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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Honeymoon with Lu Kewen is over

August 9, 2009

Richard McGregor
The Australian
August 7, 2009

WHEN I asked a professor of international
relations at one of Beijing's top universities a
few weeks back about Australia's defence white
paper, widely touted as being anti-China, he beamed.

"Kevin is so smart!" he replied. "He knows that China will do nothing!"

The admiration for Kevin Rudd in China extends
beyond movers and shakers such as the professor,
who counts himself as a friend of the Prime
Minister. Taxi drivers, maids, journalists and
business executives all know Rudd by his Chinese
name and are gushing in admiration for China-wise skills.

The Politburo, however, is another matter. I
doubt the refrain of "Kevin is so smart!" echoes
in the corridors of the leadership compound
astride the Forbidden City, and not because the
party elite think Rudd is unintelligent.

Whatever hopes the Politburo had for Rudd, they
chilled during his first visit as Prime Minister,
largely over his comments on the uprising in Tibet.

Both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, China's President
and the Prime Minister respectively, received
Rudd's admonitions on Tibet frostily.

Even Rudd's language skills don't cut it at the
top. Rudd slipped into Chinese in meetings in
last year's China trip, often at the start, and
then towards the finish of proceedings, under the pretext that it saved time.

In a country in which a mere ni hao (hello) can
elicit gushing praise about your superb language
skills, Rudd's Chinese won no applause from his
interlocutors. Indeed, Foreign Ministry officials
expressed consternation at Rudd's use of Chinese,
insisting meetings with senior leaders should be conducted with interpreters.

That Rudd was able to deliver his carefully
couched critique of Tibet policy in Beijing in
their native tongue made it worse in many
respects. It is bad enough to criticise China in
China. To do it in Chinese makes it a more
serious offence from the leadership's
perspective, because you are speaking over them directly to the Chinese people.

More recently, the leadership and their advisers
have been annoyed Rudd didn't speak up more
clearly and forcibly during the intense debates
in Australia on Chinalco's proposed investment in Rio Tinto.

They also pressed for greater clarity from Rudd
in public about the defence white paper after the
military build-up recommended therein was reported to be directed at China.

Just when things were settling down, along came
the Stern Hu case. Beijing and Canberra have now
shouldered arms and appear to be working to
ensure that the case of the jailed Rio Tinto
executive does not poison the wider bilateral
relationship. Beijing, however, did not
appreciate the way Canberra outflanked it to
internationalise the case and make it about the
safety and security of all foreign executives, not just Australians.

That China has soured on Australia under Rudd is
shown by a recent article in the Global Times, a
Communist Party paper and a reliable benchmark of nationalistic ire.

"The China-Australia honeymoon has ended," the
paper said, referring to the latest spat, the
visit of Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer to the
Melbourne International Film Festival.

"It is dangerous and stupid behaviour to provoke
anger among the Chinese people."

So has Rudd botched the China relationship by
momentarily putting the Politburo offside? Is
Kevin not so smart when it comes to China after all? Not necessarily.

One of the most off-key assumptions by
commentators about Rudd is that simply because he
knows China and has taken the trouble to learn
its language, he is somehow captive of the ruling Communist Party.

Anyone who has had sustained contact with the
Chinese system and understands how it works is
just as likely to be extremely hard-headed in
dealing with Beijing, rather than being seduced by them.

China's efforts to expand its strategic resource
holdings, its gradual build-up of military power,
its bellicose appeals to domestic public opinion
through nationalism are all symptoms of rising powers through the ages.

China also consciously flexes its muscles with
incoming foreign governments, to ensure the
boundaries laid down under previous
administrations are not shifted by their
successors. The Howard government got off to a
rocky start with Beijing as well.

Conflict with China is inevitable under such
conditions. "We were hostage to the China problem
for a while," a Beijing-based European diplomat
told me after Stern Hu's detention. "Now it's your turn."

The tut-tutting of Foreign Ministry officials
about Rudd's use of Chinese, though, is a small
example of another, bigger phenomenon in the "new
new" China that the Prime Minister may still be adjusting to.

The 1980s, when Rudd lived in China as a
diplomat, were free-wheeling by comparison with
now. In the early days of reform, a prime
minister such as Bob Hawke could build personal
bonds with Chinese leaders that translated directly into policy initiatives.

The 21st-century Chinese Communist Party is a
much more institutionalised outfit, the sum total
of vast bureaucracy with multiple, complex
interests to be balanced. Decisions are not made
on the run on the basis of personal preferment.

In this environment, patient diplomacy and a
mutual commitment to work through the setbacks matter more than Rudd's Chinese.

The Chinese people have been very impressed by
Rudd. Hu Jintao was momentarily charmed by his
Chinese at the 2007 APEC meeting in Sydney.

Otherwise, the leadership's attitude to Australia
in recent months indicates that, quite predictably, it couldn't care less.

Richard McGregor is based in Beijing for the Financial Times.
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