Drongos and D-words

Watching China Watching


Watching China Watching, a series launched by China Heritage in January 2018, offers essays and reflections on studying the Chinese world and approaches to understanding the Chinese People’s Republic.

The men and women who taught us to engage with the Chinese world and to appreciate things Chinese in a holistic fashion were motivated and inspired by many things: their personal histories, a diverse range of interests, as well as a pressing necessity to watch (and to watch out for) China. For many of them, Chinese and non-Chinese alike (after all, some of the greatest China Watchers are from China), China was not a distant subject for study but an essential part of lived reality. Their insights were generally based not on some crude social science or anthropological approach to observing The Other, or the result of dissecting an object rich in possibility as part of some ambitious career trajectory. Their understanding was based as much on entanglement, fraught questioning, a spirit of self-discovery and personal enrichment as the result of a lifelong effort to approach what is in fact an all-encompassing cultural-political world from a broad humanistic perspective.

Watching China Watching is interested in the professional China Watchers, a once nearly-defunct claque of people working in government for national political ends, journalists, academics, ne’er-do-wells, as well as the talented curious and literary dilettantes. In the ‘New Epoch’ of Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping, the long-overlooked, or underestimated, skills of being able to read, listen to and understand the bloviations of the Chinese party-state are, perhaps, in vogue once more.

In producing Watching China Watching we also want to leave some material from the past for those who are engaged with China in the present and who would watch, learn, imbue and develop their own approach to China and its world as part of their personal human struggle amidst the welter of contentious ideas, ideological fabrications, conflicted interests and strained emotions.


Charles Parton has spent much of his diplomatic life working on and in China. He is
an associate fellow of the Council on Geostrategy, the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies (RUSI) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). We previously shared his insights in China Watching — old skills honed for a ‘new era’, Chapter 36 in Watching China Watching.

We are grateful to Charlie for allowing us to include his observations on the drongo and the ornithological dilemmas of China watching.


The word ‘drongo’, Strine slang for a no-hoper or fool, remains part of my own dwindling lexicon of Australianisms even though it enjoys scant purchase in New Zealand, my place of self-exile.

For a short essay on the origin and use of ‘drongo’, see the entry under ‘d’ in Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms, compiled by The Australian National University, my alma mater. And, for my own thoughts on ‘being a drongo’, see The ethical dilemmas of cutting a deal with Xi Jinping’s China, The China Project, 15 September 2023.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
29 December 2023

Spangled Drongo Dicrurus bracteatus. Source: Graham Chapman’s Australian Birds


In the hawk-dove ornithology of China policy,
consider the drongo

Charles Parton

28 December 2023


Those of us who spend our lives thinking about China strategy are routinely referred to as either “hawks” or “doves”, a crude distinction meant to identify us as either rabidly anti- or slavishly pro-China. The crudity sometimes spills into ornithological fatuity. I have been called a “moderate hawk”. But hawks are born to kill — they do not kill “moderately”.

Rather, I consider myself a drongo. Not an idiot, as in the Australian insult, but the bird known for fearlessly defending its nests and young. Similarly, we denizens of democracies have the right to defend our futures, values, society and economic wellbeing against “covert, coercive and corrupting behaviour”, as former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described Chinese Communist party interference. Turnbull is honorary president of all drongos.

Being a drongo should not be confused with being anti-Chinese. I am anti-CCP. So are many Chinese. It is hard not to be, given its record of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, its disregard of international law over Hong Kong and the South China Sea, its killing of its own citizens (35mn to 40mn souls during the Mao-induced Great Famine, 2mn to 3mn during the Cultural Revolution, and hundreds in Tiananmen in 1989).

The point of this ornithological discussion is to avoid the assumption that attitudes to China must be one extreme or the other. That is not to ignore that some, for reasons of self-interest, promote China at the expense of their own countries’ values or security; or regard everything the Chinese do as inherently dangerous.

Most of us do not belong to either polarised camp. We read President Xi Jinping’s talk of Chinese socialism’s long struggle to gain dominance over western capitalism. We digest “Document no 9”, which excoriates all the values underpinning our societies. We see the weaponisation of the CCP’s economic system, deliberately undermining our own. And as drongos, we want to protect our territory.

But we are also positive about co-operation on climate change, biodiversity, developing countries’ debt relief, global health, and some areas of trade and investment.

Which brings me to the D-words. Western politicians talk of de-risking. In July, the CCP’s Xinhua news agency ran commentaries titled “Beware of the rhetorical trap of ‘de-risking’”. De-risking, it said, is “decoupling or de-sinicisation”. They have a point: while de-risking does not have to be political, most instances of the “D word” in a China context are political. It is decoupling, even if western politicians use euphemisms.

This is because new technologies affect every aspect of our lives, and the distinction between civil and military uses of technology is being eroded. As a result, the definition of critical national infrastructure (CNI) is widening. Is the smart energy meter in your home CNI? Yes, because if Chinese companies monopolise the supply of cellular internet-of-things modules in smart meters, they could crash the grid. Or is your car — now a computer on wheels — China-built?

Less dramatic, but more insidious, is the security threat from data going back to China, whether through telecoms systems, CCTV cameras, routers, car cameras or audio systems. It is not science fiction: last year the UK security services stripped down a government car because data was emanating through its “e-sim” to China.

Drongos such as myself accept — with sadness — that there must be decoupling in telecommunications, data, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and most new technologies. We have the right to uphold our security, economic prosperity and system, and values. So does China.

The CCP understands the threat, and has already removed as much US and western technology from its systems as possible. Tesla cars, whose cameras are increasingly sophisticated, are banned from military bases and from places Xi visits. Decoupling is just another name for Xi’s policy of “dual circulation”, best characterised as “use Chinese wherever we can, foreign only if we must”.

By all means use another “D word” for technological “decoupling” — but be clear about the underlying reality. However we must not allow decoupling to spill over into non-critical areas. We should still trade or co-operate with China where it does not harm our interests. Ministerial visits and dialogue increase understanding.

In saying all this, I am not being a hawk, moderate or immoderate. I am a drongo. And proud of it.