Saying the Unsayable

Watching China Watching (XVIII)

It is ten years since China’s 2008 ‘Olympic Year’. The international media anticipated that the XXIXth Olympiad to be held in Beijing in August that year would signify China’s true ‘coming out’ on the world stage. In March 2008, however, there was an uprising in Tibetan China and foreign journalists were banned from the region as state repression took over. This was followed in May by a devastating earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan province. Amidst heroic acts of sacrifice in the wake of the earthquake there were also protests by thousands of families who had lost children killed by shoddily constructed school buildings in the earthquake zone. Again, Chinese officialdom punished the protesters and repressed the news.

Even without these events the Chinese authorities were on high alert: they were about to stage the largest international even ever held in People’s Republic. Given the mix of the Games, internal protests, a major natural disaster and the presences of foreign media, the party-state showed its hand. Xi Jinping, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo in charge of security during the Olympic year, demonstrated what the latest version of New China would look like.


The 2008 Olympic Torch Relay, which lasted from 24 March up to opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing on 8 August, was vaunted as being the longest in the history of the Games. Called a ‘Journey of Harmony’ it traversed six continents and snaked its way through China, a physical and symbolic celebration of that year’s Olympic theme: ‘One World, One Dream’ 同一个世界同一个梦想. In a number of Western countries the Torch was dogged by protests over Tibet and egregious Chinese human rights abuses.

Olympic Torch Relay protests in Paris, 7 April 2008. Source: International Campaign for Tibet

As I wrote in April 2008:

… the issue of the Olympic Torch Relay has now become one of Chinese global pride, integrity, and national unity. The official Chinese media has also encouraged a kind of by-proxy witch-hunt to determine which among the foreign countries of “the West” (an ill-defined category to say the least), their media, politicians, and public figures are, to use expressions first coined in the US media in 2005, “Panda huggers” 熊貓派 (pro-China), “dragon slayers” 屠龍派 (anti-China) or “Panda hedgers” 熊貓騎牆派 (undecided). Such terminology militates against subtlety of argument, nuance, shades of difference, or complexity on “both sides.” I would also note that the “unified caliber” 統一口徑 of Beijing-authored attacks on the “Western media” constitute a deliberate decision by the highest power in the land to use this opportunity to mount an all-out offensive on reporting on China by the independent media worldwide. I would speculate that this is a strategic decision made with the short-term tactical aim of neutralizing international media reports on China before and during the Olympic period — a time during which China has undertaken to allow unprecedented access of the international media to the country. The long-term ramifications of this decision will be profound.

Torching the Relay, 5 April 2008

During the Torch Relay, and under the guidance of Xi Jinping, China publicly revealed the nature and extent of its long-term infiltration of overseas Chinese communities. Via internal documents issued by Chinese embassies, through supposedly non-official associations and mainland controlled Chinese-language media,  it activated patriots of all stripes — business people, community groups, students — to protect the Torch (already guarded by security officers sent by Beijing) in the cities it visited.

Following an attack on the Torch by pro-Tibetan independence protesters in Paris, and in accordance with the instructions issued by Beijing through a network of United Front organisations, the patriotic mobilisation was increased. A broad spectrum of sojourning Chinese were instructed to challenge any and all protesters and to present a face of enthusiastic solidarity to the world. Above all, they were told, when questioned by the Western media they should claim that they had no official ties and they were acting as independent China-loving patriots. It was arguably the first demonstration of the Communist Party’s long-term United Front strategy on a global scale.

Since 2016, that strategy, one which dates back to well before the founding of the People’s Republic, has become the focus of international attention and concern (for more on this, see The Battle Behind the Front, China Heritage, 25 September 2017).

Patriots protesting against international ‘fake news’

Shortly after the 2008 Olympic year, Australia experienced something of an annus horribilis in its bilateral relationship with the People’s Republic of China. A series of incidents led to media uproar, political anxiety and popular concern. Although that contre temps eventually passed as a result of good will, and hard work, on both sides, it was a sign of things to come. It also alerted those who watch China to the ways in which a more assertive Chinese party-state might act in the future. That future is our present.


The author of the following essay, Mark Harrison is an Australian academic whose work focusses on contemporary culture and politics in the Chinese-speaking world. He has a particular interest in Taiwan, and his intellectual approach embraces the disparate fields of cultural studies, politics and policy, and international relations. He has worked on The China Story project since its inception in 2012.

In Saying the unsayable Harrison talks about a kind of China Watching this is not just about looking, it is also about seeing with clear-eyed honesty. He notes that those involved with the People’s Republic — from governments to average consumers, from corporations to nation-states — are increasingly confronted by the nature and coordinated behaviour of China’s party-state. In appreciating those realities it may be possible to come to a better understanding of the Communist Party’s role in determining not only national policy for the People’s Republic, but also how Chinese people everywhere — and those who deal with (as well as profit from) China — are expected to speak, behave and even think.

Saying the unsayable in Australia’s relations with China first appeared in The Interpreter, published by The Lowy Institute in Sydney on 15 December 2017. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 February 2018



For some years Australia has clashed with China over its generous territorial claims in the South China Sea. In the Maoist past, America and its nuclear arsenal were lambasted as a ‘Paper Tiger’ 紙老虎. Australia — long derided as a regional ‘US Deputy Sheriff’ 美國协警 — is now dismissed as a mere ‘Paper Pussy’ 紙貓.

In late 2017, official Australian concern over political, media and academic interference by the People’s Republic of China in the nation’s life was such that the government tabled draft legislation. At one point, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in a mood of dudgeon even reformulated a famous line from Mao Zedong declaring in rudimentary Chinese that: ‘The Australian People Stand Up!’ 澳大利亞人站起來 [sic]. His braggadocio was widely mocked in the Chinese press (see below). — Ed.

Saying the Unsayable
in Australia’s Relations with China

Mark Harrison


The issue of influence by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Australian public and political life reached a turning point with the resignation of Senator Sam Dastyari [on 11 December 2017]. It concluded a year of forceful reporting and vitriolic debate about China in Australia, fuelling a steady flow of controversies and revelations about how deeply China’s interests reach into Australian institutions.

A satirical representation of former Labor senator Sam Dastyari

In the case of Dastyari, much of the media coverage has focussed on partisan party politics and wins and losses for the government and the opposition. However, his resignation is symbolic of a fundamental change in the nature of Australia’s relationship with China, one that is as significant in its own way as Brexit for the UK or the election of Donald Trump for the US.

For more than 30 years, policy and public life in Australia has been dominated by the notion of engagement with Asia. Expressed in a multitude of policy statements and national development aspirations, and always in a curiously urgent tone, ‘Asia’ has been invoked as Australia’s future. In the 1980s, Asia meant Japan, then the ‘little dragons’ of northeast Asia, and in the last 20 years, the biggest dragon of them all, China.

This policy and political project is coincident with ‘reform’, Australia’s equivalent of the neoliberal turn in economic policy in the 1980s. Measured in such terms, the policy of Asian engagement has achieved its greatest results in China: 35% of Australia’s national exports go to China and 30% of international students in Australia are from China. Universities embraced their commercial future in Asia more enthusiastically than any other public institution.

China, however, is also a party-state that institutionalises Leninist authoritarianism, a Communist vision for modernisation, and a hard nationalism. It should have, on the face of it, long presented a challenge to the liberal democratic values that Australia espouses.

Yet until recently it has not. Australian political, business and education leaders have produced endless platitudes about the future for Australia in partnership with China; speeches and statements promising to bridge cultures and promote diversity, create partnerships of global competitive advantage, access the opportunities of the burgeoning Chinese middle class, and so on.

This prosaic corporate and policy language, familiar to anyone who has been in a China business delegation or university internationalisation committee, offers no meaningful and critical engagement with the immeasurable gifts of Chinese civilisation and also the nature of the PRC party-state.

It has been possible for key sections of Australian public, political and corporate institutions to embrace China but simultaneously ignore the complex realities of the party-state because the policy rhetoric is not about China as a real place. Instead, it has always been about how Australia should understand itself and its national future.

China in this institutional world is a metaphor to reconcile two contending themes in the development of Australia’s national life: the neoliberal turn and progressive politics. In the metaphor of China, Australian public, corporate and political institutions have imagined Australia as a globally competitive society selling to the great Chinese market, and also as a cosmopolitan society casting off the legacy racism and imperialism, both British and American, to be comfortable in the Chinese world.

This way of talking about China while really talking about Australia has launched a thousand educational and cultural partnerships, corporate ventures and policy initiatives, burnishing progressive credentials and envisioning market opportunities, without ever needing to ask questions about the nature of the PRC party-state.

Dastyari’s resignation marks the breakdown of this complacent and inward-looking approach to China. It shows the PRC party-state as a real and unavoidable part of everything China is, rather than simply a metaphor for Australian economic policy or aspirational cosmopolitanism.

‘Don’t Even Think of Standing Up! — to challenge China at a time like this leaves you prey to American bastardry. Thanks, Brother Trump!’

The party-state itself has clearly understood the implications of this event for its interests. The vitriolic comments by the Chinese media and government, characterising the controversy over influence as anti-Chinese [for a sample, see the list of Chinese media articles below — Ed.], are an attempt to contain discussion of China within its place as a metaphor for Australia’s preoccupations. A number of Australian commentators have attempted the same move.

But the unsayable is now sayable — that this is not about us. China is a great civilisation and rich and diverse culture, a part of the Australian community, a modernising superpower taking its rightful place in the world, and also a Leninist party-state that seeks to influence Australian political and public life in its interests.

For academics, policy-makers, professionals and journalists who have long sought to engage with the full complexity of China as it really is in Australian institutional settings, questions about the nature and actions of the PRC party-state are now legitimate and reasonable, not an expression of a retrograde hostility to China out of step with modern Australia. From those questions, many others follow, and the foundation of a full and meaningful engagement with China and the Chinese world may finally be created.

— The Interpreter, 15 December 2017

A Sample of Chinese Media Critiques of Australia:

Further Reading: