Does Abbott's win matter in Beijing?

Opinion by James Leibold 

Viewed from Beijing, Australia can look both distant and diminutive. Most residents of the Chinese capital would be familiar with our daishu (‘pocket rats’, or kangaroos), and some might even recognise our former prime minister Lu Kewen (Kevin Rudd), but the list doesn’t go much further than that.

Reading the newspaper in China - credit asirap on FlickrSo it was no surprise that the change of government barely registered a mention in China. Instead, Beijing and the rest of the country remain fixated on president Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, with fallen Communist Party officials Jiang Jiemin and Bo Xilai, not Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd, the hot topics of conversation.

Take my recent exchange with a local cabbie.

‘Did you know Australia has a new prime minister?’ I asked.

‘Really? Does he speak Chinese?’ came the reply. ‘I’ve heard that your last leader could. What was his name, Lu Kewen, wasn’t it? Now he was a real “China hand” (zhongguo tong).’

‘No, he doesn’t speak Chinese. His name is Tuoni Aibote and he is the leader of the Coalition party…’

‘Your Chinese is good,’ the cabbie interrupted with a chuckle. ‘You should be the party’s leader in Australia!’

I decided against asking him which party he meant, and the conversation moved onto other matters.

Abbott's low profile in China

FORMER foreign minister Alexander Downer was fond of saying that Australia ‘punches above its weight’ on the world stage. Yet Australia is more Lilliputian than Gulliver in China, and ESPN’s basketball commentator Henry Abbott is the only Abbott of note here.

Tony Abbott’s predecessor, with his authentic-sounding Chinese name and near flawless Mandarin Chinese, was widely known. Rudd might have ruffled a few Communist Party feathers with his criticism of China’s Tibet policy and the thrust of the 2009 defence white paper, in which China was identified as a possible threat to Australian security, but ordinary Chinese citizens – and especially tech-savvy youth – roundly admired him.

In sharp contrast, Abbott’s greatest strength here might be his daughters, if recent online and media reporting is any measure of public opinion. In fact, it’s hard to find a photo of him on the Chinese internet without his daughters by his side.

Unlike Rudd, Abbott’s footprint on the Sinophone internet is miniscule. A mere 10,000 people have visited Abbott’s brief profile on Baidu Baike (a Chinese clone of Wikipedia), well short of the nearly half-a-million visits to Kevin Rudd’s detailed entry.

On China’s dominant search engine Baidu, queries for Abbott's name spiked at around 500 on the Monday following the election and have struggled since to reach even a hundred. Searches for Rudd peaked at 5000 in the lead-up to the election.

By way of contrast, Bo Xilai attracted nearly a million daily searches during his recent trial on corruption, and Barack Obama averages around 10,000 searches per day. The lack of a standard set of characters for transliterating Abbott’s name doesn’t help.

In his bid to win over the Chinese-Australian vote, as well as to build support among Chinese speakers more broadly, Kevin Rudd made aggressive use of Chinese language social media. He has over half-a-million followers on Weibo, China’s largest microblog, where in July he boasted about a thirty-minute phone conversation in Chinese with President Xi Jinping.

Rudd has also colonised a space on Weixin/WeChat, the latest social media craze, but oddly failed to register his pinyin name, www.lukewen.com, which was taken by a rogue blogger whose views of the former PM have recently plummeted from ‘China Rock Star’ to ‘a self-aggrandising bully with a foul temper’.

New government attracts optimism in China

Not that Tony Abbott needs to worry too much. Netizens and commentators alike are still trying to get a read on Australia’s new leader. The election results were duly noted in the official media but little discussed, with the scant commentary predictably focusing on the implications of an Abbott government for Australia–China relations. Here, opinion is cautiously optimistic.

Headlines highlighted Abbott’s pledge to put ‘Asia-first’, with positive coverage of his 3 September assertion that he would prioritise Australia’s regional relations and visit Asia (including China) ahead of traditional allies America and the United Kingdom. A 9 September headline on the official China News Network even claimed that the ‘Asia First’ policy helped Abbott win the election, while an opinion piece in the English-language China Daily optimistically asserted ‘we have reason to expect that Abbot [sic] will endorse a diplomatic policy that gives more gravity to enhancing ties with Asian countries in the foreseeable future’.

Outside the state-controlled media, commentators drew attention to Abbott’s ‘contradictory character’, with his single-minded focus on winning political office rendering him callous yet charming, and unyielding yet loyal. Wei Zongyou, a professor of foreign policy at Shanghai Foreign Language University, described Abbott as ‘the leader of the extremely conservative, right-wing faction of the Liberal Party’, and noted that his discussion of the ‘Anglosphere’ in his 2009 book Battlelines reflects an instinctive inclination towards American and British culture, institutions and values.

Yet Abbott is highly pragmatic, Wei and others insisted, and like his mentor John Howard he will seek to balance these values with Australia’s increasingly important economic partnership with China.

On the People’s Daily’s hawkish Strong National Forum, an anonymous blogger questioned whether the election result will help contribute to America’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia, but concluded that Australia’s deepening dependency on Asian trade is weakening its political and military alliance with the United States.

In general, few in China anticipate any radical shift in approach under an Abbott government.

Abbott's commitment to America an asset?

That said, there is a general paucity of interest in Abbott and his new government here in Beijing, especially outside foreign policy circles. Does this matter? Likely not. In fact, it might even help.

Oddly, Kevin Rudd’s China profile was more a hindrance than an asset. Domestically, his knowledge of China and Chinese language skills left him vulnerable – a nerdy show-off at best; a lurking ‘Manchurian candidate’ at worst – and in Beijing Party members certainly loathed being lectured about universal human rights in Chinese.

Few in China or Australia doubt Mr Abbott’s commitment to the American alliance and the democratic values it seeks to uphold. This could prove a trump card. Free of partisan bickering, an Abbott government might actually be in a better position to invest the substantial time and money required to realise the bipartisan roadmap for ‘Australia in the Asian Century’.

While China may know little about us, we can no longer afford to ignore China. The Australian public is woefully unprepared and underskilled for a world in which China rather than the United States might be the dominant power. If a self-confessed Anglophile can come to appreciate this fact, others are sure to follow.

First published on Inside Story on 2 October 2013. 

Dr James Leibold is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, and currently on research leave in Beijing.

Image credit: asirap on Flickr 

Find an expert

Search our experts database.