‘China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering’ by David Brophy

2021, 230 p. plus notes

I don’t know what to think about China. I read Peter Hartcher and I see all those meticulously drilled soldiers parading in Tienanmen Square, and I feel very, very apprehensive. Then I read Hugh White or listen to Bob Carr or Paul Keating (albeit with increasing scepticism) and I think that we’re over-reacting. It seems that commentators on China have backed themselves into a particular position, and you almost know what they’re going to say before they start. And yet these commentators do not always come from the traditional left/right field. Clive Hamilton, for example, who is such a strong advocate for the environment and sustainability, is one of the most trenchant critics of China.

So who is David Brophy, and why should I listen to him over anyone else? He is a historian of modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, and he wrote his PhD on Uyghur nationalism, and wrote Uyghur Nation. Increasingly he has found himself called upon to comment on current events in China, and was himself involved in demonstrations in support of Hong Kong at the University of Sydney in August 2019. Although I would by no means instantly give credibility to a historian over any other commentator, a historian is probably a little more likely to take a view longer than the last election, and has no party policy to conform with.

In China Panic, Brophy starts by identifing the different players in the China Commentary field. He points out that security agencies have led the way in Australia proclaiming itself ‘the canary in the coal mine’ regarding China’s rise. ASIO has taken on an increasingly public role, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also talked up the risks. He notes that ASPI receives sponsorship from arms companies, and has received grants from Canberra and the US State Department. (p. 13). Then there are the parliamentary self-styled bipartisan Wolverines- Andrew Hastie, Eric Abetz, Kimberley Kitching (ALP), Raff Ciccone (ALP), James Patterson among others. Commentators more often found on the ‘left’ like Richard Denniss and Clive Hamilton,urge Australia to take a stronger role. Brophy points out that Fairfax Media and the ABC, in particular through ‘Four Corners’, have been major conduits for security warnings in relation to China.

But then there is Hugh White, who argues that as America’s pre-eminence wanes, Australia should accommodate China’s rise. The former secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson warns that ‘national-security cowboys’ are endangering Australia’s interests. Angus Houston, chief of the ADF 2005-2011 maintains that China is a partner, not an enemy. (p. 15). The Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS continues to champion continued trade growth. Twiggy Forrest and the Minerals Council represent business that is keen to maintain trade links.

The book has eight chapters, which are topped-and-tailed with an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are: 1. China and the World 2. The US-China Rivalry Today 3. Influencing the Region 4. Interfering with Democracy 5. Cold-War Campus 6. Human Rights and Xinjian 7.The Battle for Hong Kong 8. Sovereignty, Values and Racism.

As you can see, this is a very current list. One of the dangers of writing a book so close to current situations is that events that have occurred subsequent to publication can change the trajectory of the argument. For example, the AUKUS agreement sees Australia very much throwing its hat into America’s ring, with all of the implications for our own sovereignty, all the while proclaiming that “it’s not about any one country!!” (as if).

So where does Brophy locate himself? As a historian of Uyghur nationalism he is, as you might expect, critical of Chinese policies in Xinjiang. As one of the convenors of the ‘Let’s Talk about Hong Kong’ Chinese-language forum at the University of Sydney, he is committed to providing a platform for debate and exchange amongst Chinese citizens in Australia themselves. However, he points out that Australia and America (in particular) hold China to international standards that they themselves hypocritically sidestep when it suits their purposes. In matters of undue political influence or academic freedom in Australia, he notes that curbs and oversight of these matters for all countries, not just China, would be of benefit to Australia’s democracy. He argues that the move to the Right in contemporary responses to China in Australia’s politics will only provoke a similarly nationalistic response from China. He suggests that instead, we need to live up to our profession of universal values (p. 20) and to strengthen our own democracy.

He concludes:

We need something very different. Not a politics that shies away from necessary criticism of China: that has no future in Australia. But we do need to remove today’s national-security lens and replace it with a more genuinely critical one. On that basis, Australia’s new consciousness of China as a global actor can still point to important truths about China itself, the global system of which it is a part and the deficiencies of Australian democracy…. We need an alternative that combines a vision of a better China with a vision of a better Australia.


I usually give a book a ‘rating’ but I feel at a loss here. I read the book precisely because I don’t know what to think, and I have no way of evaluating his material or mounting counter-arguments. But he says that the question is too important to leave to specialists. Instead,

…to get out of the rut into which Australia’s China debate has settled, we need to recentre it on the interests that ordinary people in Australia and across Asia share in both combating oppression and resisting warmongering.

p. 21

One of the more reassuring programs on China that I have seen recently was on Foreign Correspondent (yes, it’s on the ABC). Called China’s Future, it focussed on three young people who had rejected the expectations of their society, and the hopes of their parents, to choose a different future. One was a transgender young person involved in ‘Voguing’, a dance culture that started in New York in the 1980s queer scene. Another was a woman who had given up her career to return to organic farming in her home village, much to the disappointment of her mother. The third had been an editor with a renowned publishing house, but threw it in to become a shopkeeper with a small corner shop in the hutongs. While I wonder how they will fare in Xi Jinping’s increasingly interventionist society, there was something very human and relatable in their parents’ bewilderment at their children’s choices, set against their determination not to lose their relationship by rejecting them. Love, a future, safety, peace – things that ‘ordinary people’ crave. Perhaps this isn’t a bad place to start.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

2 responses to “‘China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering’ by David Brophy

  1. Have you seen the material available through ANU’s Australian Centre on China and the World, especially the series The China Story?

    • No- I hadn’t seen their site- it looks interesting. I’ve subscribed to their podcast. Thanks for alerting me to it.

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