When it comes to accusations of human rights abuses, Chinese sensitivity towards Western criticisms is a cultural card Beijing does not tire of playing. The People's Republic of China (PRC) bites back at the slightest supposed indiscretion by a foreign government, often threatening economic consequences in retaliation for a perceived insult. This deterrence tactic has had considerable success. However, China's desire not to 'lose face' also presents opportunities.
Late last month, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced the appointment of board members for a new "National Foundation for Australia-China Relations". The worthy objectives include the easing of tensions in Sino-Australian relations, bolstering mutual cooperation and promoting Australian prowess across a range of industries. But such initiatives must be used to strengthen rather than undermine Australia's diplomatic nerve in calling out human rights abuses by the PRC.
China's historical grievances are genuine and need little embellishment by the communist party's propaganda machine. A pillar of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) legitimacy - such as it is - that helps explain the apparent tacit consent of hundreds of millions of citizens, rests upon its ability to restore Chinese pride after a century lost to foreign imperialism. Prior to the 1949 communist takeover, China had suffered dismemberment and humiliation - "losing face" - at the hands of Western powers and Imperial Japan.
However, China often enjoys a free pass today not due to cultural sensitivities so much as its economic and military clout. Under Xi Jinping, the authoritarian grip has tightened and yet the pushback from foreign states has generally not strengthened but weakened in the face of China's growing might. Australia must avoid the Trump route of fixating on trade at the expense of human rights.
Our leaders must not bridle because of what the federal government calls "our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership" with China. Almost every nation is guilty of some degree of systematic human rights abuses but rarely on such an industrial scale as the PRC.
Furthermore, Communist China complements its deplorable practices with deceitful denials and perennial counter-protestations, as last week's Q&A exemplified. Q&A panellist Wang Xining, Beijing's number two diplomat in Australia, depicted China as a democratic nation devoid of oppression and cover-ups. His performance was toe-curling, compelling and widely ridiculed.
Such public denials of reality by Chinese officials emanate from within a culture where losing face is to be avoided at almost any cost. And this could be used to Australia's advantage - potentially, to ease the suffering of relatives of Australians held captive in China.
Through the carrot of gaining good publicity rather than continuing to lose face through lies that few people believe - even within China, nowadays - our government must entice the PRC to act. For example, by freeing Uighur Australians currently under house arrest in Xinjiang.
The Swedish government has publicly criticised Beijing and summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain why Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was last week given a 10-year sentence in a sham trial. The Australian government must seize every opportunity to act with similar boldness on behalf of Australian citizens.
Broad-stroke badmouthing based upon cultural differences, such as China not sharing Australian values, as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton proclaimed last year, achieves nothing. But surgical governmental diplomacy with definable aims - such as freedom for specific individuals - should act to confront lamentable policies and to assist specific individuals.
- Paul Letters is a journalist and novelist who lived in Hong Kong for 18 years and was a presenter for state broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong. His latest novel, set in wartime Hong Kong and China, is called The Slightest Chance. paulletters.com