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China’s transformation, once so exciting, turns ugly: a note from Peter Hartcher

It was the mid-1980s, it was my first trip to China and I was witnessing a new craze.

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Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping instituted China’s “open door” to the world policy in 1978, and among the many foreign practices that came in through the door were the games of billiards and pool.

What I witnessed was an “American pool table with Chinese characteristics”, a local improvisation of the original, according to the International Chinese Eight-Ball Association.

The man on the bicycle was an entrepreneur. He’d invested in a pool table and was taking it from place to place, charging people to play on it. He didn’t have the money for a truck, let alone a pool hall.

It was one of the many early stirrings of China’s transformation from a poor, weak and isolated state.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs at the time wrote in a submission to the cabinet that “dramatic developments are not foreseen” from Deng’s policy.

Political and international editor Peter Hartcher.

Political and international editor Peter Hartcher. Credit:Ben Rushton

In fact, it was the beginning of the most dramatic revolution in world affairs in my lifetime. It was to be a turning point in world history. The Middle Kingdom was beginning its return to the centre of world affairs.

In 1978, Australia had 14 million people and China nearly a billion. Yet their economies were similar in size – China’s just one-quarter bigger.

Today the population disparity is broadly the same, but China’s economy is five times the size of Australia’s.

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Even in the mid-1980s the sense of China’s potential was palpable and exciting.

Deng came under criticism from ideologues and traditionalists at home. Some were infuriated at the intrusions of the West and the pressures of market forces.

Deng dismissed the criticism. “When you open the windows, flies come in,” he said. The fresh air was more important than the irritants.

He knew exactly what he was doing. As he confided to an American interlocutor: “When the history of modern China is written it will be seen that everything before December 1978 was the prelude to the real revolution.”

When Deng launched his market-based revolution four decades ago, about 90 per cent of Chinese lived in poverty, according to the World Bank. Today it’s fewer than 2 per cent.

A total of 850 million people were lifted out of poverty in a couple of generations. It was an achievement “unprecedented in scope and scale” in human history, said the bank.

In the midst of this heady success, Deng counselled his country against ambition or arrogance in the world. “Hide your brightness, bide your time,” was his governing dictum.

China got rich, Australia got richer with it. Australia wanted nothing more.

But when Xi Jinping arrived as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore President of China, in 2012, everything changed, although it took years for Australia to comprehend the fact.

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Xi discarded Deng’s strategic guidance. He announced that it was China’s time: “Strive to achieve.”

Unfortunately, we’ve learned that Xi is striving to achieve not just pre-eminence for China, which would be understandable and entirely reasonable in the rhythms of history.

Xi demands dominance and he is seeking it through ever-increasing repression at home and coercion abroad. Yang Jiechi, a member of Xi’s Politburo, spelled it out for the leaders of neighbouring countries: “China is a big country and other countries are small, and that’s just a fact.”

Might is right, in other words. Do as we say. Or else.

Xi’s regime doesn’t tolerate much and it certainly doesn’t tolerate the truth about itself. I returned to China many times over the decades, but it’s grown more difficult as Xi’s term progresses.

Now we’ve reached the point where the Australian government has had to warn Australian travellers that they may be subject to “arbitrary detention” in China.

China’s transformation, once so exciting, has turned very ugly. We’ve all had to do a double take. It’s the biggest story in the world. We’re staying on it, telling the truth about it, whatever happens next.

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