Clive Hamilton on China: Why is the ‘anti-racist left’ siding with the persecutors?

Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg argue that 'race-reductionism' should not be used to assess the significance of China's rise.

In light of the growing debate over how to understand the rise of China and its implications for Australia, Green Left is hosting a debate on this important issue. We initiated this discussion after receiving responses (here and here) to a Socialist Alliance resolution on this topic. Below, we are publishing a piece submitted by Clive Hamilton and will be posting responses in coming days.

The views expressed in these articles are the author’s own and do not reflect those of GL. If you would like to make a submission contact us at editor@greenleft.org.au.

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The Black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr argues that using the lens of race to interpret political and economic divisions obscures inequalities due to class. In the China debate, the totalising category of race — used by left commentators like Gerald Roche and David Brophy — obliterates the wide political, economic, cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences within the diasporic community in Australia.

Those who interpret the China question, including the question of Chinese state interference in Australia, as a question of race are like the man with a hammer who, wherever he looks, can see only nails.

Of course, race-reductionist politics is also used by the right. When in 1997 Pauline Hanson accused Aboriginal people of getting more than their fair share of welfare and public spending, she was using the lens of race to obscure the actual sources of disadvantage. (A detailed study I commissioned in 1999 showed that, allowing for those actual forms of disadvantage in housing, health and so on, Indigenous people were not receiving more than their fair share.)

While some like Brophy and Roche direct their race-reductionist attacks at white critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they are silent on the Chinese-heritage critics of the party.

Many came to Australia, or remained after 1989, to escape the repressive clutches of the CCP regime. My own research into CCP interference would have been impossible without their help. And anti-CCP sentiment in the diaspora (as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland) explains why my books have been translated and published in Chinese.

The CCP has for decades been telling the Chinese people that the party and the people are one and indivisible; but non-dogmatic people on the left should never fall for that kind of ethno-nationalist politics. The accusation of racism is a weapon used to silence critics of the CCP, including Chinese-Australian critics of the CCP who are attacked as traitors and called un-Chinese.

Roche has claimed that in Australia an “anti-anti-racist club” is responsible for a wave of street attacks on people of Asian appearance. This club is a “cynical coalition of nationalists, populists, and right-wing pundits” that uses “buckshot racism” to harm Asians.

Apart from the fact that the attacks were triggered largely by COVID-19, students of the debate over CCP influence in Australia will know that it was initiated in 2016–2017 by leading Sinologists (such as John Fitzgerald and James Leibold) and journalists (such as Philip Wen and John Garnaut), all of whom have broadly progressive politics and deep connections with the Chinese community.

Since Xi Jinping took over the leadership in 2012, China has become a corporate-state economic system under centralised control, one ruled by a single party that ruthlessly suppresses all dissenting opinion, cracks down on worker protests, operates a highly sophisticated censorship and propaganda apparatus, and oversees an Orwellian surveillance system.

It is a state that pays homage to a supreme leader with his own ideology, “Xi Jinping Thought”, and around whom a cult of personality has been constructed. The CCP has cultivated a fervent nationalism built on ethnic superiority and resentment over historical humiliation. It engages in military adventurism and menaces China’s neighbours.

There is a word for that kind of regime — fascist. Yet a faction on the left, presumably beguiled by the misleading name of the governing party or perhaps still in thrall to a romantic Maoism, either actively defends the party-state or, like Roche and Brophy, devotes its energies to attacking its critics under cover of anti-racism.

Critics of the CCP are often challenged with the refrain: “But what about the United States?” Whataboutism is not an argument; it’s a way of sowing confusion.

We can have a discussion about the appalling history of US foreign interventions — not least the catastrophic Iraq War — at another time.

But here we are talking about the crimes of the CCP — the jailing of dissidents, the torture, the genocidal treatment of Uyghurs, the suppression of Tibetans, the destruction of democratic rights in Hong Kong. And the campaign by the party to extend its sinister influence into countries around the world, especially through the diaspora, documented in great detail in my books and several others.

It’s perverse to suggest that US atrocities somehow cancel out those of Beijing.

For any person of good conscience, there is a simple moral clarity in all this that no amount of whataboutism or race-reductionism should obscure. China under the CCP is a vicious totalitarian state that must be exposed and resisted. We have an obligation to support and provide succour to the victims of the regime. Putting the victims of oppression before ideological purity should always be the instinct of the left.

Many on the left blinded themselves to the true nature of Stalin’s regime, even after Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 to crush the workers’ rebellion. Those in the West who remained loyal to Stalinism became known as “tankies”.

After People's Liberation Army tanks crushed hundreds of protesting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, it is fitting that the same epithet is now being applied to those who continue to support the new fascism in China by attempting to silence its critics.

On the other hand, more and more people on the left have been discarding their romantic Maoism, rejecting race-reductionist politics and seeing clearly the threat posed by the CCP regime to the basic principles that progressives have always defended.

[Clive Hamilton is the author of Silent Invasion: The Influence of China in Australia and co-author with Mareike Ohlberg of Hidden Hand.]

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