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Behind the charm, China is a bully – and we need to sell our wares elsewhere

The Chinese ambassador has also thrown threats at our wine, tourism and education sectors, all of which would be hit hard by a loss of Chinese trade. The ambassador’s comments in April appear to have been directed at bullying those sectors into lobbying the Australian government to do as China wished – and drop the call for an inquiry.

Meanwhile, with international critics distracted by a pandemic that the evidence suggests began on Chinese turf, China announced its intentions to introduce ‘national security’ laws in Hong Kong that will stymie the region’s pro-democracy movement and likely harm the city’s economy and its standing as a global financial capital.

China is willing to absorb any economic hit from this move. It was humiliated by pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year and it is determined to impose its will on the region, regardless of a treaty signed with Britain in 1984 that is meant to preserve Hong Kong’s capitalist system and the rights and freedoms of its people until 2047.

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And the timing of this latest move is in Beijing’s favour – adverse publicity and strong retaliation from Western nations are far less likely when those nations are focused on a health emergency that is overwhelming their hospitals and killing thousands of their countrymen every day. Even still, Australia, Canada and Britain managed to turn outwards from their own problems on Saturday and issue a joint statement condemning China’s move and declaring it in contradiction of the 1984 agreement.

As Kevin Rudd pointed out on Saturday, Australia did not show much nous in the way it put forward its proposal for an inquiry into the pandemic, posturing before it had international support and leaving Australian exporters open to retaliation. But it is appropriate to ask questions about how China handled the pandemic in its early stages, and whether its public health policies allowed the virus to infect humans.

The government is right to stand up to bully tactics. It is also right to defend and promote Australia’s national interests. That is what it is elected to do. But while it was once in our national interest to eat from China’s horn of plenty, that is no longer the case. It is time to wean ourselves off it. As a nation, we must seek nourishment elsewhere.

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