Chinese Whispers: Australia’s Manchurian Candidates

Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister of Australia in November 2007 in a landslide victory over the incumbent Liberal Coalition government of John Howard.

Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister of Australia in November 2007 in a landslide victory over the incumbent Liberal Coalition government of John Howard. Rudd’s reputation as a political nerd (or ‘policy wonk’ in the Anglo-Australian vernacular) was enhanced by public appearances in which he spoke in a curious blend of convoluted bureaucratese, intellectualism and a peculiar take on Aussie (or ‘Strine’) argot. Strangely enough, the electorate loved it.

Even when he was a rising political star, for its part the national media was fascinated by Rudd’s familiarity with China and his ability to speak Chinese (usually called ‘Mandarin’ by commentators). He had graduated with a degree in Asian Studies and Law from The Australian National University, where I did my own undergraduate studies some years earlier. We were both inducted into the world of Chinese Studies by the noted Sinologues Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁 and Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys). The latter supervised Rudd’s honours thesis in 1980 on the recently arrested democracy advocate Wei Jingsheng. That’s when I got to know Kevin, before he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs which eventually posted him to Beijing.

Not long before his 2007 victory, Rudd displayed his linguistic skills at a forum of APEC leaders in Sydney. He had been invited to address the amassed dignitaries by his political adversary John Howard. From the podium he spoke to the APEC delegation from the People’s Republic of China led by President Hu Jintao in Chinese. David Uren, author of an important recent account of the Australian-Chinese relationship, notes the reaction:

As the Daily Telegraph’s David Conway commented, there was an almost audible intake of breath among the Chinese officials and business leaders present. ‘The effect could not have been greater had the family’s precocious nine-year-old played a Chopin prelude perfectly for the visiting relatives after Christmas lunch.’ (Uren, The Kingdom and the Quarry: China, Australia, Fear and Greed, Black Inc., 2012, p.20.)

The ruling government front bench was less impressed. The Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was by all accounts ‘miffed’, and he sniped to an ABC reporter that:

I speak French. That’s not seen in diplomacy as a great party trick – to be able to speak a foreign language … I mean I don’t think in diplomacy the fact that you can speak foreign languages is anything special, and obviously he [Rudd] runs the risk of being seen by a lot of Australians as a show-off. (Quoted in Uren, The Kingdom and the Quarry, p.20.)

Rudd and Labor went on to win the 2007 general election; Howard lost his seat and retired from parliament. Alexander Downer (a man once described by another former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, as ‘looking like a knee’) now sits on the Australian board of the controversial Chinese technology firm Huawei, from which position he also contributes to the public discussion on China with such offerings as the opinion piece ‘Who’s Afraid of China’ (published on 22 March 2012 in News Corporation’s The Australian).

In 2008, as the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd’s Chinese skills earned him a measure of controversy in Beijing when, in April that year, he dared to touch on the egregious abuse of human rights unfolding in Tibetan China following the bloody riots in Lhasa the previous month while addressing an audience of students at Peking University. His critics in the Australian media, meanwhile, dubbed him the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ (that is, a pro-Chinese sleeper agent, so called after the 1959 novel, and 1962 film, of that name).

Fig.1 Cover of the novel ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ by Richard Condon (1959).

In 2012, it would appear that the former Deputy Secretary of the Australian Department of Defence and now Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University, my colleague Hugh White, has taken the mantle of ‘Manchurian candidate’ from Rudd.

Hugh stirred considerable controversy in 2010 with his Quarterly Essay titled ‘Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing’ in which he tracked the economic rise of China and its consequences for Australia. In particular, White hones in on the complex relationship between China and the US, as well as on Australia’s evolving responses to the regnant superpower and the upcoming superpower’s role in Asia and the Pacific. In 2012, White has extended the argument in an even more controversial work, The China Choice, one which has been widely reviewed, and criticized (see below for details). In the book, which was launched in Canberra in August, White maps the changing topography of power in our region and argues that Australia must consider carefully how best to understand and engage intelligently (even independently) with a regional environment that is no longer dominated by an unchallenged Anglo-Saxon power.

Interested readers will seek out Power Shift and The China Choice rather than simply accept what in some cases have been media caricatures parading as reviews and commentary (one recent summary of the White’s thesis was offered to me by a noted conservative thinker: ‘Doesn’t White just want us to work out what Beijing wants, and then give it to them?’). But they might also enjoy a satirical decoction of Australia’s political and regional dilemmas as served up in a new fiction, also launched in Canberra in August.

Fig.2 Window display for ‘The Marmalade Files’, Paperchain Bookstore, Canberra, ACT. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé

The blurb on the jacket of The Marmalade Files, a roman à clef by the journalists Steve Lewis (of News Corp) and Chris Uhlmann (of the ABC) promises ‘A Sticky Scandal, A Political Jam’. It is a barely disguised parody of recent Australian political history, and an account of Australia’s looming US-China conundrum.

In the novel, the Minister for Defence, Bruce Leonard Paxton, is

a former poster boy for one of Australia’s biggest blue-collar unions – the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union – Paxton was in his mid-fifties and had been the Member for Brand, a Labor seat on Perth’s southern flank, for the past fifteen years. It wasn’t listed on his CV, but he was also the least educated man ever to have been sworn in by the Governor-General as the Minister for Australia’s proud defence services.

During his rough-and-tumble early years, Paxton had lost his left hand in what he claimed was an industrial accident.

Instead of getting the prosthesis recommended by a team of specialists, he had a hook fitted in place of his missing hand. He famously paraded it on the front page of the West Australian, grinning maniacally beneath the cheeky headline ‘Hook or Crook?’ He was dubbed ‘Captain’ by adoring building unionists and the unique look only served to build on the already menacing Paxton mystique.

Fig.3 Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Canberra, ACT. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé

Faced with the need to trim his department’s bloated military budget, and even before US President Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ speech to the Australian Parliament in November 2011, the Captain sums up his position to senior defence bureaucrats in language that, with brevity and trademark Australian invective, offers a decoction of the White paradox.

‘Let’s face it, you’ve had it too good for too long. The build-up of defence and security assets since 9/11 has been extraordinary, fuelled by that warmonger John Howard and those patsies who hung on his every word as if he was fucking God. Well, he wasn’t – and I’m not fucking Satan. But I am about driving change in this arena, fellas, you’d better believe it.’

Trounson spoke up. ‘Minister, what about the build-up by China of its military assets in the Pacific? It’s off the charts. It will have three aircraft carrier groups by 2025. It will control our trade routes. And Beijing is ploughing billions into the region, buying favour, trying to act as a kind of pan-regional financier. We don’t want to leave ourselves exposed. The Americans are nervous, as you know, and so should we be.’

Paxton fixed the Secretary with a hard stare. ‘Why? Why should we be nervous? Maybe it’s time for some … er … strategic realignment. China is our biggest trading partner now, or soon will be. It makes more motor cars in a day than our fucking industry makes in a whole year. It has a middle class of – what? – some 200 million people and they are growing like topsy.

‘Our future lies far more with China, with those 1.3 billion people to our north, than it does with America and who it wants as its dancing partner’.

He was warming to a theme now. ‘Perhaps the time is right for a subtle shift in our thinking about the Chinese. The Americans have their hands full with Afghanistan, and Obama, for all his rhetoric, has shown scant interest in the Pacific. The Stars and Stripes ain’t what it used to be, fellas.

‘What I’m suggesting makes not only good sense from a Budget point of view, it will also send a clear message to the region – particularly to Beijing – that Australia is no longer interested in playing the deputy sheriff to the US, to being its fucking lickspittle in the Pacific. Do you understand?’

Paxton waved his hooked left hand menacingly as his words ricocheted around the room, so extraordinary the CDF and Secretary could scarcely believe them. Was Paxton, Australia’s Minister of Defence, really suggesting Canberra cosy up to Beijing at the expense of Washington? Was he suggesting ANZUS, that proud strategic compact that had served the Americans and its two south Pacific partners so well for sixty years, was reaching its use-by date? For nearly forty minutes, they listened as Paxton, their Minister, offered the first outline of a plan that, if it was allowed to proceed, would overturn Australia’s military alignment.

Shaken, the two men rose from their seats and collected their briefcases. Paxton had offered a gruff farewell, but if he wanted to be rude, well, that was not the Defence style. They left the Minister’s office, delivering a courteous nod to the receptionist on the way out. They were too professional to show emotion but both men were livid. They were used to the occasional dressing-down from a Minister but Paxton’s diatribe had gone too far. This was, they both agreed, an unofficial declaration of war.

Their surprise at the bollocking gave way to something else – a firm resolve to save the realm, to stop that meddling Minister from destroying Defence. Most importantly, they would fight to protect the US alliance.

If Bruce Paxton wanted a fight, they were holding pretty good artillery of their own. If he wanted a full-scale battle, well, that was fine too – the Minister would discover soon enough he was dealing with trained killers. (Lewis & Uhlmann, The Marmalade Files, Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2012, pp.65-67.)

As it turns out in the novel, Mr Paxton is not Australia’s only Manchurian Candidate …


Update (1 September 2012)

Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop (noted for her gimlet stare) was invited to join the authors of The Marmalade Files in conversation at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on 31 August. As reported earlier that week, Bishop had told Strewth! (a daily comic reprisal of political gaffs and mishaps published by News Corp’s The Australian) that she was ‘studying CIA techniques for psychological torture.’ Strewth caught up with David Lewis following Bishop’s interrogation and ‘he admitted to feeling bruised’. For her part the Deputy Leader was chuffed: ” ‘I exposed the ruse that it was all fiction and blew away the ‘disclaimer’ they relied upon in the face of potential libel-in-fiction claims. However they refused to reveal the identity of the chief whistleblower; true pros.” ‘


The author, who is Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU, would like to thank Linda Jaivin for her comments on the draft of this essay.

Works Cited

David Lewis and Chris Uhlmann, The Marmalade Files, Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2012.
David Uren, The Kingdom and the Quarry: China, Australia, Fear and Greed, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2012.
Hugh White, ‘Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing’, Quarterly Essay 39, September 2010.
The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2012.

Further Reading (from The Australia-China Story section of this site):

Powershift (2010):

Hugh White, ‘Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing’, Quarterly Essay 39, September 2010.
Power Shift: Our future between Beijing and Washington’, The Monthly: SlowTV, interview with Hugh White, The Wheeler Centre, October 2010.
Greg Sheridan, ‘Distorted Vision of US-China Relations’, The Australian, 11 September 2010.
John Lee, ‘Don’t Rush to Back Beijing Over Delhi’, The Australian, 13 September 2010.
Paul Dibb, ‘Knocking on Nobody’s Door’, The Australian, 18 July 2011.
John Lee, ‘Rising China has Limited Influence’, The Australian, 12 October 2011.
Stephan Fruehling and Benjamin Schreer, ‘Hugh White and the “Hyperpuissance”’, The Interpreter, 15 September 2010.
Hugh White, ’US Wakes in Fright as Asian Bedfellow Goes to Hog the Blanket‘, The Age, 17 April, 2012.
Australia Keen to Avoid No-win Choice Between China and US‘, The Global Times, 14 June 2012.

The China Choice (2012):

Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2012; and, ‘The Speech Obama Should Make’, an excerpt from the book, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 2012.
Malcolm Turnbull, ‘Power Shift: Hugh White’s “The China Choice” ’, The Monthly, August 2012.
Paul Keating, ‘The US Missed China’s Rise’, excerpt from a speech launching Hugh White’s The China ChoiceThe Australian Financial Review, 7 August 2012.
Rory Medcalf, ‘Power Play Risks Dissent Over Accord’, The Australian, 9 August 2012.
Paul Kelly, ‘China Divides Labor Across its Generations‘, The Australian, 11 August 2012.
Paul Keating, ‘A Case for Chinese Legitimacy’, The Australian, 11 August 2012.
Greg Sheridan, ‘Asia Done in Black and White’, The Australian, 11 August 2012.
Paul Dibb, ‘Why I Disagree with Hugh White on China’s Rise’, The Australian, 13 August 2012.
Peter Hartcher, ‘Any China Conversation Better Than None at All’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August 2012.
Editorial, ‘Australia’s China Balancing Act’, The Australian, 14 August 2012.
Paul Cleary, ‘Arms Across the Pacific’, The Australian, 21 August 2012.
Paul Keating, ‘Keating on China’, The Australian, 23 August 2012.
Ben Potter, ‘US Admits Asia “Pivot” Overshot’, The Australian Financial Review, 24 August 2012.
David Uren, ‘Provocative Premise of Pacific Showdown’, The Australian, 25 August 2012.
Hamish McDonald, ‘If Our Leaders Get Closer to China, They Might Learn What it Really Thinks’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 2012.
James Massola, ‘Howard Calls for More Chinese Investment’, The Australian Financial Review, 28 August 2012.

Kevin Rudd, website and Twitter feed.