Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2022

‘Enter the Dragon’ by John Keane, in Australian Foreign Affairs #11 (2021): The March of Autocracy, Australia’s Fateful Choices, edited by Jonathan Pearlman

‘China is an emergent empire of a kind never seen before … It’s not a gunpowder or dreadnought battleship or B-52 bomber empire. It’s an information empire, propelled by commercial interests.’ –John Keane

The eleventh issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the rise of authoritarian and illiberal leaders, whose growing assertiveness is reshaping the Western-led world order. The March of Autocracy explores the challenge for Australia as it enters a new era, in which China’s sway increases and democracies compete with their rivals for global influence.

lot has happened since this edition of Australian Foreign Affairs landed in my post box last year, but still, the first essay, ‘Enter the Dragon, Decoding the new Chinese empire’ offers interesting insights.  Written well before the Pelosi stunt and the backlash from China, it made me suspect something that I haven’t read anywhere in the mainstream media or even at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.  What if all that firepower wasn’t intended to ‘punish’ or ‘threaten’ but was a signal to China’s domestic audience?  What if it was meant to show them what China could do, if it chose?  The Chinese people have endured two centuries of humiliation — what if the agenda was really to assert that China is confidently en route to world pre-eminence (and that a militarily overstretched and fiscally overburdened America can’t do much about that?)

John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney is the author of The Life and Death of DemocracyIt’s 992 pages long; I’m never going to read it.  But I can read his essay instead, and it makes compelling reading.  ‘Enter the Dragon, Decoding the new Chinese empire’ isn’t an apology for a China we don’t much like. It’s about facing up to a reality rather than indulging in wishful thinking.  It’s about addressing misconceptions that are dangerous:

Like bellows to a fire, fallacies about China are inflaming controversies and stoking divisions.  These misconceptions are dangerous because they spread confusion, attract simpletons, poison public life and blur political judgements.  (p.8)

The first fallacy that Keane addresses is that China is commonly said to have a totalitarian political system.  Strictly speaking, he writes:

… totalitarianism refers to a one-party political order ruled by violence, a single “glorious myth” ideology, all-purpose terror and compulsory mass rallies.  The bulk of Chinese people would say that daily life in their country just isn’t like that.  The Mao days are over. (p.8)

China is ruled, says Keane, by a ‘phantom democracy’ put in place by leaders who seek to win the loyalty of the population.  They know that mere power does not enable enduring rule.  They know that the symbols of economic progress aren’t enough either.  They reject power-sharing, but they mimic electoral democracies.  President Xi practises the common touch with well-crafted “surprise” appearances with the people.  There are village elections and the spread of “consultative democracy” into city administration and business.  They use digital media to shape public opinion via a giant information-gathering apparatus…

…which uses data-harvesting algorithms to send summaries of internet chatter to officials in real time, often with advice about terms to use and avoid during public brouhahas. (p.11)

China’s leaders know that government stability rests on public opinion.  

Ignored by those who view China as a country run by totalitarian bullies and authoritarian autocrats, this principle is of utmost importance in grasping that the new Chinese despotism is equipped with shock absorbers, and therefore more resilient and durable than many suppose. (p.12)

…the rulers of China acknowledge that power doesn’t ultimately flow from the barrels of guns, or from Xingjiang-style interrogations, arrests and internments.  They admit that little sustains the political order beyond the population’s loyalty — their willingness to believe that the system addresses their complaints, and that democracy with Chinese characteristics is therefore better than its ailing ‘liberal’ alternative. (p.12)

The second set of misconceptions addresses China’s burgeoning global role. Like America, China abhors the term ’empire’, but (like America), that’s what it is. Already.

[Empire] is the word that’s needed to describe accurately China’s rising global role in such fields as finance capital, technology innovation, logistics, and diplomatic, military and cultural power. (p.14)

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is building infrastructure around the world, costing more than a trillion dollars, seven times as much (when adjusted for inflation) as the United States invested in rebuilding Western Europe after World War II.  Serving China’s trade ambitions, it’s a counter to the US ‘pivot to Asia’, and it outspends the US and Australia in research and development.

This new Chinese empire is not like the old European empires…

China, by contrast, is preoccupied with capital of a different sort: the flow of investment, the spread of networked information technologies and the growth of global markets for its competitively priced goods and services. It connects cities and hinterlands by high-speed railways, airports and shipping lanes.  Buoyed by its dependence on digital communication networks, fluid mobility is its currency. (p.17)

It’s an information empire, propelled by commercial interests. (p.18)

If you rely on the mainstream media for reporting of the Chinese ambassador’s recent speech at the National Press Club instead of listening to it yourself, you won’t have heard the Ambassador talk about what China perceives is its ‘good global citizenship’ credentials.  (Though this essay was written before the anxious reaction to China’s overtures in the Solomon Islands), Keane explains its high-profile international reach:

China actively partners with its fourteen neighbouring states.  It plays a high-profile role in regional bodies such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Institutional restructuring and the soliciting of leadership roles within global bodies is equally high on its agenda.  China already heads four of the fifteen United Nations agencies.  In recent years, it has helped build, and now leads, multi-lateral institutions such as the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which are founded on pragmatic consent, not formal treaty alliances.  (p.19)

Chinese officials are careful to massage their public image, throwing their cultural weight around to offset criticism and displaying strong commitments to rule-of-law precepts in bodies such as the World Trade Organisation.

[LH: The Ambassador dignified his refusal to discuss China’s trade embargoes on Australian products with Press Council journalists by reminding them that China’s dispute with Australia is awaiting WTO arbitration.]

They are also careful to promote their empire as a force for peace.  

This portrayal rests upon spin, silence and secrecy: according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data, for instance, China is now the second-largest arms manufacturer, behind only the United States, and it has more cruise missiles and middle-range ballistic rockets than its great-power counterpart. The PLA’s navy is the world’s largest.  Military bases to supplement its existing Djibouti and Tajikistan installations are no doubt in planning.

China’s public relations task is nevertheless made easier by the fact that they are up against an American empire that some would say is obscenely overarmed.  Those who speak of China as a “bully” and an “aggressor” must remember that the United States remains the world’s commander-in-chief.  It has military bases and installations in 150 countries [LH: including a growing presence in ours] and according to SIPRI spends more on its armed forces than the next ten countries combined. (pp. 21-22)

Another point not mentioned in the mainstream media’s report of the Ambassador’s speech was his pride in China’s contributions to UN peacekeeping.  Keane gives the example of China clearing landmines on the southern Lebanon border with Israel. He notes also its unconventional military strategy towards the United States:

…since it is not an empire in a hurry, it can act under Sun Tzu’s guidance to wear down its competitor by avoiding war, demonstrating that deferral and avoiding “lengthy operations in the field” can yield lasting victories. (p.22)

The third cluster of misconceptions concerns predictions of China’s future, warped by wishful thinking.

From predictions of regime change, or that market reforms would be the catalyst for a liberal democracy, or that the moral superiority of American democracy would triumph, those who hope for China’s collapse wrongly imagine the new Chinese empire to be a repeat of Ottoman bribery, corruption, decadence and quarrelling advisers.

Keane ramps up his critique at this point in the essay: Proponents of a new Cold War attract xenophobes, racists and Orientalists.  

These bull-in-a-China shop warriors seem blasé about the probable consequences of the desired downfall — “the collapse of a world empire,” notes the German scholar Herfried Münkler, “usually means the end of the world economy associated with it.” They may be picking a fight that delivers political, economic and reputational setbacks to the United States, or further hastens its demise as an imperial power.

Reckless China-bashing and moonstruck love affairs with America are dead ends.  Talking up military aggression in the age of nuclear weapons is madness. (p.24-5)

What Keane recommends is agile non-alignment. Australia could embrace cooperation in some areas, such as scientific research and renewable energy.  As former PM Kevin Rudd suggested, we could manage prickly exchanges as elements of a truly durable friendship [..] built on unflinching advice and frank awareness of basic interests and ambitions. This would mean a change in mindset:

a new willingness among political thinkers, journalists, citizens and politicians to dissect their own ignorance about China, to see with fresh eyes its complexity and to avoid underestimating its shape-shifting resilience. (p.25)

For its part, China has flaws not to be underestimated.  Keane says it has a legitimacy problem, and makes a surprising recommendation:

Every Chinese government official, diplomat and businessperson should read The Vizier’s Elephant (1947) by Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, the classic tale of resentment against the pinched promises and hypocrisy of occupiers, to grasp how easily imperial power can be doubted, satirised, worn down and defeated. (p.26)

[LH: Anyone read it? It’s summarised here.]

Other flaws are:

  • one that historically affected all empires: the chronic tension between the central rulers and administrators at the periphery;
  • environmental concerns and bio-challenges; and
  • its lukewarm and contradictory embrace of public accountability mechanisms.  It doesn’t have watchdog bodies such as public enquiries, judicial review and futures commissions that serve as risk-reduction mechanisms, designed to deal with threatening uncertainties, corruption and nasty surprises. 

I couldn’t hazard a guess as to what our PM and his advisors read to keep abreast of all the issues Australia faces today.  But I have no doubt that the AFF journal crosses Penny Wong’s desk and I suspect that she reads it carefully.  Everything she’s said and done so far suggests to me that she is mindful of Australia’s need for restraint, and to keep out of arguments that are not in our best interests.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include these essays:

  • Natasha Kassam & Darren Lim explore how Xi’s China model is reshaping the global order.
  • Sam Roggeveen considers Washington’s stance on China and whether Biden can seek to restore US primacy.
  • Linda Jaivin discusses how Australia might use its strengths as a middle power to combat China’s influence.
  • Huong Le Thu suggests how Australia can improve its South-East Asian ties.
  • Kate Geraghty lays bare the horrific impact that war can have on women.
  • Melissa Conley Tyler reveals the crippling impact of Australia’s underfunding of diplomacy.

Update 18/8/22: In the wake of media reports about the Ambassador’s speech, there are two interesting articles at Pearls and Irritations about the role of the Australian media in our relationship with China:

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  The March of Autocracy, Australia’s Fateful Choices
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 11, February 2021
ISBN: 9781760642105
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library


  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    This is a very detailed and useful summary with much thought provoking material. Thanks for your time and study.


  2. Interesting post Lisa … we do need more reasoned, rational, rather than emotional thinking about the situation. While I don’t always follow politics as closely as I should or would like to, I agree with you that Penny Wong seems to be treading a thoughtful, rational path. Just the way she speaks – reasonably, calmly – is a breath of fresh air.

    Your description that the essay “isn’t an apology for a China we don’t much like. It’s about facing up to a reality rather than indulging in wishful thinking. It’s about addressing misconceptions that are dangerous” makes it sound worth reading.


    • Well, you can tell from the date of this one that I don’t always read this journal at the time it lands in my postbox. But I do like to keep abreast of what’s going on.
      I read the first two chapters of Kevin Rudd’s book The Avoidable War but couldn’t finish it (so didn’t review it) before it was due back at the library. It was a real eye-opener, especially the chapter about China’s history about which I was woefully ignorant.
      I certainly get a different view of the world by sidestepping the mainstream media to read alternatives…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did do Chinese history in high school, some of which I remember, and which I have been trying to bring back in recent times. But you’re right, reading alternatives, is worthwhile, as long as you know the credentials of those alternatives, which I reckon you’d be careful about.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Here’s one I’ve just come across: the Melbourne Asia Review, which is an initiative of the Asia Institute at Melbourne University. Their latest podcast about why Taiwan and Korea have such different attitudes towards Japan is fascinating.


  3. Hi Lisa. Your comment about Chinese history…….”It was a real eye-opener, especially the chapter about China’s history” is telling. I went on a Chinese history binge several years back and came out gobsmacked. I can promise you that you are less “woefully ignorant” on the subject than the vast majority who have been prodded by a useless media into believing that we are on the verge of invasion. I could go on……….!

    By the way, I have not been getting you email updates. I have re followed so maybe that will help.


    • I had another eye-opening moment during the week when I watched a series on SBS called Hell on Earth, which starts with WW2 beginning in Asia, not in Europe.
      It was interesting to see that the ABC responded to the death of Gorbachev by bringing back one of the reporters lost to us after the last round of budget cuts… clearly they recognise that the current crew don’t have the expertise.
      I wondered why you’d re-subscribed!

      Liked by 1 person

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