Nation’s soul at stake if we stay silent on China

Nation’s soul at stake if we stay silent on China

Chris Uhlmann – Sydney Morning Herald – Wednesday 20 November

One of the defining features of Mark’s Gospel is how thick the Apostles are. From the outset of the short text, Jesus is on the road to the Cross. He bluntly tells his disciples that he is going to die and, if they choose to follow him, they will too. They don’t get it. Or, rather, they wilfully refuse to get it because this is not the glorious mission they imagined they had joined.

Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan coined a term for it: “scotosis” – an inability to learn through painful insights.

Everyone can be guilty of it; when pet theories or hopes collide with harsh reality, change can be almost physically painful. Happily, the 21st century provides myriad ways to ignore uncomfortable facts by curating your own truth.

Want to believe that Barack Obama was really born in Kenya? There are whole networks dedicated to cultivating your ignorance. Suspect that blood-drinking, flesh-eating, shape-shifting extraterrestrial reptilian humanoids walk among us with the sole aim of enslaving the human race? Then stuff The Biggest Secret in your Christmas stocking and start surfing the outer reaches of the internet.

The beauty of democracy is you still get to believe whatever rubbish takes your fancy as long as you cause no great harm.

There are alternatives. Take China. There, the Chinese Communist Party is keen to police people’s thoughts. There the uncomfortable truth of the Tiananmen Square massacre has been airbrushed from post-’89 mainland minds. And the party gets really quite cross when anyone raises it.

Frankly, there is such a long list of things the party gets cross about and then bans that it’s quite hard to keep up. And it has noticed that many people in Hong Kong and a handful of our politicians are troublesome when it comes to unfettered remembering and unhelpful questioning.

Take Andrew Hastie MP and Senator James Paterson. They have an unfortunate habit of banging on about the illegal annexation and militarisation of islets in the South China Sea. They also point to evidence of Beijing’s interference in Australia’s politics and the industrial-scale theft of intellectual property. And don’t get them started about the detention of upwards of a million Uighurs in the police state that is China’s western province of Xinjiang.

The good folks at the locally based China Matters think tank also reckon it’s unhealthy to obsess about such things and invited these two hawks to spend some time patting the pandas. So Hastie and Paterson signed up for a bit of Beijing-based exposure therapy.

Anyone but an intractable commissar would probably have spotted this as an excellent opportunity to get two pests to tone it down. But no. Both were denied visas and the Chinese embassy issued a withering statement saying the men’s observations were unwelcome, unwarranted and disrespectful. But there was a ray of hope.

“As long as the people concerned genuinely repent and redress their mistakes, view China with objectivity and reason … the door of dialogue and exchanges will always remain open.”

“Repent” is an interesting word to aim at a Christian like Hastie. He knows it’s a demand that he recant and radically recast his soul in order to win the favour of someone who casts themselves as a redeemer. Alas, in this case, it would mean signing up to a series of lies about the present and past.

Many here do. Business people, academics and former politicians can be heard parroting party propaganda about China’s 5000 unbroken years of history. That blithely ignores the Cultural Revolution, when the party sought to erase history by expunging the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.

Then there is the whole “we lifted 700 million people out of poverty” canard. That would be after the party abandoned its catastrophic reorganisation of society under the Great Leap Forward that led to 36 million deaths.

It is one thing for Beijing to spout propaganda; it is entirely another to rebroadcast it here and label everyone who doesn’t toe the party line recalcitrant or hysterical.

This is no trivial matter. We are bartering for our soul: the right to continue as an imperfect sovereign democracy or to enter the land of the great forgetting and silence that the party demands.

It would be so easy to repent and go quietly. But that would shout our consent to a party that will, inevitably, use all the tools of modern technology to forge and spread a nasty totalitarian surveillance state.

Near the end of Mark’s Gospel there is a passage where the book once abruptly finished before, centuries later, a dissatisfied monk decided to add a couple of sunnier verses. The original ending was desolate but shone a light on human frailty. It spoke of the moral weakness of the disciples after they had born witness to the resurrection: “And they said nothing to a soul, because they were afraid.”

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