That is the warning from Australian National University associate professor Jane Golley, who has studied the Asian powerhouse for 25 years.
“China is not a rising power, it’s a risen power,” said Dr Golley.
“They’ve grown strong, they’ve grown rich and they’ve done it all using their own unique approach — which is making many people increasingly uncomfortable.”
From the massively ambitious trillion-dollar “One Belt, One Road” (BRI) trade and development project (dubbed by some as the “New Silk Road”) to the proposal to scrap term limits to allow leader Xi Jinping to rule as president beyond 2023, China has certainly not been shy in showing the world what it wants to achieve and the what kind of country it aims be.
IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME
According to Dr Golley, these major developments are a show of unity behind Xi within China but, here in Australia, our view of the superpower has changed.
“We need to stop expecting China to become this neoliberal democracy, with freedom of the press and everything that goes along with our Western democratic values — they were never going to do that,” she said.
“2017 is the year where they basically said, ‘Xi Jinping is the man and he’s going to bring prosperity to China, he’s going to do it China’s way and that’s what’s going to make us strong.’”
However, she said these recent developments have not been welcomed in Australia — the previously strong relationship has been soured and politicians have “anxiety” about how they should deal with China.
Dr Golley said that in 2016 China was Australia’s “best friend in Asia”, according to a Lowy Institute poll.
“For nearly two decades, Australia has celebrated China’s rise, benefiting hugely from trade and investment — in our mining sector, but also our universities, tourism, agriculture, you name it,” she said. “And also from the diverse contributions of Chinese migrants in our vibrant multicultural population.”
However, by the end of 2017, China’s Global Times reported that “Australia was the least friendly country towards China”.
SO WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP?
There are a number of reasons that celebration of opportunity in the past shifted starkly towards “China Anxiety” in 2017, according to Dr Golley.
One of these factors is negative media coverage which, she said, has contained “far-reaching allegations about how the Chinese government is purportedly using its agents to influence Australia’s policymakers, universities and media.” And, she said the reports are often inaccurate.
However, the relationship may also have also soured due to developments across the Pacific, she said.
As trade tensions escalate between the world’s two largest economies — roiling the global markets in the past week — Dr Golley stated US President Donald Trump is putting Australia between a rock and hard place.
“I think that Trump is an even bigger threat to the global economic order as we know it than China,” she said. “His latest tariff moves may well lead to a trade war between the world’s two superpowers, and they’re unlikely to win him many friends across the globe.”
She insisted there is no “fork-in-the-road” ultimatum for Australia between China and the US.
However, she said there may have to be a “national discussion” about whether we distance ourselves from China — because of issues such as human rights — and take some economic pain on the chin, or recognise that the superpower will eventually become the most powerful country on the planet and rebuild closer ties.
However, Australia’s current “kicking and screaming” approach is not working, warns Dr Golley.
“There are so many things we are doing which are implicitly and explicitly targeting China,” she said.
“We are taking economic hits and I think we will see that even more in the next year. We can expect some economic punishment to come our way.
“They could hit our universities and turn the tap on scholarships, suddenly our student numbers plummet and then we’re in dire straights.
“There’s a trade off with all this kind of honesty and saying what you really think when you’re playing with someone who is far more important to you than you are to them.
“It doesn’t matter what numbers you look at, we’re just a bit of a midget really.”
However, ANU Department of Pacific Affairs research fellow Dr Graeme Smith said China was struggling to manage its global image given the behaviour of some of its wealthiest citizens living overseas.
“There’s been a change in the way the Chinese State sees its citizens abroad. It presents an idea that if you are a Chinese merchant in another country, the state has your back,” Dr Smith said.
“But often Chinese migrants do not embody the values of the Chinese state.
“Some traders, who are becoming very rich, are engaging in activities that would definitely not be approved by the Chinese state.”
Both Dr Golley and Dr Smith are launching a wide-reaching and influential China Story Yearbook today.
Edited by Dr Golley and produced by the Australian Centre on China in the World, the publication is an annual collection of research into key issues concerning China’s economy, law, environment, internet, medicine, religion, education, foreign affairs and culture.