As December draws near, thoughts turn to annual anniversaries and remembrances. This
December marks the 51st anniversary of one of the more bizarre events in Australia's political
history. On December 17, 1967, then prime minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming at
Portsea beach. He was alone at the time and the surf was rough. He was a good swimmer and
was familiar with conditions in the area. His body has never been found.
To lose even one prime minister like this would be considered by Oscar Wilde as carelessness.
Many theories were advanced, but the wackiest of all gained some traction in the media.
Australia was deeply involved in the disastrous Vietnam War, justifified to prevent "dominos"
falling to Chinese communism in East Asia. It was asserted that Holt may have been taken by a
Chinese submarine. Many years later this idiocy was still being repeated.
When China was supposed to have sent a submarine all the way to Portsea to pinch the serving
Australian prime minister, it was embarking on the destructive Cultural Revolution.
Domestically absorbed by internal political struggles within the Communist Party and externally
in grave fear of the Soviet Union.
In those days, China probably did not even have one functional submarine. If it did, it would have
been incapable of such a long cruise. False news was not invented with Donald Trump. The
Australian media has form in whipping up sensational stories that serve a larger purpose
Last week, Professor James Laurenceson of UTS' Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI)
published a detailed and considered study probing Australia's latest bout of China Fear. The
report, Do the Claims Stack Up, Australia Talks China, looks forensically at the evidence to
support claims of China's purported growing inflfluence over Australian politics and universities,
the Chinese diaspora as agents of the Chinese Communist Party, China's attempts to undermine
Australia's security and even the balance achieved in the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement.
After carefully weighing the evidence, Professor Laurenceson concludes that, "in each case, the
evidence base is shown to be divorced from the claims found in headlines, news reports and
opinion pieces, revealing just how widespread has become the discourse of China Threat, China
Angst and China Panic".
The study is a welcome attempt to ground Australia's China debate in facts. For too long in this
discussion, self-aggrandising academics and think-tank commentators, journalists and
politicians have been whipping up a climate of fear around China without serious challenge.
Unfortunately, this has unsettled community relations with many of Australia's large ethnic
Chinese population and potential Chinese investors in Australia beginning to wonder if they are
still welcome in Australia's multicultural society.
Out of context
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull took this to a new low when he said during the
Bennelong election campaign last year, paraphrasing in Chinese a statement reputedly
attributed to Mao Zedong, that "Australian people have stood up" against Chinese interference in
Australian domestic politics.
Mao was supposedly to have said this in the context of the Chinese people having regained their
sovereignty after two centuries of foreign occupation of Chinese sovereign territory. The
proposed anti-foreign interference law was of course for all countries, not just China, but
Turnbull framed it as being entirely about China. It was the crudest of dog whistles. It was a
major factor in Beijing's decision to put its relations with Australia into the cold room and which
continues until now.
Turnbull and more recently his successor have attempted to fifix the damage with two important
speeches in recent months on how Australia views the relationship. While acknowledging our
substantial differences over issues of political and social organisation, human rights and a free
media, they have chosen to stress our shared interests at many levels and have spoken of seeking
a constructive and co-operative relationship. They have returned the discourse to where it had
been under successive governments, both Labor and Liberal.
These speeches have disappointed the China Fear industry as will ACRI's latest report. ACRI has
made a valuable contribution but it is likely to be met by those with an interest in promoting
China Fear with innuendo and disdain, even while acknowledging claims made about the China
ACRI was established with the fifinancial assistance of one of only two Chinese residents in
Australia, about whom it has been asserted, without evidence, are in some way agents of the
Chinese Communist Party. One of these is an Australian citizen of 20 years. Its founding
professor, former foreign minister Bob Carr, is also said by some to be too accommodating of
China's authoritarian regime.
China Fear is occurring in many western democracies and there can be no doubt the Chinese
state seeks to interfere and inflfluence politics and business by whatever means, old and new,
including cyber. But many other states do so too and, as we have seen most recently in the
Wentworth byelection, none more so and more effectively than Israel.
But in Australia, China Fear has been more virulent than anywhere else. It is not that China has
been any more aggressive towards Australia, though some would like to think that we are
important enough to have been singled out for special treatment, than in other countries.
In Australia our politicians and some sections of the media have not attempted to provide
context and a sense of proportionality to the challenges.
In particular, they have not sought to reaffifirm and reassure Australians as to the strength and
resilience of Australia's institutions – the Parliament, judiciary and free media – in the face of
challenges from any quarter. But if you can believe that a Chinese submarine stole an Australian
prime minister 51 years ago, you can believe anything.
Geoff Raby is chairman of Geoff Raby and Associates and is a former ambassador to China.