      $1.3 billion people - freudian slip of the keyboard.

      What gets me is the hypocrisy of the Chinese when it comes to investment.  It is very hard to invest in China.  The demands they make to invest in Australia would be impossible when the situation was reversed.  Many of the companies making the investment are owned by the government so it is really the Chinese government investing in Australia.  Australians investing in China have to deal with high levels of corruption and no legal recourse if things go wrong.  If we allow China to buy the farm then we open ourselves up to future conflict if they want to enforce their rights in the future.  We have been spoiled over the last 50 years with the relatively benign superpower of the USA.  China has not yet shown that they are cut from the same cloth.  When they extend the same rights to their people as we have in Australia then I will be more comfortable about Chinese investment in Australia.  As it is I believe that they are destined for an inevitable social revolution in the next decade.  Hopefully what emerges will be a better and fairer China.

    • acotrel says:

      07:07am | 24/09/12

      There is an ever present issue - ‘democracy and control’.  Perhaps the internet will help the Chinese and the rest of us reach a balance ?


      07:12am | 24/09/12

      Hi Jessica,

      What the ordinary Chinese know about Australians and Australian way of live happen to be very irrelevant, really!  How much do we as Australians know about the Chinese way of life, really?  In such a strictly controlled environment by the state of China where the one party system is very much alive and well, nothing you could say would really surprise or shock me!  That picture of a woman and her dead baby would be called straight up cold blooded murder anywhere else in the world but China it is a just everyday reality!  Sorry Jessica but I am not impressed with your version of China and the kind of admiration you might personally have for them!

      Chinese society is very much based on the true to life stories of a lot of Chinese who have been oppressed by the very system for decades and denied the very basic rights we all take granted for in the other parts of the world, whether you would like to believe it or not!  One thing China is famous for happens to have the cheapest and the largest workforce at their disposal and on our planet as well as being one of the biggest polluters in our world.  So if you plan to keep on admiring in order to sell the beautiful image of China and the Chinese, you would have to have a bit more down to earth attitude with actual facts and figures instead of fairy tales, no offence intended to you personally!  May be next time we can expect the actual story behind the idea of building the Chinese Wall in the first place, now that would really be a very interesting piece of article and information for us Australians!  Kind regards to your editors.

    • acotrel says:

      08:46am | 24/09/12

      Never despair - the world is changing. Denigrating the Chinese won’t make things better. Setting the example is what counts.


      09:40am | 24/09/12

      Hi Acotrel,

      Thanks by the way and much appreciated!  You know what?  With the question of making things better for my own heritage, culture and community, I surely have more than enough on my own plate! My own family originally came from Thessaloniki, Greece a century ago and settled in Istanbul, Turkey!  They were what you would call “displaced people” by war and internal troubles very much like those Italians and Greeks desperate to leave their own country of origin to settle in Australia, after World War II!  With one major difference that my great grand mother and her family were forced out of their own homes of centuries, basically overnight.

      And pleasantly I just happened to be a part of a wonderful nation like Australia!  I don’t want to hear and know about genocides and stories of displaced people simply because I simply have my own stories way back from a century ago.  And hearing all these narrow minded and sometimes very racist comments from others as if they happen to know everything about us, simply beyond a joke! 

      Because on my side of the family there happens to be more than four languages spoken!  Having lived on three different continents and having tasted all different versions of what we call a true democracy and what it means to us over centuries,  I honestly don’t know if should call myself Greek, Turkish or Australian.  I only know that our very own adaptability and life experiences make us truly who we are!  I surely am not willing and able to fix China or India overnight,  simply because I have better things to do with my time.  However I have no patience for one sided and subjective articles with themes so far removed from reality.  In conclusion may be this job of fixing things in China should be given to our Federal Government of Australia since the Chinese seem to be the most prized so called settlers in Australia, right now.

      Not that we can call them part of the White Settlement yet, but give it time they might actually claim to have more rights to Australia than others such as the Aborigines, Europeans and Muslims combined, right?  I just have to say “make them sweat like we did for thirty or forty years then give them those rights”!  “Too much too soon policy” is very much at the heart of Chinese so called migration to Australia!  And for the most obvious reasons.  With a population of 1.2 billion there is no real of chance of any kind of change any time soon.  You know what else they don’t qualify as my role models at all.  Kind regards.

    • Penguin says:

      10:55am | 24/09/12

      ahso Kurosawa. interesting Odyssey of your family. Why use a Japanese pen-name? Did you live many years in Japan in your Odyssey?

    • DOB says:

      04:06pm | 24/09/12

      Neslihan, I know China very well and I know Chinese people very well. It seems to me perhaps that you dont. I can assure you that China is a very beautiful place and Chinese people are - by and large - wonderful. A lot of what you read and hear about China in the media in no way captures the complexities of the country or the people. To give you one simple example, if you lived in China you would feel far freer in many ways than you do in Australia.  You would miss out on a lot of things but at the same time you would have opportunities that Australians miss out on. Swings and roundabouts. Who is to say which is better?

      A lot of the other stuff you said is wrong too. Biggest polluters? Would you have Chinese people live in caves while people here live in McMansions? Why do you have the right to a house that caused pollution but the Chinese dont have the right to build houses for themselves (and incidentally Chinese housing is almost always basic and vastly less resource consuming than westerm housing). Do you realise how outrageously arrogant you sound - and how ignorant? The Chinese will continue to build houses for their people and pollute - and we westerners are in no position to object to that; not unless we too are prepared to give up the lifestyles (and the accompanying pollution) that we enjoy now. And the average Chinese will NEVER pollute like the average westerner. It is hypocritical to complain about these things.

      If I could be bothered getting annoyed at someone who doesnt know the country and is talking from ignorance I would be annoyed with you. Instead I will make a suggestion: travel to China. Get yourself a guide (its generally not expensive - most Chinese people do not have high expectations like we do in the west) and keep your eyes - and your heart - open. See what is happening there - and be amazed (because you will be). Then perhaps you will get a small inkling of the majesty of a great country and a great people. They have a long way to go in many things but people here could learn a lot from China and the Chinese - if they open their eyes. Sooner or later people here will have no choice but to do that.

      You obviously have a lot to learn. I recommend you start now.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      07:57am | 24/09/12

      China is a huge country population-wise. At 1.34 billion we are only 2% of its population. The last one hundred years have seen the death of more 100,000,000 people on this subcontinent, from revolution against the Manchu Emperor, civil war, Japanese invasion (1931-1945), civil war again, great leap forward (more like great leap to hell) Cultural Revolution..and now peace and rapid economic progress.

      What is thus most important to its people? Peace and stability. Human rights a la Western world? They never ever had it in the last 10,000 years.

      Think hard and ask seriously what should Australia’s most important concern on China, our number one customer, should be? Also Peace and security so that China can continue as our best customer. We should stop interfering in the internal affairs of China.

      The best weapon that USA created to change China is the INTERNET which was created by the RAND Corp, the think tank of the USA Air Force to ensure the survival of communication in a large nuclear war.

      Another key historical event of modern China is the one child policy which was born out of sorrows of many famines. It is interesting to note that a famous scientist in China Jian SUN played a crucial role to convince Mao on the need to have a one child policy. A report on this and the impact of the Club of Rome studies (1960s) in the establishment of China’s one child policy is at:

      Without its one child policy there would be another 400,000,000 people on planet earth in China, about 20 times the population of Australia! If only other developing countries learn and use the one child policy.

    • R York says:

      08:54am | 24/09/12

      Dear oh dear. 10,000 years of Chinese history, eh.

      Trouble is,10,000 years back we were all wandering hunters and gatherers with stone tools. No China then, son.

      As for Internet “invention”, well, as gross simplification your RAND claim takes the biscuit.  Parallel developments in US and UK at least. For science as much as anything.

      Dear oh dear.  Sloppy with the facts yet again, eh, Goh.  Sigh.

      Just too much trouble to check your facts before posting yet another mistake riddled propaganda lash-up, eh.  Pffft.

    • Bev says:

      11:17am | 24/09/12

      R York says:08:54am | 24/09/12

      Wrong. Dr B S Goh is partly right.  The internet research was sponsored by the US Military the US Army being the main sponor via DARPA. The english were not involved.

    • Paul says:

      01:02pm | 24/09/12

      R York says:08:54am | 24/09/12

      “Dear oh dear. 10,000 years of Chinese history, eh.

      Trouble is,10,000 years back we were all wandering hunters and gatherers with stone tools. No China then, son.”

      Wrong.  There is evidence that humans started farming and even forming regional governments around 12000 years ago.  While China as the entity we know today is far more recent, there is a reasonable argument that Chinese history spans 10,000 years.

      That said, you took Dr Goh’s comment of “They never ever had it in the last 10,000 years” completely and deliberately out of context, just to attack (aka troll?).

      Ironic that you take someone else out of context and accuse them for getting their fact wrong only to find that you are the one who is wrong.

    • Damian Parkhill says:

      09:36am | 24/09/12

      Unfortunately there are those in Australia that would look up to China and adapt her censorship ideas for the internet.

    • subotic ® says:

      10:14am | 24/09/12

      For the internet?

      Try for LIFE ®

      If there’s nothing Australia loves better is to take bad foreign policy & procedure and enforce it upon our docile and “ever-so-willing” population of couldn’t care lessers….

      I sometimes think we almost deserve it.

    • ZSRenn says:

      11:37am | 24/09/12

      @ Jessica I have taken some time to get back to you as I wanted to check a few things first.

      1) I have done about an hours search on Weibo and cannot find the picture or the uproar by its users. I would suspect as someone who manages The Wall Street Journal would have taken the time to download the picture. Do your sources say he had that as part of his presentation.

      2) The ignorance shown about the one child policy and its workings by Australians is astonishing. Maybe that is a blog in itself but this ignorance of its workings allows belief in statements made by others.

      3) Li Yuan is very difficult to search as Yuan is the pinyin for the currency however I cannot find any article in the wall street journal regarding the matter.

      Can you supply some links to assist please.

    • TheRealDave says:

      12:42pm | 24/09/12

      In related news, sure to get the ‘The Chinese are Coming!!’ Brigade in a frenzy, the PLA were handed over their very first Aircraft Carrier yesterday.

      To arms lads! Lets get this anti-China hysteria whipped up good and proper!

    • Michael R says:

      01:40pm | 24/09/12

      How much do we really understand about China? Wrong question. Australians are actually asking: how much can we trust China to be a peaceful superpower? Answer: there are more than enough signs to be very worried.

      “Asia returns to its historical role as the world’s economic superpower.” This is racism, pure and simple. To presume that Asians are natural economic leaders? If you said that about white people, they’d lock you up. Not only is it racist, but it feeds a fatalistic mentality on our side, and a supremacist mentality on their side.

      Comparative advantage? Free trade falls down when, as is increasingly obvious, Western countries cannot compete in ANY industries. So long as the USA’s massive trade imbalance remains, it will never solve its unemployment problem. “Specialise, trade, and hope for the best” is not a policy, it’s a (failing) hope.

      Bottom line: we need strategic trade, not free trade. We should be trading with countries that we can trust to be benevolent superpowers, and we should give local producers a chance to compete by imposing a reasonable floor price on imported goods. Economic fundamentalists (i.e. lazy thinkers) will howl in protest because you’ve violated their beautifully simple theory. Tough luck. It’s high-time the flaws of free trade were highlighted instead of the mindless parroting of: free trade is good always and everywhere. It most definitely is not.


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