For the past three weeks much of the cabinet has been doing laps of honour waving the Asian Century white paper as if celebrating a major achievement.
The document has been lofted like a banner in press conferences, op-ed pieces and speeches. It has been taken overseas by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and shown to Asian political and business leaders.
But during those three weeks what has become increasingly obvious is that, outside the clutch of foreign affairs mavens and forward-think business types who didn’t need any educating on the rise of the Asian middle classes, the Asian Century white paper has been a non-event.
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The Gillard government’s much-touted Australia in the Asian Century report is packed full of eye-popping statistics about the rise of Asia. Did you know, for example, that 80 million people played football in Asia in 2006 and that by 2020, this is expected to reach 380 million?
China is already the world’s biggest buyer of Rolls Royce cars. In the first decade of the 21st century, the number of cars per 100 urban households in China jumped from less than one to more than 18. There are now 80 computers per 100 households in China, up from eight. There are 60 microwave ovens, up from 16. And a whopping 200 mobiles, up from 16.
Are you excited about the Asian Century yet? Wait, there’s more.
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Australia’s foreign policy, according to Foreign Minister Bob Carr in a piece published the day after Australia’s UN Security Council win, is not only about protecting our national interest, it is “about doing the right thing”. If so, we should have expected more from the most significant work on Australian foreign policy for many years.
As an advocate for human rights and democratic freedoms in Tibet, I was encouraged when the Gillard government announced its plan for a white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Our understanding of Asia, and China in particular, was in dire need of updating. When it came to Tibet, Chinese propagandists had spent years happily filling the vacuum left by the dearth of information escaping the Great Firewall and waning government interest in the region.
During the consultation phase, several Australian NGOs provided thoughtful input on how Australia’s deepening economic relationships with Asia might also support the wellbeing of disadvantaged or marginalised groups, particularly those paying for China’s “economic miracle”.
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A woman sits in a courtroom dock. Eyes downcast. Fidgeting. Clearly tormented by recollections that are now flooding back as fresh as they were decades ago.
She describes the being frogmarched from her home by armed black-clothed soldiers. A month-long walk to a concentration camp. Giving birth on the side of a road. Being worked to the bone. Sleeping in pits covered in worms. Seeing fellow captives beheaded. Hearing the screams of innocents being tortured. Giving up her sick children so they could get proper medical help only to learn they were never treated and died alone. Knowing her husband was locked in a dark prison cell, interrogated, tortured and finally murdered.
But it isn’t Nazi Germany she is describing. It isn’t even that long ago. And it didn’t happen that far away from our shores.
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