Richard McGregor is an internationally recognized expert on the Chinese political system and a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.

McGregor’s book, The Party, on the inner-workings of the Chinese Communist Party is considered the pre-eminent text for understanding the CCP and was called a “masterpiece” by The Economist and a must read” by the Washington Post.

A former Bureau Chief for the Financial Times in Beijing and Washington D.C., Richard has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. He is also a regular commentator on the ABC, CNBC and Bloomberg TV.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about the COVID-19 crisis and what this means for the world, including the escalated US-China rivalry and who is winning, how Xi Jinping is using the crisis to his advantage, how fake news is making the problems worse in the west, how democracies are struggling under the weight of the challenge and losing soft power, the pivotal battle underway in the pacific and why its critical we engage the Chinese diaspora in western values.

Episode Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Welcome to Diplomates I’m your host, Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Richard McGregor. Richard, are you there?

Richard McGregor:

I’m here. Thanks for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Thanks for joining us. Of course, we’re doing this live from both of our socially distant bunkers, vice the beauty of Skype, which everyone’s now very acquainted with over the last couple of weeks working from home, those who are. But thanks for joining us and obviously your expertise is in foreign policy and in particular the Chinese communist party. But given we had been talking about all things COVID, I thought an interesting place to start. You’re an expert in the CCP and you’ve written a book about the workings of the party. What does the handling of the virus tell us about the way the party does or does not function? And how did that impact on the, I suppose early stages of the outbreak in the Wuhan province.

Richard McGregor:

Well let me start at what might sound like an old place. But there’s a phrase in the US politics, it’s called the permanent campaign and that comes from the late 60s when politics basically got out of the old ways and old boroughs and things like that. Got into the hands of professionals and politics became a permanent occupation. Parties were running for election permanently in many respects. And I think that’s a good way to explain how the communist party in China works. And it’s one reason by the way, that why Western countries struggle to keep up with it. They are like a political organization running for election 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. And so they’ve got remarkable skills and faults. We’ll come back to that as a result of that. So look at the COVID crisis is a bit of a classic case.

Richard McGregor:

The start of this, China mishandled it, however you want to put it. They lied. It was the virus in its early stage was covered up. This is not just Western propaganda, it’s all on the record in China. The outbreak and the spread of the virus would not have been nearly as bad in China and then to the rest of the world if it hadn’t been covered up in Wuhan initially. But look what happened, once they acknowledged it. They basically locked down first a city of 11 million people, Wuhan. Then they locked down a province of about 50 million people in Hubei. And after that they locked down the country.

Richard McGregor:

One of the funny things about this is, we’ve all come to know a lot of epidemiologists on TV and radio and the like, and they’ve become household names and none of them said, quarantining the source of the disease is basically a textbook way to handle it. But I guess, the textbook didn’t quite envisage quarantining about 760 million people, which was probably had the idea of a medieval village in France, but the CCP had the capacity to do it.

 

 

Richard McGregor:

Because they don’t just have a strong central government when they get their act together, they were able to exercise their power right down to every neighborhood committee and street and keep people indoors. So that’s state in genuine power state capacity. The second point on this is look how quickly they’re able to turn on a dime. We can come back to the issue about whether the latest Chinese figures are right on that, but once the Chinese got the spread of the disease under control and there were much fewer new infections.

Richard McGregor:

It is just amazing to me how quickly they turned on a dime and then their focus was outward propaganda. In other words, we want to tell the world not how we covered up the virus, but how we beat the virus. And we are now in this process now where China is running an incredible global campaign as a good global citizen to underpin public health. And you can only do that if you’ve got a political organization which is both top-heavy but flexible and fleet of foot, not bound by any law, can turn on a dime and that’s what we’re witnessing at the moment. So that’s what I mean by the sort of the permanent campaign.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Now that’s actually a perfect way to turn to I suppose the war within the war. I mean, we’ve got the war against the virus itself, but there’s this I suppose the contest that’s underway and it’s perhaps another front for a contest that’s already been underway between the United States and China. Do you think that this is going to be a decisive battle between the U.S and China or is this just a skirmish of a broader play? Because there’s a real big focus now in the United States about blaming China, then China is now of course putting out misinformation suggesting that the disease came from the United States military. How do you see that war within the war at the moment between two superpowers?

Richard McGregor:

Now I think just about everything is a contest between the U.S and China in many respects. There’s very little cooperation at all and it’s not just a contest between two countries, it’s a contest between two systems. Because China benchmarks itself against democracies, for its own citizens it demonizes democratic system. What’s the most important democratic system in the world? And that’s the United States which sadly at the moment it’s doing very poorly in handling this crisis. Now, as you and I know there’s many different democracies and there’s many different types of democracies.

Richard McGregor:

And many democracies in the world Taiwan, South Korea, Japan to some extent, Singapore, which we might call a guided democracy. Maybe Australia we’ll see how we go there have handled this crisis in a very different fashion and relatively speaking, touch wood successfully. Not the U.S though, so China is focused on the U.S. Both sides have stepped back a little from the rhetorical war, but it was only about two weeks ago that an official Chinese foreign ministry spokesman as you alluded to, started tweeting out that this virus had probably not originated in China but it had probably been bought to China by a U.S military serviceman, a woman actually.

Richard McGregor:

There’s no basis to this, it’s the product of fettered conspiracy sites, one in Canada, some in America, all around the world. And this was quite a remarkable thing for the foreign ministry to do. Now I think there’s been a split in China within the foreign ministry over these tactics. But nonetheless, the fact that an official foreign ministry spokesman was authorized to do this tells you that the system in China is hardening up against the U.S. They wouldn’t have done this 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have done it five years ago but they are feeling pretty confident now and pretty involved in and pretty assertive and aggressive all under Xi Jinping. And so they are willing to take on the U.S in any form possible and that includes spreading fake news almost from the very top of the system.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I’m curious just to dig into that about this total campaign or this information war by China and the Chinese Communist Party. I mean, one of the things that I think the difficulty there is that the system tended to reward, or at least at the beginning was that misinformation or managing perceptions rather than truth. Where people in Wuhan doctors were arrested and journalists were arrested for reporting on it almost at the beginning for political reasons. I mean, is it possible do you think that China is going to be able to position itself as a savior globally, and can we really believe the narratives of the infection rates, the mortality rates out of China? And is that something that’s going to be effective for them?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah. Well the jury is still out on that. I would say not completely effective, but there might… I’d say two things. It might be more effective than we think or would like, and remember all this propaganda is also internally directed to the Chinese people themselves. The Chinese people have just gone through an absolutely brutal experience with a really tough quarantine. You think of yourself how much you might be sort of champing at the bit at the moment, after a few weeks-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I’m climbing the walls here mate.

Richard McGregor:

Well, right. You think of Wuhan you weren’t allowed out at all, if you were you were severely punished, people were dying all around you and like. So there’s been a lot of civil unrest in China since then at various different places, you can see it on the internet. They were for example, outside the provincial headquarters, sorry the city headquarters of party organization this week. There was a massive protest calling for rent relief, something that people in Australia are going to be sort of angst that they will be very familiar with very soon. So going back to the start as you alluded in Wuhan and the origins of this and whether that really undermines China’s claims to soft power.

Richard McGregor:

I mean, I think it does overseas but let’s see how it plays out. For example I think one of the major battlegrounds right now is Europe. We’ve got terrible situations in Spain and Italy to France and also the UK, and China has been making extremely high profile air lifts of masks and protective equipment and gowns and that sort of thing for the use of medical professionals. And this has really caused quite a stir. If you look at Macron, president Macron from France recently he’s had to make very statement saying well, “Look, we’ve given as much to other countries in Europe as China has, stop this propaganda.”

Richard McGregor:

So it might work in a superficial way at the start, but I think it really alerts the leaders of other country like Macron who’s been thinking deeply about China. That they’ve really got to wake up to themselves and just see the attention and focus of what China is doing and they have to respond. We’ve been through this same debate in Australia, so the coronavirus has been important in that respect. I should say one other thing though, that on the figures you mentioned. Look, the quarantine was brutal in China but there’s no doubt it worked to a degree. Now, is it true, as they were saying a week or two ago that there were no new cases in China? Obviously that’s not true.

Richard McGregor:

Is it true that the death rate in Wuhan was as low as they suggested a few thousand? I think there’s no doubt that under counts the death rate. But having said that, I treat the Chinese figures to a degree like I treat Chinese GDP figures. They’re not right to the decimal point, but they’re broadly right as to the trends because I think with the virus, it’s something you simply you can’t sort of cover up for good. And another way of judging it is an old thing with China, don’t watch what they say, watch what they do. Now Xi Jinping has been out and about, he was into Zhejiang yesterday the province near Shanghai. He’s been to Wuhan. There’s no way they would put Xi Jinping out in public unless they were pretty confident that they’d made massive progress in containing the virus.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. So just turning to Xi Jinping, your essay recently the backlash essay, you’ve written that Xi was under pressure internally and that perhaps China isn’t an unstoppable monolith that we sometimes perceive it to be. What to your knowledge has been the response in China by Chinese people? Are they buying the narrative from the government that things have been well handled by the Chinese Communist Party? And is this information war, you mentioned some of it’s being projected externally for soft power reasons to manipulate the global narrative, but a lot of it is for the domestic audience. How much is that of confidence as how much is that of fear in your mind?

Richard McGregor:

Yes, that’s a very good question and hard to be definitive in answering it. Before the coronavirus I had a very simple crude rule of thumb and emphasis on crude, and that was that the people, the citizenry liked Xi Jinping, the elite disliked him. Now why would I say that? Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is highly popular amongst people because that’s something that people have been angry about in China for a long time. Saying public officials get rich at their expense so bringing these people down works for him. The elite it’s a bit different. There’s a lot of criticism of him for his management of the economy, favoring the state over the private sector.

Richard McGregor:

You obviously upset a lot of powerful people with an anti-corruption campaign. Most of all I think the elite technocrats are absolutely furious with him about making himself president or leader in perpetuity, that was really the turning point. I don’t see at the moment, there’s no way at the moment Xi Jinping has his hands firmly on the levers of a power in every sector, nobody’s going to knock him off or anything that. It’s very hard to mobilize even elite opinion against him because you can’t. If you form a group to criticize him or a ginger group against him you’ll be shut down, you might be arrested and the like. Look at what’s happened in recent weeks after Wuhan.

Richard McGregor:

In the initial stages of the virus in Wuhan, we had an extraordinary display of public opinion on the internet criticizing the government, mourning the death of doctors who tried to speak out and like. Citizen journalists going around giving us fresh reports daily about what was happening on the ground. Well, that’s all stopped. The system’s got his act together, those citizen journalists are basically in detention. Other people who criticize Xi recently, most famously a big time Beijing property developer who was always a bit of a rat bag commentator but he was well-connected. He’s been detained.

Richard McGregor:

So anytime there’s any outbreak of criticism against Xi before it can take grip, before it can gain an audience at the top, before it can embolden people, he shuts it down and that’s what’s happening now. Whether the impact on Chinese people, people in China haven’t gone through a deep recession before, they probably about to go through one now. So we’ll see. The system will be tested but the propaganda system will also be working over time to convince people that they did the right thing with a lockdown. China did better than other countries, particularly America and they should stick with Xi and they should stick with the CCP.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah, that’s interesting. You sort of touched earlier on the contest between systems and that’s very much evident now. I mean, it was emerging before, but we’ve now got a full blown struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And we talked about the limitations around why the authoritarian regime might’ve led to a cover up at the beginning, but the ability to turn on a dime as you said. I mean, what is the response to the crisis tell us about democracies struggling to get the balance right between I suppose, the repression of people and rights of individuals and the suppression of the illness?

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And the other thing I think is perhaps troubling people that are in favor of democracies as I am. When you look at the United States response to some other democracies in Europe, basic competence appears to be in question here. I mean when you look at the United States, a lot of their soft power came from being the country that put the man on the moon and being the global leader. They’re certainly not stepping up in a global leadership capacity, but also in basic competence capacity there’s certain question marks there.

Richard McGregor:

Well that’s right. When you let the state wither, and when you attack the state for decades, and when you load them up with all sorts of things that the bureaucracy in America is loaded up with by Congress, you undermine the effectiveness of the state. Whatever you say about China, they’ve got enormous state capacity. They can mobilize resources, they can mobilize people, they have a extraordinary ability, logistical ability to get suppliers here or there. That sort of thing has been corroded over many years in the U.S. We could go on about that about that tribal political culture. You’ve seen a bit of sclerotic democracies in Europe as well struggling at the same time.

Richard McGregor:

And this is all grist for the Chinese mill. I mean, the context for the Chinese is, the turning point of the Chinese confidence in their system compared to America was obviously first of all in the global financial crisis in 2008. The Americans had been coming over and lecturing the Chinese about how to run a modern financial system and the like. Then of course, we had the GFC and the Chinese saw okay, thanks America no more lectures from you on how to run banks and the like, we’ll do that ourselves. After that, that was the start of Chinese hubris after that under Obama and American made a bit of a comeback. You can criticize Obama, but the economy did start to recover and that Chinese notice that.

Richard McGregor:

I think this second point of Chinese hubris was the election of Donald Trump. The Chinese have always said we’re meritocracy and look you’ve just selected as your new president, a real estate celebrity developer from New York. So thanks very much, we’ll stick with our meritocracy. Now, I think that came off again because Trump in his initial stages really destabilize the Chinese, they didn’t know how to handle him. I think they got a better grip on him as of about last year. But now I think we’re getting maybe to a third point of Chinese hubris. In other words, if America really suffers and it looks they’re going to from this virus, both economically, societally and the like.

Richard McGregor:

All the holes in the health system, all the impact on poor people and the like in U.S. The way that the rich will be able to protect themselves in the U.S and poor people won’t. Well, that’s going to be another high point of Chinese hubris and this is at a time when compared to 2008, they’re a really powerful country. Their economy 2/3 the size America’s, their military I think they’ve got a bigger Navy these days than America’s, untested obviously. So we’re getting to a point where China will feel even more assertive and they’ll feel their able to be more assertive because the U.S more so than in 2008, will be really turning inward angrily. We hope not, but that’s the direction it’s heading in.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And so just turning to you mentioned I suppose, China in the context of its military and forward projecting foreign policy. How worried should we be about the Pacific during the pandemic? I mean every country at the moment is grappling with the COVID-19 outbreak. We’ve gone through a big focus where we’ve done the Pacific step up because we took the view, we’d taken our eyes off the prize with our Pacific partners. And China had been doing a lot of soft power, a lot of debt diplomacy through it’s a belt and road initiative there. I mean, how worried are we generally right now about the Pacific? And should we be more worried about China’s activities there during the COVID-19 situation?

Richard McGregor:

Well, I think we’re worried about it. To be fair we are focused on it, whether we’ve got the capacity to remain competitive it remains to be seen. But let me give you one story. About three weeks ago I was actually in Papua New Guinea giving talks on China and the like and this was just when the situation was starting to turn in China, in other words they thought they were getting on top of the virus. And at that point the Chinese convened a teleconference with the entire cabinet of P and G and I think the Solomon Islands, to give them a talk about how to handle COVID-19. And I thought that was just remarkable. They were so fast, they’d barely drawn breath from battling back the virus and they’re on the front foot in this propaganda campaign.

Richard McGregor:

And it was obviously a global campaign because the Pacific Islands are important, but they’re not the biggest front for China’s global push. And there they were convening the entire cabinet and the Solomon Islands to in an exercise of what we might call soft power, teaching them about the virus. Now since then, for example Solomon Islands tests for the virus where were having to be sent to Australia. The Chinese said, “Oh, we’ll come and do them for you.” As a response to that, Australia has actually sent the Solomons their own test kits so that they can be done there. So, yeah there’s definitely a contest going on. In Port Moresby you can see Chinese construction sites everywhere, that they look just the construction sites I used to see Beijing.

Richard McGregor:

For good reason they’ve got the exact same signs outside them, the same companies, the same sort of safety signs in Chinese and bad English. And of course, Chinese workers were drawn and imported at the expense of the locals. I asked many of the Papua New Guinea friends up there why do you allow this? What about you’ve got massive underemployment in your country. And they said that well, the Chinese just insisted on it. So yeah, it’s a big contest in the Pacific and fundamental one for Australia. I think the federal government has done the right thing to focus on it. The problem with Australia I think often is we have excellent well-meaning policies, but then the execution falls away. And China isn’t going away from the Pacific so we’ve got to stick with it for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

No I think it’s absolutely critical, it’s one area hopefully that there’s bipartisan support. I mean the Pacific essentially is Australia’s geopolitical neighborhood so it’s something that we need to keep an eye on. I’m curious about your take on criticism of the CCP regime by those in the West. Clearly at the moment Donald Trump for the reasons we’ve already discussed, that Macron story but also he’s domestic political reasons he’s been calling COVID-19 coronavirus and calling it the China virus. I mean, where do you see the differences between criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, China as a nation state? What’s fair and what delves into racism? Because often you have a situation where the regime, the CCP very quickly come out and say any criticism amounts to racism. Which is clearly untrue, but where is the line there and how do we manage that when we’re looking at both our domestic politics but also geopolitically in this contest between democracy and autocracy?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, it’s a bloody hard question. In Australia, we have a very sort of racist history in Australia at the gimps, that’s obvious to anybody. We had an anti color bar in immigration till about ’65 or ’73 or however you decide to define it. Since then I think we’ve opened up remarkably and I’m sort of a glass half full on all this, but we’re being tested right now. I guess there’s two things to mention here. It’s very painful to see all the headlines in papers in Australia now about Chinese profiteers on masks and this, that and the other as though the only carpetbaggers in the world are Chinese and not of any other race or color.

Richard McGregor:

I have some sympathy for the Chinese companies in Australia, which sort of bought up all the masks and the PPE equipment in January and sent to China. Well, there was an emergency then, they’re now bringing it back here. I don’t know whether they’re price gouging or not, and if they are price gouging then something should be done about them. But it’s just seems a really easy, cheap, free kick in the tabloid and newspapers and maybe sort of you know prodded on from his sick bed by Peter Dutton. And I think we have to be really careful about that because we end up with people of Asian descent no matter where they’re from, being screamed at on the streets and the like and that’s bad all round.

Richard McGregor:

On the issue of the so called China virus, Chinese virus or Wuhan virus now look, I would never call it that and I don’t know whether it’s racist on not I mean. But I’m a little bit reluctant to allow the Chinese to play the victim card on this account. We have Japanese encephalitis, that’s what it’s called in Chinese newspapers. We had the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, We had Spanish flu, which by the way started in Kansas in America, not in Spain.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It is that right? That’s interesting.

Richard McGregor:

Yes it is. It was only sort of came up and was reported in Spain. But the WHO I think because the Japanese complained about Japanese encephalitis I think tried to encourage people as of a few years ago, not to attach geographical names to diseases and fair enough. I think. But it is funny or interesting I should say, not funny. If you look at Chinese papers from say five weeks ago The Global Times, some of the headlines there talked about the Wuhan virus. And guess what? They’ve gone back in recent weeks and changed the headlines on the online stories and they are no longer calling it the Wuhan virus.

Richard McGregor:

But personally, we should speak truthfully don’t shy away from the fact about where this started and the problems of the initial cover up. That’s all fair game, but trying to use this as some sort of political cajole as U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did recently at the G7 meeting. He wouldn’t agree to a communique until the word Wuhan virus was in there and of course there wasn’t a communique as a result. I think that’s pointless and not the main game and unnecessarily stigmatizing.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I mean, one of the things I think we’re grappling with here. I mean, traditionally people sending I suppose goods back to their homeland probably not an uncommon event in Australia’s history. The difference I suppose here is we’ve never had a situation where we’ve had an authoritarian regime which seeks to control its diaspora in other nations. So I mean, I’ll be curious to get your take on how worried we should be by CCP interference in Australia’s institutions, the United Works Front Department which is the propaganda wing of the CCP. How worried should we be about that when you’ve got former ASIO head saying look, “Essentially we’re being overwhelmed.” I mean, how concerned are you about things that? And then how do they play into things where you have seemingly China on a global scale, not just from Australia using its it’s diaspora networks to essentially source goods from beneath the nation states.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well once again, it’s a really difficult issue. On the issue of diaspora network sourcing goods, sometimes that can be great for trade. I mean, people have complained, I’m sitting in Sydney as I talk to you and Michelle and I listened to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley in the morning, the shock jocks, and they’re often complaining about the so called diagos the people who grab milk powder off the shelves here and send it back to China knowing that they’re getting a higher price. Now that’s no good price gouging but the other way of looking at it, these people have established what could be a lucrative trade for Australia.

Richard McGregor:

So instead of sort of demonizing why don’t we take them over? Why don’t we use it? Why don’t we make ourselves a base for which the Chinese would be dependent on to buy these things? So I kind of think in some respects we approach it the wrong way. Now onto your bigger point of how we handle the diaspora issue, it’s a really difficult issue. A lot of Chinese in Australia feel singled out over a lot of heavy press reporting in recent years about overseas Chinese and infiltrating the Labor Party and the Liberal Party of course.

Richard McGregor:

And not being loyal to Australia and that’s extremely hurtful thing to be told. But the truth is the problem starts in many respects in China, in the CCP with Xi Jinping because they’re very experienced at this kind of work. Saying that to these people your Chinese, your first loyalty should be to China. So how do we respond to that? It muddies the waters, it makes it very difficult for Australian institutions to manage when the CCP is quite openly targeting these people to support China. So it’s a day to day proposition and a very hard one to get right on every single day.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

The other difficulty of course is essentially the CCP has been very good at infiltrating all the I suppose the ethnic groups, the Chinese ethnic groups and taking control of those institutions. I mean, how do we push back on the independence of those institutions including things the Chinese language media in Australia, which a lot of it is a mouthpiece straight from the party? How do you see that challenge?

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well the Chinese community in Australia is actually extremely diverse, some have been here for decades. The 70s we got a lot of people after the Beijing crackdown in 1989, we’ve had waves in more recent years. We’ve got rich people, we’ve got poor people, a lot of the Chinese middle class as well, very varied. A lot of the evangelical Christians and the like. So it’s a diverse community but as you say, the community groups which represent them and the newspapers which speak to them are not diverse. They are almost entirely pro PRC and the newspapers in fact basically censor themselves along PRC lines. Now, I want to make an important distinction here. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of China’s success since 1980, that’s quite natural.

Richard McGregor:

That doesn’t make you a CCP student and we’ve got to be careful about that. But nonetheless as you say, the control of the key groups or the mollifying of them if you like, is really striking. So we’ve got to be very aware of that. Where it’s a problem, we’ve got to be very open about it, sunlight helps. Everybody needs to understand how the Chinese political system works so we can get a bit of, a hate to say this, nuance into the debate. We can make judgments about whether something is in the interests of Australia and whether it’s not. But don’t target the entire community with a single brush because the community is diverse and we would like them to stay diverse in both their political opinion, especially I would say in the political outlook.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I think that’s a really critical point. I mean, I think one of the mistakes we make in the debate is treating “the Chinese community” as a monolithic group. So I think it is very important, but it is also kind of that challenge between that pointy end that seems to be controlled by the CCP and how we navigate around that. The other question I want to ask you and sort of going back to some of the things we were talking about earlier relating to a repression and use of information in this total campaigning both globally and domestically. How do you see technology now seemingly… Once upon a time we thought technology and information was going to favor democracies. Now it seems democracy is being overrun now by misinformation, challenging of sources, impossibility of working out what truth is. The Chinese are very good at it, the Russians are excellent at it. I mean, how do you see that challenge and how do democracies push back against that?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, very good question because you can make sure that the Chinese are pushing on all fronts. They’ve got their domestic internet locked down. They want to at the same time I would say transform or reform in their words, their global internet governance. They’ve got this thing called cyber sovereignty. In other words, they resent the fact that the internet having been set up mainly by the U.S and Western countries has been sort of governed by NGOs set up by those countries at the time. China wants to change that.

Richard McGregor:

Twitter is a great example of how China has it both ways. Inside China Twitter is banned outside China the Chinese government through its various ambassadors use Twitter remorselessly to promote their cause and spread all sorts of information. That same kind of access to Chinese citizens on Chinese social media, on Weibo and things that, the Twitter equivalent is not available. One of the big things you touched on there of course is Western countries being awash with misinformation and not much of it comes from China and Russia.

Richard McGregor:

And I think one of the big tasks is particularly to if not reform ourselves, is to get better ourselves. To make sure our institutions are protected and resilient, that we have a free and open media that is both sort of independent and healthy. In other words, that should, not entirely help crowd out as much misinformation as possible. And if we’re successful our rivals will be less successful. That applies particularly to America, but it certainly applies to Australia as well.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. I wanted to get your take on… I mean, China and the CCP will have to focus a lot of the debate when in discussions about the economic benefits to relationship with the Chinese state. I mean, how critical do you think the issue of human rights is? It’s dropped away now with COVID-19, but the way your issue was certainly getting a lot more attention probably in 2019. How do you see the importance of continuing to challenge China’s human rights record? A lot of countries shy away from it. Do you think it’s important that we continue to step up in that space?

Richard McGregor:

Well, it’s certainly important, but I do think Australia’s ability to lead on this is limited. Unless other bigger Western countries are taking the lead, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to do that. The Chinese don’t even bother to have the bilateral dialogue with Australia on human rights, which we conducted for a number of years. They steadily downgraded the level of representatives they would send to it, now they don’t bother with it at all. In the case of the Uyghurs for example, yes we should continue to pursue that, particularly in where Australian citizen involve, we should continue to publicize it.

Richard McGregor:

The media should continue to write about it. Think tanks like mine should continue to have events about it as well. But we don’t want to have too much expectations about what we will be able to achieve other than keeping it on the agenda. Now I may sound a little bit not as tough as some people would like, but this is not a new issue. China when it was much weaker and poorer didn’t respond very much to what pressure we were able to mount then and what pressure of course the U.S was able to amount then. And I’d say that’s even more the case now.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

But certainly, I mean and I think it’s really troubling that use of the technology in repression of Uyghurs in particular with at least one million people locked away it’s something I think we need to keep striving to draw attention to. But you’re right, it is extraordinarily difficult certainly from Australia on its own, but even from a global coordinated effort. Lastly, I just want to ask your opinion. I mean, we’ve got this big contest, you’re an expert in the CCP and its workings and it appears like this perhaps and it’s of their narrative to project themselves as a irrepressible monolith. But are you confident or an optimist when it comes to democracy prevailing in this contest or are you bearish at the moment in terms of us getting our act together and prevailing?

Richard McGregor:

I’m a little bearish. I do think China’s going to have many more problems than people appreciate or not every… For example, demographics. They’re going to get old very rapidly before they’re rich in a per capita basis. They’ve got enormous environmental problems particularly with water. The economy will not grow even at 6% a year for too much longer. So they’ve got enormous problems, but they’ve had enormous problems for years and they keep exceeding expectations in their ability to manage them. So in that respect, I don’t underestimate them and I think we shouldn’t underestimate them. So then it comes back to your question, can we get our act together?

Richard McGregor:

Well, if the U.S doesn’t get its act together, then it’s a whole new world. We’re already sort of part way down there in Australia by trying to establish much more regional multi-lateral partnerships, tighter relationships with Europe perhaps as well. That is going to be a whole new ball game once the Ex-Americana doesn’t so much fall off the cliff, but no longer becomes the dominant force in the region. This is a once in a two or three generational change in our foreign policy situation, and this it’s going to be a tough struggle I think some decades to come. So I just hope Australians can step up to the mark really and be prepared for it.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Do you see the election in 2020 in the U.S in November as critical to that then? Given that second Trump term could really lock in a lot of those trends you just discussed?

Richard McGregor:

I totally do. I’m sorry to say, but if Trump is re-elected that is a disaster. I’m not saying everything he’s done is bad, but he’s just corrosive for U.S institutions, the importance of at least some level of truth and transparency in a democracy, in stability, in using expert advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2020. I’ve always thought he’s going to lose actually because I think there’s so many Americans, you can look at all sorts of elections which have taken place, the democratic primaries, the midterms two years ago. So many people want to vote him out, it’s just a matter of the candidate who the Democrats field on the day, most likely Joe Biden we’ll see can get those people out. But I think you won’t undo the damage that Trump has done quickly and I should also say of course, Trump might be a symptom as much as a cause. He didn’t land in American politics a spaceship, the circumstances, the soil had been tilled for many years making way for him. But if he gets another four years then I think that will be devastating for global democracies.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, Richard on that very happy note, I’m going to switch to our final question that I ask every diplomates and I was trying to find something positive to switch us to, but you’ve defeated me. But I’ll get across there in an enormously clunky Segway, but three people coming to a barbecue or foreign guests coming to a barbecue at Richard’s place in Sydney. You’ve noted that you’re in Sydney, so who would they be and why mate?

Richard McGregor:

Okay. I guess we want a Chinese guest. Let’s get Deng Xiaoping along with an interpreter because of his sheer sense, the arc of history of his life is quite remarkable. I think he would be terrific. I would like, and this is by the way I’m not saying all these three people would get along. I’m just telling the people I think-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It might make it more interesting-

Richard McGregor:

More interesting. I think this is a great man of the old elite foreign policy, but a great thinker was a Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson who was pivotal in setting up the post war world. And a third person who I think might be a good peace maker amongst those or somebody who could step in when the conversation froze would be the late Kofi Annan from the UN, a great African diplomat. Many people would criticize him over many different things. He was in a job where he was never going to please everybody, but I think he also had a fantastic career as well. So he’d be my third guest.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, they’ll be fascinating conversations around that table. So we’d love to get a podcast of that one mate so make sure you record it if you do happen to get everyone on.

Richard McGregor:

That’s true, yeah. I’m sorry to sound so gloomy, I’m really sounding gloomy these days and maybe it’s been locked up inside and I can’t exercise enough.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

What is that? In fairness Richard, we are in the middle of a global pandemic so you are entitled to be a little gloomy right now in mate.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well, next time I’ll be happier, I hope.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Indeed. But look, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve given a lot to think about and I really appreciate the chat. So thank you so much.

Richard McGregor:

Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *