Western Reaction to China Shows the Bad Old Days Haven’t Passed

US cartoon from 1899: Uncle Sam (US) demands Open Door access to trade with China while European powers plan to cut up China for themselves. Color lithograph by J.S. Pughe. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b00548.

One of the most tiresome clichés uttered by the western nations, including Australia, is their alleged commitment to the “rules based international order”. By this they generally mean a set of rules of supposed international authority, to which all developed nations are expected to adhere.

Those who allegedly failed to do so are labelled as rogue states, or deviant states, and in some way a threat to good government and a peaceful world. The myth has always had trouble confronting the reality. Australia has been one of the most assiduous articulators of the myth. As recently as this week it was accusing China of breaching the said rules by China asserting its authority over Hong Kong.

When one reads the mainstream media of all the events in Hong Kong what is immediately striking is that Hong Kong’s history seems to go back no further than the 1990s when the United Kingdom and China signed an agreement whereby the United Kingdom would release its rule of Hong Kong.

Conveniently overlooked in these accounts is the slightest hint of real history. Hong Kong had been part of China for more than 2000 years until the 1860s. We will leave to one side what sort of history the United Kingdom could boast of that goes back two thousand years.

The United Kingdom acquired Hong Kong by conquest during the first of the two opium wars, another feature of British colonial history that the mainstream media glides over as though it did not exist. The British invaded Afghanistan three times during the 19th century. They were not bringing the dubious benefits of British civilisation to the Afghanis. They wanted to control the opium production source, then as now, producing the bulk of the world’s heroin production.

China unsurprisingly did not appreciate Hong Kong being used as the entry point for Afghan heroin under British control. They fought back, but lost. Hence the ceding of Hong Kong to British rule. The heroin was therefore able to be imported freely by the British to the extent that by 1900 one in seven adult Chinese males was a heroin addict.

The 1949 revolution changed the government of China but it was several decades before they began to assert their wish that Hong Kong be returned to the mainland. By 1998, when the handover agreement was finally signed, China was still not strong enough to refuse to accept what was a manifestly unequal bargain.

There is no other historical precedent that I am aware of that land colonised by an imperial power and eventually returned to its rightful owner is done so conditionally.

The Chinese are now accused by the British, the Americans, and the Australian governments of not complying with the terms of the handover. That allegation is made by people who have never bothered to read the terms of the agreement.

Even more critically, those same governments are alleging that the people of Hong Kong are being deprived of their “democratic rights” to self-government. This was an argument that was never heard during the entire century plus of British rule.

Among the various benefits that the Hong Kong people have enjoyed since liberation from British rule is that they now have the right to vote. That the people of Hong Kong had no democratic means of determining how and by whom they were governed during British rule, not even having the right to vote, is another inconvenient fact glided over by the present erstwhile defenders of so-called Hong Kong democracy.

It is a fundamental principle of international law that countries are entitled to govern their own affairs. It is also a fundamental principle that the British, and particularly the Americans since 1945, have simply ignored the principle when it suited them.

Where was the West’s “respect for international law” when the United States and its allies (including Australia) sanctioned, bombed, invaded, occupied and otherwise destroyed to a greater or lesser extent at least 70 countries over the past 70 years? The death toll from those illegal activities has been variously estimated at between 50 and 70 million people.

Current illustrations of that point, all of them involving the willing compliance and assistance of Australia, include Afghanistan (invaded 2001 and still there); Iraq, invaded 2003 and still there despite the clearly expressed view of the Iraqi parliament that all uninvited foreign troops should leave; and Syria, invaded in 2015 after years of supporting terrorist proxies in that country by their invaders. The United States currently occupies Syria’s oil region, stealing its oil and keeping the proceeds of sale. Not a word of descent from its Australian ally who clearly has a flexible definition of what the “rules based international order” actually means.

In the case of China, Australian adherence to the United States line goes far beyond the current situation in Hong Kong. Australia was being the loyal United States proxy when it alleged that China was the source of the coronavirus currently causing economic havoc around the world.

On instructions from Washington, Australia proposed a motion for international consideration that the origins of the virus should be investigated in China. Had the proposal being neutrally worded, for example suggesting an investigator of all countries that might have been the source, the proposal might not have been ignored as it was.

All countries obviously include the United States, where a growing body of evidence suggests it is the real source of the pandemic. That, however, would not suit the current suicidal Australian campaign to attack China on various fronts on behalf of its American masters.

Why Australia would want to attack such a vitally important nation, whose importance to the Australian economy extends far beyond being a market for Australian goods, defies rational explanation. The Chinese, unsurprisingly, and in my view completely justifiably, have begun to take measures in response, the result of which will be extraordinary pain to the Australian economy.

The current pandemic should be seen as an opportunity for Australia to discard its colonial status and actually take decisions that enhance rather than hinder Australia’s vital interests. The history of the past 70 years however, suggests that is a vain hope.

James O'Neill is a Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au. Read other articles by James.