There is absolutely zero factual basis to Ravi Shanker Kapoor’s libellous accusation that I have ever pursued or advocated a “policy of appeasement” towards the Chinese Communist Party.
The fatal flaw at the heart of Kapoor’s argument, published by this newspaper last week (Australia’s ex-PM shows how to appease China), is one of attribution. In his rush to justify his preconceived false conclusion, Kapoor has conflated my description of Beijing’s worldview with support for it. As the former leader of one of the world’s oldest continuing democracies, any such suggestion is not just wrong; it is utterly offensive.
What Kapoor fails to grasp is that I am, by profession, a Sinologist. I have been one since the Cold War, when I was stationed at the Australian Embassy in what we still called Peking. My main job there was to analyse and describe the opaque inner-workings of the Chinese Communist Party, and how those dynamics might influence the party-state’s policies. I was chosen for the job because I had specialised in Chinese language, culture and history during my academic studies in Taiwan (then known as “Free China”) and at the Australian National University. Like our “Kremlinologist” counterparts in Moscow, the Sinologists’ task was to arm Western governments with the clearest possible analysis of how the world looks from inside the Chinese Politburo under Deng Xiaoping. It was analysis, not activism.
When I became Australia’s Prime Minister in 2007, I turned from analyst to activist. Under my leadership, we adopted the first cabinet-level China strategy across domains including national security, human rights and foreign investment. We took a series of hard decisions including: commissioning the biggest naval expansion since the 1940s; rejecting Chinese efforts to take over a major mining company, Rio Tinto; banning Huawei from supplying the National Broadband Network; opposing Chinese obstruction at the Copenhagen climate talks; enhancing our counterintelligence agencies’ powers and resources to confront state-sponsored espionage; and expanding the US marine presence in our northern port of Darwin. On the human rights front, I personally criticised China’s crackdown in Tibet; we granted visas to visiting Xinjiang activists, despite the howls of my conservative critics; and we stood firm on the legal rights of an incarcerated Australian citizen.
On the other side of the ledger, we engaged constructively with China where possible. Our trade with China doubled over six years, while also seeking a bilateral trade deal with India. We collaborated closely with both Beijing and New Delhi through the G20 to navigate the global economic recovery following the Great Recession. And we maintained open political and diplomatic lines of communication between Canberra and Beijing, with a record number of ministerial visits in both directions.
After I retired from Parliament in 2013, I returned to Sinology. For the last six years, I have led a US think-tank, where I research and write extensive analyses on the view from Beijing. I have also been an academic, first at Harvard and now at Oxford, where I am a doctoral candidate analysing and describing the worldview of Xi Jinping.
For the most part, my writings are analytical. Governments, companies and journalists who want to anticipate China’s actions need the clearest possible understanding of how the world looks from their perspective. Commentators like Kapoor may blithely caricature the CCP as a wicked monolith, but the hard truth is that China has internal politics that are complex and fractious. Only a fool would ignore that.
So when Kapoor accuses my analysis of “providing covering fire” for the CCP, he has fundamentally misunderstood—or, more likely, misrepresented—the nature of that article. I am merely describing the outlook from China’s Marxist-Leninist party-state, not arguing for or defending that outlook.
Of course, if Kapoor had actually read any of my published writings, he would know that my views differ sharply from what he purports. For example, rather than defending Beijing’s right to “harass its neighbours”, I have sharply criticised China’s projection of its power and influence in the region—this includes through economic thuggery, self-defeating “wolf warrior” diplomacy, and a “grey zone” strategy on its territorial periphery.
Far from excusing China’s handling of COVID-19, I have explicitly criticised Beijing for lack of transparency, failure to cooperate fully with international medical authorities, and attempted blame-shifting. I was among the first to call for an independent international investigation into the origins of the virus, and never ruled out the so-called “lab leak” hypothesis.
Finally, I have not downplayed the severity of China’s approach to ethnic and religious minorities. I have been consistently firm and frank with the Chinese leadership—publicly and privately—that the democratic world’s commitment to universal human rights is fundamental to our values. That commitment is not up for negotiation.
It’s difficult to imagine Kapoor’s systematic attribution bias is an honest mistake. If so, it is the journalistic equivalent of blaming a firefighter for trying to explain why a building caught fire. Kapoor ought to reflect on his failure of basic journalistic standards before sitting down at his keyboard next time.
This is also the second time this month that The Sunday Guardian has published blatantly false allegations on this subject. While the reason for this sudden vendetta is completely unknown to me, The Sunday Guardian has done its readers a grave disservice simply by misrepresenting the facts.
I am no stranger to malicious media criticism, though it often emanates from Chinese state media including a recent attack on me by Beijing’s Global Times—not newspapers that purport to stand for the democratic values of fact-based debate and intellectual honesty.
President of the Asia Society and former Prime Minister of Australia