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Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, led a panel discussion between three experts on China and the state’s rapid ascent to international attention.

Sydney Writers’ Festival, in conjunction with The University of Sydney, played host to a discussion panel featuring Professor Mobo Gao, the Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide, Professor Bates Gill, CEO of the United States Studies Centre at The University of Sydney, and Feng Chongji, a professor in China Studies at The University of Technology in Sydney.

The room was filled in an instant by eager festival-goers, Professor Kerry Brown interrupting the buzz by reminding the audience of the purpose of such a discussion. He said that in 2009, the Defence White Paper, an expression of Australia’s defence policy, demonstrated an uneasy apprehension of China’s new, prominent role in international politics and ultimately saw China as a threat. However the Defence White Paper released earlier this month, gave a more positive picture of ‘China’s rise’, a phrase often used throughout the panel discussion.

Professor Gao’s speech confronted the two most common assumptions at the root of the “friend or foe” question: that China is rising, and that there is a fear of this rise by people who wish to keep the status quo. “I would like to go beyond this ‘either or’ dichotomy,” Professor Gao said to the tune of murmured affirmations from the audience. Despite the provocative title, I suspect most people who came to see the discussion realised they were not going to leave with a definite answer.

Despite the dense subject matter, the panelists were constantly producing chuckles. Professor Gao spoke about the sibling rivalry between his two daughters and compared it to China’s surge in prominence and the world’s reaction to it. He described it fittingly as “naïve rationalism” admitting that it’s natural for the more established nations to feel put out by the transference of resources (or “parental affection”) to another country, but that this jealousy is quite childish. “Antagonism is infantile,” he says, “it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Professor Gill spoke to the audience about two of China’s attributes that were unlikely to change any time soon and could be good indicators of the future to come. He spoke about China’s large maritime border and the territorial disputes it has had with almost all of the border nations, which has made China’s foreign policy and geopolitical situation quite complex. Another difficulty that he spoke about was China’s rapidly aging demography (largely due to the ‘one child’ policy) – the working population is expected to decrease with projections saying there will be about 400 million people over the age of 60 by 2030-2035.

Professor Chongji clearly liked to produce reactions in the audience; he spoke about the rise of China, but shed some startling light on the costs of such a rise to international prominence. He spoke about human rights and China’s standards compared with those belonging to other countries on an international platform. “No [other] government in the world can bring down the human working conditions without resistance, without protest from workers,” he stated.

He also talked about the ‘golden age’ for China and the fact that the Chinese economy grew so fast that within a decade, it moved from the 5th to the 2nd largest economy. However, as Professor Chongji pointed out, some other people refer to the same time period as the ‘lost decade’, where leaders lost the opportunity to make China’s growth sustainable. Although critical of past governments, Professor Chongji expressed hope for the new government of China. In response to a question from the audience, he said that he hoped China would achieve constitutional democracy in 20 years, making note on the emphasis on ‘constitutional’.

After the panel had spoken, questions were then sourced from the audience. The China dream was discussed and an interesting question came from a softly spoken lady who asked what might be of the effect of the technological revolution on China. Professor Bates Gill pointed out that there is a tendency to over-exaggerate new media’s ability to bring about social change, but Professor Chongji disagreed. “The power of the Internet is beyond exaggeration. It is the gift from the gods for Chinese people,” he said. He put forward the proposition that anything that happens online becomes instantly international and that the Internet will help signal the end of totalitarianism when people start recognising that they have rights which are not being met.

Although the question of whether China is friend or foe was not quite resolved, all of the panelists were able to articulate reasons why this might be so and what issues would be determinative in China’s near future.

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