Reaching Forty-five

Free of Doubts
Stymied by the Workings of Heaven

At fifteen I was determined to study; at the age of thirty my method was established; at the age of forty my mind was free of doubts; at fifty I understood the workings of Heaven; at sixty my ear was trained to understand the Way; and, at seventy, I could do as I pleased, confident that I would not transgress. 吾十有五而志於學,三十而立,四十不惑,五十而知天命,六十而耳順,七十而從心欲,不逾矩。

— The Analects 論語 · 為政

In December 2017, celebrations have been held both in New Zealand and Australia to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the People’s of Republic of China in 1972. Caught between perplexity, yet far short of ‘knowing the will of heaven’, enthusiasts for the relationship are confronted with the increasingly nettlesome nature of The China Dream.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
6 December 2017

During the fortieth anniversary year of bilateral relations in 2012, the Australian Centre on China in the World, of which I was the founding director, released a number of papers, speeches and commentaries on the Australia-China relationship (see Forty Years of Australia-PRC Diplomatic Relations). The Centre also initiated a project called The China Story. As that year drew to a close, and as Xi Jinping rose to preeminence as the leader of China’s party-state, acute observers forecast that, for peripheral nations like Australia and New Zealand, the existing trade-without-politics approach to the People’s Republic would become increasingly problematic.

At the time I presented my own ruminations on the Austrarlia-China bilateral relationship in a speech titled Doubtless at Forty 四十不惑 (published in The China Story Journal, 1 December 2012). In concluding, I remarked:

In May 2010, we marked the four hundredth anniversary of the death of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci 利瑪竇, a great cultural savant of China. Ricci was an Italian missionary from Macerata who, in his autumn years, lived in the Ming-dynasty capital of Beijing. He was one of the first noted Westerners to pursue an empathetic appreciation of China and its scholarship, a body of knowledge called Hanxue 漢學 known to us as ‘Sinology’. It is no coincidence that one of Ricci’s noted contributions to that early contact with the Ming official and culture elite is his Chinese-language treatise titled simply Jiao you lun 交友论, ‘On Friendship’. In conclusion, allow me to quote from Ricci’s treatise:

夫時何時乎。 順語生友,直言生怨。What sort of age is this – this age of ours? Smooth words beget friendships. Direct speech begets resentment.

— Matteo Ricci, On Friendship 交友論:
One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince,
trans. Timothy Billings, New York:
Columbia University Press, 2009, pp.114-115


For nearly ten years I have advocated an approach to the Chinese Communist government expressed in the old term zhengyou 諍友 (a principled interlocutor who dares to disagree despite the disparity in power between speaker and listener); it is an approach that animated the last years of my formal academic life, as well as my political engagement with the People’s Republic. Then, as now, I have no illusions about the limitations of such ‘friendship’, regardless of its operations in the personal, professional, national, or even international realms. After all, the People’s Republic pursues with unstinting vigour a vision of friendship based on Mao Zedong’s revolutionary principles: you are either a compliant friend, or you are in the enemy camp. As Mao put it over ninety years ago:

Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the primary importance for the revolution. 誰是我們的敵人?誰是我們的朋友?這個問題是革命的首要問題。(See, also, Carl Schmitt in China)

Forty-five: Yin vs Yang

During 2016, student journalists, reporters and academics started publicly detailing various forms of official Chinese interference in and influence over local politics, the Chinese-language media and universities. In New Zealand, similar concerns were raised in major on the ‘united front’ strategy of Beijing, which led to widespread media discussion at home and internationally (see The Battle Behind the Front, China Heritage, 25 September 2017). In early November 2017, these Trans-Tasman concerns were given a new focus when, on the eve of a book manuscript on China’s infiltration in Australia being sent to the typesetter Allen & Unwin, a leading Australian publisher, reneged on its contract with Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University. The book was titled Silent Invasion: How China is turning Australia into a Puppet State and Hamilton described the incident in his essay The real reason you won’t be reading my new book on China anytime soon (Fairfax Media, 28 November 2017).

This groundswell of concern in Australia led, on 5 December 2017, to the government announcing a major overhaul of espionage and intelligence laws in response.


The contrast between concerned scholars of China who advocate a Realpolitk approach to the People’s Republic and the optimism of advocates of Evonomics First was highlighted in Wellington, New Zealand, on the occasion of the forty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and the People’s Republic of China in early December 2017.

On the fourth of the month, Anne-Marie Brady, previously featured in China Heritage (see The Battle Behind the Front, 25 September 2017), gave a public lecture at Victoria University Wellington and addressed the issues raised in her internationally celebrated research work on ‘Magic Weapons: China’s political influence under Xi Jinping’. A model of engaged scholarship, Brady’s work alerts fellow academics, government, the media, business world and the interested public to the nature of ‘united front’ work of the Chinese party-state, a coordinated strategy aimed at influencing and co-opting other countries in pursuit of its interests and goals. For a supine country like New Zealand — one that has promoted the concept of an all-of-nation NZ Inc. approach to China — Brady’s meticulous work, and practical policy advice, are timely and vital. Brady was subsequently interviewed on national radio and pointed out the important steps being taken ‘across the Ditch’ in Australia to counter foreign influence on its politics. The Australian government yesterday announced plans to ban political donations from overseas and introduce a register for foreign lobbyists. (For a detailed account of the Brady Lecture, see Michael Reddell, Shameless and Shameful, Croaking Cassandra, 6 December 2017.)

On the Fifth of December, a congratulatory 45th Anniversary Symposium was held at a prime campus venue. Hosted by the Chinese-government-funded Confucius Institute of Victoria University and the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, the gathering was supported by the New Zealand China Council, the New Zealand China Friendship Society and the New Zealand China Trade Association. The meeting was addressed by Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, as well as the vice-president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. Its also featured comments by former diplomats, representative of business and trade, and a clutch of academics.

Among other things, Winston Peters offered his version of what is in reality the official Chinese line about economic development with curtailed basic rights:

And we should also remember this when we are actually making judgments about China and about freedom in their laws that when you have hundreds of millions of people to be re-employed and to be relocated with the change of your economic structure, you have some massive huge problems.

And sometimes the West and commentators in the West should have a little more regard to that and the economic outcomes of those people rather than be constantly harping on about ‘the romance of freedom’…

Peters (who has previously claimed an ancestral affiliation with ‘the Chinese’) added a pop-culture twist that would probably resonate with the quotation-obsessed Beijing authorities:

… or as a famous singer once sang, Janis Joplin, remember that song?

She said ‘freedom’s just another word for nothing else to lose.’

In some way the Chinese have got a lot to teach us when it comes to uplifting everybody’s economic future in their plans.

Only days earlier, Nigel Haworth, President of the New Zealand Labour Party, was in Beijing attending the Dialogue with World Political Parties High-level Meeting officiated over by Xi Jinping. Haworth, whose political party forms the core of the New Zealand government, gushed:

Xi is taking a very brave step, trying to lead the world and to think about the global challenges in a cooperative manner, historically we have wars and we have crisis, but he is posing a possibility of a different way based on collaboration and cooperation, making cooperation work is difficult, but he think that’s a better way for mankind.

Haworth and his party’s coalition partners represented by W. Peters, as leaders in a modern liberal democracy, show that they have a lot to learn about collaboration, cooperation, as well as co-optation. Perhaps they could start by reading the Brady Report and meeting with its author?

New Zealand’s heedless embrace of the Chinese market already has already had dire impacts on the local environment, the deleterious effects of the People’s Republic on the media, society and politics are more beclouded. Regardless, the country’s politicians and media ignore Anne-Marie Brady’s sobering work and practical policy advice at the nation’s peril.

Singing from Different Song Sheets

Winston, since you’re au fait with Janis Joplin, you might recall her encounter with Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel in New York (see Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2, the most famous lines of which are: ‘I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/ You were talking so brave and so sweet/ Giving me head on an unmade bed/ While the limousines wait in the street’)? As you and your government continue to abandon perplexity and try to fathom the ways of heaven, I recommend another song by Cohen, ‘The Future’:

Things are going to slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it’s overturned
The order of the soul

— from Leonard Cohen, ‘The Future’

Further Reading:


It is twenty years since, on 1 July 1997, I was invited to join a panel of talking heads cum-analysts during the Australian SBS TV coverage of China’s absorption of Hong Kong. (Most commentators mistakenly believed that the British Crown Territory was being ‘returned’ to the People’s Republic of China. But the PRC was founded in 1949, and if there was to be a ‘return’ of territory, strictly speaking, it should have been to the long-defunct Manchu-Qing imperial government.)

Following the broadcast of the ‘hand-over ceremony’ beamed in from Hong Kong was the panel was asked to for closing remarks. The then mayor of Sydney, Henry Tsang, offered the view that everything would go swimmingly for Hong Kong in the future and that the Australian prime minister, John Howard, would manage the China relationship with aplomb. Given the last word of the evening, I concurred by saying: ‘Yes, sure, things will go swimmingly: just grab the bucks and fuck principle.’

That was my last appearance on SBS TV.