The era of humiliation of China is decisively over: Aussie sinologist
Published: Jun 26, 2022 04:01 PM
Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

During the past decade, the world has increasingly witnessed a trend of "the East is rising, and the West is declining" in the spheres of economy, security and discourse power. Western countries, particularly the US, plagued by internal woes, have sought the old path of passing the buck and instigating turmoil elsewhere to ease their own pressure. China, representative of the emerging countries, is proposing the new solutions to global problems. By advocating win-win development, facilitating consultation and reconciliation and proposing a balanced and effective security mechanism, China is striving to build a community with a shared future for mankind.

In the third of the series, Colin Patrick Mackerras (Mackerras), an Australian sinologist and Emeritus Professor at Griffith University, shared with the Global Times how he views China's development and changes over the past decades, especially the past 10 years. He believes the balance of geopolitical and economic power between the US and China over the last several decades has changed significantly in China's favor and it is the Communist Party of China (CPC) that gives China the stability many countries lack.

GT: Do you remember when Chinese President Xi Jinping talked about your contribution to the development of China-Australia relations during his trip to Australia? How did you feel at that time?

Mackerras: I was actually present at his speech at a joint sitting of the Houses of Parliament in Canberra in November 2014. I had been told that he would mention me. I was extremely happy that he mentioned that I was like a bridge between the Australian and Chinese people. It has always been a dream of mine to contribute to good relations between the two peoples and I was very happy that he said in public I had achieved that dream. His speech left me inspired to increase my contributions to friendship with China.

GT: When was the first and last time you visited China? What were the most profound feelings you had when you visited? What changes in China stick out in your mind?

Mackerras: The first time I visited China was from August 1964 to September 1966. I was hired as a foreign expert by what was then called the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (now Beijing Foreign Studies University). I was born and brought up in Sydney, Australia, but was doing a master's degree in Cambridge, England, in the early 1960s. At first, I found things extremely strange and unfamiliar in Beijing. I lived with my wife Alyce (who passed away in June 2021) at the Friendship Hotel. Our eldest son Stephen was born in Beijing in February 1965.

As our time as foreign experts went on, I made many Chinese friends, both in the institute and outside. I also had friends from other countries. I grew to love my Chinese friends and also to love China.

That was not a good time in China. When we left in September 1966, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) had begun and was already exerting a profoundly negative influence. Many of my friends were affected. Many of my students became Red Guards. However, I have to add that everybody treated me and my family very well.

The last time I visited China was in late 2019. I had teaching and conference commitments. Also, I took two of my grandsons for a short visit to Shanghai, to Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) in Anhui Province and to Wuyi Shan in Fujian Province. All these places are fascinating and the two mountain areas are among the most beautiful sceneries I have ever seen.

I always love to visit China and my feelings are always positive. It is always great to see my friends again, and I love the feeling of being in China. I feel it is like my second home.

Things have changed enormously between my first and (so far) last visits. My group of friends has grown. I now have wonderful contacts with several universities, especially Beijing Foreign Studies University and the Renmin University of China, both in Beijing. As far as China is concerned, what strikes me is (1) how much the economy has grown, with people now enjoying a very high standard of living in terms of living space, food and clothing; (2) how developed in terms of infrastructure and technology China is, an obvious example being the wonderful high-speed railway system; and (3) how much more confident and free people are in their lives and attitudes.

GT: In an interview with Chinese media last year, you said that without the leadership of the CPC, it would have been difficult for the country to achieve such great achievements in the past century. Can you elaborate?

Mackerras: It is the CPC that has given leadership to the country and held it together, giving it stability that many other countries lack. I think that has been a major contributor to China's successes, in the economic, diplomatic, technological and other fields. Without that leadership, I very much doubt that China could have made such great achievements in the past century.

Colin Patrick Mackerras Photo: Courtesy of Mackerras

Colin Patrick Mackerras Photo: Courtesy of Mackerras

GT: You have studied in-depth Chinese minorities, traditional Chinese theater, the image of China in the West, and China-Australia relations. Having lived in China for many years and having visited China more than 60 times, you must have visited some remote areas in the country. Are you still concerned about the poor areas that you have visited before?

Mackerras: As far as I can see, even the areas remote from the eastern seaboard have developed enormously. I am no longer concerned that they will be seriously short of daily necessities, such as food, clothing and water. However, there is still poverty there and more development is necessary. Also, I am still somewhat concerned about the state of the environment all over the country. I saw some figures about pollution in major cities for 2022. Chinese cities no longer rank high for pollution, although they certainly did not so long ago. India is now much more polluted than China. But there is still serious pollution in China and this needs to be overcome. I know that the government has done a lot to solve this problem, but it still needs more work, in my opinion.

GT: Whether it is in face of the elimination of absolute poverty or the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, the CPC has always adhered to the people-centered philosophy that puts people first. What is your take on this?

Mackerras: I think it is true that the CPC has always adhered to putting people first. For example, its record in eliminating absolute poverty is most certainly the best in the world. It has now eliminated absolute poverty. It is true that it depends to some extent on how one defines absolute poverty, but the government has made perfectly clear where the boundary for absolute poverty lies. If one compares with African countries or a big and rising country like India, then it is clear that China's record is outstanding. And it's not only absolute poverty. There are many other benchmarks that define the human condition. These include literacy, food intakes, standards of health, maternity mortality and infant mortality rates and gender equity. On all of these, China has done extremely well by comparison with other countries that were once at a similar level of development. To me, that is an outstanding achievement. As for the COVID-19 epidemic, figures show that China's infection and death rates are extremely low by world standards. While it is true that Western countries tend to criticize China for its handling of the pandemic, it seems to me that its record is excellent and there is a good deal of politics in the attitudes Western countries hold on this question.

GT: Looking back to 2012, the 18th CPC National Congress was held when the world faced rather complex economic and political issues. Ten years on, what major changes do you think have occurred in the global economy and politics? How do you assess China's development in the complex and ever-changing international pattern?

Mackerras: In the 10 years since 2012, China has advanced tremendously in terms of its economic and social development. Despite the problems posed by COVID-19 and the way the Americans have been deliberately trying to hold China's rise back through fear of losing their world hegemony, China's economy has continued to grow and grow very well.

Over that period, it seems to me the world has become more tense and the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine in February this year has posed great challenges on world development in a range of ways. Still, China has continued its upward trajectory and I don't expect that to change. I would go further and say that the balance of geopolitical and economic power between the US and China over the last several decades has changed very significantly in China's favor and that applies to the 10 years since 2012 as well.

GT: In the past decade, Australia's relations with China have changed a lot under the influence of the US. What would you like to say to the new Australian government about the relations with China?

Mackerras: Australia-China relations were very good indeed for decades. After the establishment of diplomatic relations under the [Gough] Whitlam government in 1972, cultural, educational and other exchanges blossomed, trade grew until China became Australia's top trading partner and leaders visited each other's country and carried on successful diplomacy. It seems to me that the relationship reached a high point in 2014 when President Xi Jinping visited Australia and the relationship was declared to be one of comprehensive strategic partnership, with the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement reached the following year. Since about that time, a variety of factors has caused the relationship to deteriorate. Many of these, though by no means all, result from Australia's excessive dependence on the US. I would add that [former] prime minister Scott Morrison and foreign minister Marise Payne were not good diplomats. Morrison was excessively and unnecessarily abrasive in his dealings with China (and others). The signing of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement, under which Australia broke a contract for arms purchase with France and promised instead to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK, threw Australia back into an earlier and one hoped bygone era of excessive and to some extent exclusive military engagement with the Anglosphere.

Will the relationship improve under the new government (elected on May 21, 2022) led by Anthony Albanese and the Australian Labor Party? I certainly hope so.

There are negative signs. Labor policy is similar in many ways to that of Morrison and his government. However, there are also positive signs. Albanese and his Foreign Minister Penny Wong are much better diplomats and do not engage in "megaphone" diplomacy and are less prone to issue self-righteous pronouncements that judge China as bad and immoral.

We'll have to wait and see. I don't expect immediate change, but I do think there will be improvements over the next few months, and I remain optimistic about the mid-term to long-term future. Trade remains extremely important for both countries. It is totally obvious to me that it is in Australia's interests to get on well with China.

GT: As your understanding of China has deepened, you have said that it is difficult for you to agree with the propaganda from the Western media because their reports are usually based on an assumption that "it is all China's fault." In your opinion, why do the Western media intentionally demonize China?

Mackerras: I am alarmed at how hostile the Western media are toward China. True, there are some good journalists. But the demonization of China is far too prevalent and very bad for relations.

I think the reason may be largely to do with politics. The fact is that in the last few years, Western images of China have got much, much worse, including in Australia. This is mainly due to the fact that the West cannot accept the rise of China. For centuries, the West has assumed it was No.1 in the world. Its values, its system of government, its economic models, its technology, were the best in the world and everybody should follow them. But now, China is rising and seems to pose a challenge to Western hegemony. It is no longer prepared to be pushed around as it once was. The era of humiliation of China is decisively over. The images follow the politics to a large extent.

GT: The last time you visited Xinjiang was in 2018. In your opinion, what are the most obvious changes that have taken place in Xinjiang in the past 10 years? Will the attempts of some Western countries in playing the "Xinjiang card" to contain China's development succeed?

Mackerras: I have visited Xinjiang many times now and made a study of the history and present circumstances of the Uygur people. Over my many visits, I have been impressed with the vast improvements in living standards, infrastructure and economic and social development.

I don't claim to know everything, of course. However, I am deeply suspicious of the campaign to demonize China's minorities policies, and categorically reject the suggestion that there is "genocide" going on in Xinjiang. Secretary of State under [former president Donald] Trump Mike Pompeo made this claim on his last day in office in January 2021, and Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken has followed it. Although both are decisively wrong, many have taken their claim very seriously and even believed it.

Will playing the "Xinjiang card" succeed in containing China's development? The straight answer is no, because China's economy and politics are too strong. Also, most countries reject the claim, including most of the Muslim-majority countries, and this matters because the Uygurs are Muslim by tradition. However, I do think that this factor has done China's image considerable damage in Western countries.

GT: What is your vision for the peaceful rise and development of China in the future?

Mackerras: I predict and hope for a bright future for China and its people. I certainly think the Chinese people deserve a wonderful future. I think the "China Dream" has every prospect of fulfillment. I expect China to continue on its road to prosperity. Although some unexpected and unfortunate events, such as pandemics, cannot be ruled out, and though China has many problems to surmount, I predict, on the basis of past experience, that the people will be able to overcome them. I also think they will be able to overcome roadblocks put in their way by foreign powers not willing to be overtaken.

One area of special importance and concern is national unity. It is my earnest hope and vision that Chinese territory will not only remain united but also that Taiwan will also be peacefully unified with the rest of China.