Friday, July 17, 2009

Cutting Through The “Noise”

Aside from the federal opposition and one or two cranky talkback radio presenters, nobody seriously expects that the dilemma of the detained Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu will be resolved by the act of Kevin Rudd picking up the phone and expressing his concern directly to the Chinese President Hu Jintao. Many people, who no doubt feel outraged by the apparent lack of procedural fairness, would derive some sort of sense of satisfaction from a round of chest thumping regardless of the simple fact that it is precisely the wrong thing to do.

Former federal leaders from both sides of the political fence, as well as foreign affairs experts, and a good number of rational commentators, have all expressed the opinion that the best way to deal with the matter is through private discussions behind the scenes. Even if the Prime Minister did telephone the President, it might be better if he did so without making a public announcement. But even simply making such a phone call is itself counter productive.

It would seem that the rowdy criticism from the opposition and some sectors of the media may have sufficiently needled the Prime Minister into publicly making the observation on Wednesday that China should be aware that the eyes of the world are upon it and that there could be economic consequences for its actions. It was the wrong thing for the Prime Minister to say publicly, and that was demonstrated by what appears to have been the response from China, which saw a relatively junior official Qin Gang describing Australian concerns as nothing more than “noise”.

Further to that, Qin Gang said “this is an interference in China’s judicial sovereignty”, and warned that any such expression of concern is “not in the interests of the Australian side”, and that it “cannot change the objective facts nor can it have influence on the relevant Chinese authorities”. This response illustrates perfectly why the so-called “megaphone diplomacy” approach cannot work. The more criticism there is of China, the less likely it is that they will arrive at any outcome which would appear as if they have given in to pressure from Australia, or anyone else for that matter. Despite the reaction from some that Qin Gang was belittling Australia’s concerns, what he was actually doing was politely ignoring inappropriate public remarks by claiming not to have heard anything other than “noise”.

Of course, media commentators and talkback callers are free to make as much “noise” as they like. This is Australia and here we practice freedom of speech, something which is a troublesome concept for China. Far from being an interference in the judicial sovereignty of China, it is simply the expression of our own sovereignty and our right to dissent. Australians have no illusions about the fact that China views human rights and the rule of law very differently to the way we do. The difficulty is that our politicians and our diplomats must respect the Chinese way, while not abandoning our own principles, if a suitable result is to be achieved.

In that regard, Malcolm Turnbull is cheapening himself by attempting to score political points out of the situation rather than acting in the best interests of a successful resolution. He is drumming up a populist wave of resentment against the Chinese at the same time as attempting to depict the Prime Minister as failing to act. In doing so, he seems to be having a bet each way, on the one hand decrying the “humiliating spectacle of a very junior public affairs official ... chastising Australia for daring to express concern about one of its citizens being detained in China”, and on the other hand criticising Kevin Rudd for not being “prepared to pick up the phone”, claiming that "It creates the impression that the Government is unconcerned."

How can a government be both “concerned” and “unconcerned” at the same time? Perhaps the “noise” that Qin Gang was talking about referred to the remarks from Malcolm Turnbull and not the Prime Minister.

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