March 7th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Beyond the Great Divide

EDITORIAL Holden, China, covid19: Time for industry reset

CANBERRA OBSERVED Political promises on the Never Never never never work well for the nation

CLIMATE POLITICS Business joins in climate change chorus

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Divided Democrats will help re-elect Donald Trump

GENDER POLITICS Project Nettie: Science takes on ideology

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Myth-busting China's 'soft power'

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Covid19 outbreak hits China's growth, imperils Communist Party

POLITICS AND SOCIETY What should the champions of democracy care about?

HISTORY Putting Lenin on the train: History's biggest blunder

NCC CONFERENCE 2020 Strengthening family, freedom, and sovereignty in a hostile world

HUMOUR Hooray for our premiers

MUSIC Handel: A composer who knew the value of a quick turnaround

CINEMA Emma: Handsome, clever, rich

BOOK REVIEW Useful but limited analysis of the breakdown of distinctions today

BOOK REVIEW The successive possessors of the West's first printed book




NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal in the High Court this week

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Myth-busting China's 'soft power'

by Dr Paul Monk

News Weekly, March 7, 2020

Part One of two parts (the second part can be read here)


In 1988, when he was director of the Institute of Political Science in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yan Jiaqi gave a speech entitled “China is no longer a Dragon”. He argued that the symbol of the dragon gave China the image of imperial authority and unrestricted power, but that this was “inappropriate for a nation seeking to be a democracy. It should be replaced, he urged, by a symbol more consistent with the idea of the rule of law”.

The following year, on June 4, came the ruthless suppression of the student democracy movement. Yan Jiaqi fled China and has lived in exile ever since. The Communist Party has not taken the path he urged. Xi Jinping is the embodiment of what Yan argued against. Hence our concern at this time about living with the Dragon – Xi and his “China Dream”.

But I shall focus on China’s soft power and its uses, if only because thus far that’s chiefly what we in Australia have had to deal with and have only begun to understand. Joseph Nye classically defined soft power as the art of winning over world opinion through cultural and persuasive means, rather than coercive ones. If this image to the right was the face of Chinese soft power, it would be on firm ground. This is Gong Li, as Lady Zhao, in The Emperor and the Assassin, a very fine Chinese film of 20 years ago, staring reproachfully – on account of his ruthless quest to dominate all under Heaven – at King Ying Zheng of Qin, the soon-to-be First August Emperor of China.

Lady Zhao recoils from King Ying Zheng in the film,
The Emperor and the Assassin.

First conceived by Chen Kaige in 1988, the film was made in 1998 and released on DVD by Silkscreen in 2000. Like numerous films by Chen Kaige, The Emperor and the Assassin is cinema at its best and shows us a Chinese culture that we could all celebrate and cinema we can all enjoy. This is wonderful soft-power stuff.

When we talk about soft power in the statecraft and diplomacy of the Chinese Communist Party, however, it is not such films or such views of China that come to mind. It is Confucius Institutes, it is promotion of the so-called “China Dream” of Xi Jinping; it is the suite of beguiling myths about China that would have us accept its rise as awesome, inevitable and benign. It is an art of imperial propaganda that has more in common with King Ying Zheng than with Lady Zhao.

What I’d like to do this morning is open up for discussion the challenge with which this imperial vision confronts Australia – not least because the soft power of the West in general and of the United States in particular has suffered considerably in the recent past, leaving us floundering somewhat in our response to the rise of China.

My own acquaintance with China began in 1963 with a children’s story about Marco Polo that had superb coloured pictures. The pictures made an indelible impression and China arose in my young imagination as an exotic, faraway place where merchants used to go to trade. But it was the soft power of the Anglosphere that I grew up on in the 1960s: children’s stories, magazines and history books published in London; American films, television and popular songs.

However, in Year 6, aged 11, I bought, played truant from school and read Stuart Schram’s biography of Mao Zedong. That took my understanding of China to a whole new level. This was no children’s story. It was a serious study of large-scale and violent rebellion against the world of Western colonialism and merely exotic images of China. It wasn’t anyone’s soft power. It was a wake-up call to take history seriously. Schram estimated that the Party had executed two or three million people in the several years immediately after its seizure of power in 1949. That was just the beginning.

Half a century or so on, Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine wrote a new biography: Mao: The Real Story. Note the subtitle – the real story. Their introduction is titled “Myths and Realities”. They describe Schram’s book as the best of its era, but comment that writing an accurate biography of anyone is challenging and that the “difficulties are multiplied when the subject is the leader of a closed society that jealously guards its secrets”.

They show that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Mao was “a faithful follower of Stalin, who took pains to reassure the Boss of his loyalty”. “The truth,” they observe, “has long reposed in the secret archives of the CCP, the Soviet Communist Party and the Communist International.”


What we need to pay attention to is the relationship between the Party’s soft power narratives – especially the soft power propagated by the Party’s vast apparatus of intelligence, diplomacy, thought control or united front tactics – and the kind of truth being evoked here by Pantsov and Levine.

That’s what good history does; what good biography does; what good intelligence analysis does. That’s what enables us to get incrementally closer to “the real story”. That’s what we need to do with regard to the myths with which the Party buttresses both its domestic rule and its foreign policy goals. That is my central purpose here.

The Emperor and the Assassin is theatre, but based on real historical events of the third century BCE, set down by Sima Qian in The Grand Scribe’s Records about a century later. Chen Kaige and his team modified that history in order to make a critical point about the King of Qin and centralised power. They invented the character of Lady Zhao, who turns against the King because of atrocities echoing the massacre of the democracy movement students in Beijing in 1989. The film is a compelling piece of modern Chinese soft power, but a clear challenge to the Party dictatorship.

The Party revises history a great deal; as theatrically as Chen Kaige, but with very different intentions. If we don’t know the history itself, it’s difficult to tell how history is being reinterpreted or distorted. Since even the best historical writing entails interpretation and since sustained inquiry is required to master even a part of history, how are we to grapple with the Party’s large-scale myth-making, which is propagated relentlessly and with a straight face?

We haven’t done very well at this in Australia and we need to do better. In a newspaper piece in late 2018, I had a stab at doing a little of this work, which became the basis for a presentation to the China Day in Canberra in April last year. I offer a revised version of that here. I will present and debunk seven myths that need to be dismantled if we are to have a clear-eyed view of China under the Party and how it seeks to overawe the wider world, including us.


The Party did not liberate China from foreign imperialism. It could never have done so from where things stood by 1937, when the Japanese made the reckless decision to attempt the conquest of the whole of China. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek had bailed up the Communists by 1937 and it hung on tenaciously against the Japanese for eight years. It was overwhelming American military power that defeated Japan and it was to America, certainly not the Chinese Communist Party, that Japan surrendered, in August 1945.

The Soviet Union came in late, occupied Manchuria, handed masses of Japanese and Russian weaponry to the Communist guerrillas and so made possible their victory over the exhausted and demoralised Nationalist government. The United States attempted in vain to mediate between the two sides in the interests of the Chinese people.

Japanese statesman Yoshida Shigeru and others in the 1920s and early 1930s had urged that Japan seek to rise peacefully in Asia, cooperating with the Anglo-American powers and building economic hegemony rather than attempting wider conquests. Had their policies prevailed, instead of the militarists launching their war on China in 1937 and then on America in 1941, things would probably have turned out very differently for China and the world at large.

The new film Midway captures a sense of this through the figure of Isoroku Yamamoto, a Japanese patriot and a great naval commander, who opposed going to war with America and insisted, in vain, against the strategists in the Army, that the only hope of prevailing in the event of such a war was to knock out the U.S. Pacific Fleet comprehensively, including its aircraft carriers and oil stocks. Failing that, he said, the war would be long and Japan would be overwhelmed. The assault on Pearl Harbor did fail to achieve those objectives, the war did become prolonged and Japan was overwhelmed, as Yamamoto had anticipated.

Had it not been for the Japanese Army’s reckless attempt to conquer the whole of China, the Communist Party might well have been snuffed out by Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1930s, or drawn into a national unity government in the manner that American special envoy George Marshall attempted to bring about between 1945 and 1947. China might have benefitted from less totalitarian government, Japanese investment and American good will. There would have been no Pacific war. There would have been no U.S. bases in East Asia and probably no North Korea.

Think of the implications of all this and consider that the Yoshida faction has its Chinese counterparts now – getting on for a century later. It declares it wants to rise peacefully, but Xi Jinping makes clear that he intends to make China the greatest economic and military power on Earth and to ease the United States out of East Asia and the Western Pacific. This rising China, under the Party, seeks quite deliberately to detach us from the alliance with the U.S. that we have had since World War II and to draw us into its own sphere of influence.

The Party claims legitimacy based on its Marxist-Leninist governance of China since 1949. One is reminded of Arthur Koestler’s reflections on Communist revolution and industrialisation in his 1940 novel, Darkness At Noon. The Old Bolshevik, Rubashov, purged for his misgivings about terror, repression and famine, ponders whether the supreme leader, “No.1”, will be judged by “that mocking oracle” History is justified in all the killing done in the name of socialism with Russian characteristics – or “socialism in one country”.

Rubashov is brought before an interrogator, Ivanov, who declares that No.1 is leading a great social experiment requiring stern measures. Millions of people die every year around the world of epidemics and natural catastrophes, he says, but no one asks why or what for.

Yet when we kill a few hundred thousand objectively harmful elements, such as allowing the rich peasants to starve to death in a once-off surgical operation for the greater good, humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth. Thus Arthur Koestler in 1940.

Chen Yi, one of the real military heroes of the Chinese civil war and Mao’s Foreign Minister between 1958 and 1972, remarked, according to historian Tang Tsou, that Stalin killed millions of people, but “that is not important”. Chen was a Chinese Ivanov.

All the same, the Party, still suppresses state records of the many millions it has killed because, at least as regards soft power, it’s not a good look to admit that you have killed such huge numbers of the people you claim to have liberated; much less that you don’t think this matters.


Let’s get perspective here. The Party under Mao caused the greatest famine mortality in recorded history between 1958 and 1962: some 35 to 45 million deaths and the same number of postponed births. It kept China poor for 30 years. Then it opted for what Bill Overholt, in the early 1990s, called the “East Asia model” of development; restructured its economic institutions and opened up to foreign investment. Which country pioneered that model? Japan under Yoshida Shigeru. When? During the very years in which the Party under Mao brutalised and impoverished China.

Once set free to grow food crops for the market, take entrepreneurial initiatives, seek new jobs and form businesses, hundreds of millions of Chinese people then lifted themselves out of poverty. First, the peasants were told that they could grow cash crops. Food supplies trebled in short order. Who was lifting whom out of poverty here?

When Deng Xiaoping decided to experiment with special economic zones to bring capital and technology into China, he reached out to survivors of the old Chinese capitalist elite, many of whom had been on pig farms during the Cultural Revolution.

He asked them to tell their diaspora relatives that China was opening for business again. Within a few years, foreign direct investment began pouring into China. Who was lifting whom out of poverty here?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries worked hard in the 1990s to draw China into the World Trade Organisation, while retaining its status as a “developing” nation, postponing the anticipated privatisation of its strategic industries and financial system, and the creation of a normal stock exchange.

The West opened its markets to China, on the assumption that, as the Chinese economy grew, it would be equally open to the West. It still has not become so. It remains overwhelmingly mercantilist. Who has been lifting whom out of poverty here?

Clearly, Deng and his advisers took important steps after Mao died and for many years the Party listened to serious experts, often foreign, learning how to create the economic institutions that facilitated the surge of growth from the 1980s on. But here’s the thing: this would almost certainly have happened had there never been a Communist revolution, since it happened right across East Asia without such revolutions, starting with Japan.

Overholt’s opinion now is that Xi Jinping and his circle have stopped listening and are suffering from growing hubris, so that the time for confidence in China’s future is over. We need to think in terms of divergent scenarios.


Liberal democracy is certainly incompatible with the Chinese tradition of centralised imperial rule and Maoist totalitarianism. But it was also incompatible with the Japanese imperial shogunate before 1868, or with Korean culture until the late 20th century. Both Japan and South Korea are now thriving democratic polities.

Taiwan is the key test case. Systematically developed by Japan between 1895 and 1945, it was taken over by the Chinese Nationalists in 1945 and ruled so badly that the Taiwanese rebelled. They were crushed by Chinese military forces, many thousands of people were executed (estimates range from 7,000 to 20,000) and martial law imposed for 40 years.

However, in the late 1980s, Chiang Ching-kuo – the son and heir of Chiang Kai-shek – opened up the political system, choosing to do what Deng Xiaoping refused to do on the mainland in those same years. Chinese culture was not the issue, nor was Leninism an insuperable obstacle.

Chiang Ching-kuo had, after all, been to Leninist training school in Moscow with Deng himself in the 1920s. What was required was political leadership and strategic choice. Those things are badly needed in China itself now. Xi Jinping is not providing them. He is taking China down an altogether different road – the one belt-one road, in fact: an authoritarian, imperialist Chinese dream.

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