West Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie has attracted a storm of criticism for crudely comparing the People’s Republic of China to Nazi Germany.
By Rory Medcalf
I would join the chorus of concern if he had said this. The difficulty is, he didn’t.
The outrage has naturally come from the Chinese embassy and Communist Party-controlled media, but also from some prominent voices in Australian politics and business.
It is a poor reflection on the national debate – and our pre-emptive fears of displeasing China – that most critics seem to have reached their conclusions from news headlines and from the echo chamber of each other, rather than what Hastie actually said.
In his article last week in The Sydney Morning Herald, Hastie warned of the mistake countries like Australia had made in “believing that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China”.
“This was our Maginot Line,” he wrote.
“It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare.”
Likewise, Hastie wrote, Australia had “failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become”.
The article went on to warn that other countries should take Chinese leader Xi Jinping at his word and study the ideology propelling China’s actions across the Indo-Pacific.
These include huge investments in strategic infrastructure as well as economic coercion, social interference, cyber infiltration, espionage, political influence and military presence. Germany comparison overstated
Hastie’s article drew a political analogy, not with the Nazis but with the ruthlessness of Stalin’s Soviet Union: an inspiration that Mao and Xi would not disown.
His only German reference was based around the folly of not anticipating a determined and fast-moving strategy.
Yes, the article equated this with the failure to understand the extent and significance of Chinese Communist Party operations today. But it avoided any parallels with the evil of National Socialism. The word Nazi did not appear once.
In fact, Hastie’s article was based on a talk he gave in London at a symposium co-sponsored by a respected and mainstream German organisation, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung – the civic education institute for the centre-right Christian Democratic Union.
In that setting, a discussion of the challenge posed to democracies by “hybrid warfare”, his analogy between France’s strategic complacency in 1940 and the underestimation of today’s authoritarian countries was uncontroversial.
Yet the outrage, real and confected, seems based on the false assumption that he has claimed comprehensive similarities between today’s China – with its mix of merits and risks – and the aggressive, genocidal and suicidal insanity of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Of course such a full-spectrum analogy would have been inaccurate, unfair and diplomatically damaging.
The People’s Republic of China, especially through its reform era from 1978 to 2013, has been a place of historic achievement. The regime loosened the shackles it had earlier imposed on the Chinese people, enabling them to raise their living standards, along with some improvement in governance and freedoms. ‘The China we once knew no longer exists’
In external relations, China is not the Third Reich. Since its 20th-century wars against India, Vietnam and US-led UN forces in Korea, China has often shown strategic restraint, even as its capabilities and ambitions have grown. Its army has barely fired a shot in anger since 1989, when it was ordered to kill Chinese citizens in the heart of Beijing.
But an Australian politician would hardly be the first person to note that some of the Chinese Communist Party’s objectives and methods today resonate with the totalitarian and imperial powers of the past.
Strategic analysts have long warned of parallels between China and certain danger signs of imperial Japan, notably the fostering of hardline nationalism and growing dominance of military views in foreign policy. This is doubly tragic, given the horrors Japan militarism inflicted on the Chinese people.
China’s persecution of minorities, especially the detention of more than a million Muslim Uighur people, has drawn international condemnation, with parallels to the internment of Jews, dissidents and others in the 1930s.
Having endured Nazism and the Stasi, Germany is better attuned than Australia in sensing threats to democracy.
A best-selling book in Germany is by a long-time China correspondent who has no plans to return to Beijing. Kai Strittmatter writes in We Have Been Harmonised how Xi’s China has reverted to repression, creating the world’s first “networked totalitarian” state.
A renowned progressive journalist, Strittmatter concludes starkly that “the China we once knew no longer exists”. He writes of the regime’s growing use of surveillance, fear and lies, focusing his analogies on the murderous and imprisoning dictatorships of Stalin, Lenin and Mao.
He extrapolates from history to warn that Xi and his party are “reinventing dictatorship for the information age” with “huge implications for the world’s democracies”.
Who knows China’s future? As in any nation in any era, most of its people just want ordinary lives of safety and wellbeing. The right foreign policy setting for Australia is to pursue relations of mutual benefit and mutual respect.
But as we witness events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, or the anxiety Chinese power brings to many nations, we can no longer pretend we are dealing with a normal country in normal times. None of this to say that things are right with America too, though at least Washington is waking to the China challenge.
China is not Nazi Germany. But it is hardly wise to ignore the history lessons of totalitarianism when trying to comprehend the China with which we must engage.
Nor does it accord with Australia’s interests to reduce the national conversation about our security, or our complex relations with China, to point-scoring and sound bites. Both deserve much more.
This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review.