Very occasionally there's an epiphany; a moment when something's said, or happens, that makes everything suddenly spring into place.
One came, totally unexpected, last Wednesday, right in the middle of a two-hour-long press conference at the Chinese embassy. Video linked us to Urumqi, capital of the far-western autonomous region of Xinjiang, where chosen provincial officials and "ordinary people" waited, in a city further from water than any other in the world, as the sun began to rise on a new day. On this end, a tired bunch of dishevelled Canberra journalists increasingly wondering how to make sense of the bizarre scene unfurling in front of us.
How on Earth were we meant to report what was happening?
Of course the hand-picked "representatives" assured us - despite a mass of directly contradictory reports from human rights organisations - that everything was just dandy in Xinjiang. Yes, we were welcome to visit and see for ourselves - although that, of course, was actually going to be impossible at the moment because of the coronavirus and the fact that no Australian journalists are actually resident in China. And finally - although we'd been promised transparency - there were still no statistics, even implausible ones, of the numbers in re-education camps (possibly shrinking?) or prison (possibly growing?).
Instead we saw videos of smiling people, new condominiums, sharp cars and, perhaps most implausibly of all (for an Australian audience, at any rate), schoolchildren sitting quietly in class and enthusiastically studying. It was a picture of the world, yes, but not as we know it. How to make sense of such a carefully constructed propaganda video being shamelessly presented as if it were a somehow truthful representation of what was occurring in Xinjiang?
And yet that was exactly when everything suddenly fell together.
The question was, basically, why should we believe anything we've been told when we can't believe, for example, even the air-pollution figures for Beijing? The simultaneous translator was doing the best they could, however keeping up with both the sceptical tone, speed, and the detail was effectively impossible and so, wisely, ambassador Cheng Jingye took the question and answered it here. Over in Urumqi, however, one of the officials thought he'd got the gist of what was being asked and, sure of his ground, butted in to add to the diplomat's answer.
The issue of smog, we were told, had been resolved. Blue sky could be seen even from the streets of the region's capital. The weather was fine - better than before.
His words hung in the air as we paused, reflected on this new information, and wondered how to process the non-sequitur. That was my moment of insight.
What was being conveyed wasn't ever going to answer our questions, but that wasn't actually because, as some suspected, the Chinese side was involved in a cover-up. The whole point was the questions and answers didn't meet. We simply weren't inhabiting the same world. The Western view, a story of eventual progression to that ultimate triumph of liberal democracy and universal human rights, is dead. The very foundations upon which we journalists were basing our questions, the issues we were concerned about, were bypassing our interlocutors.
It was not that they didn't want to provide answers. They did. It's just that there were two completely different conversations going on, each infused by a different worldview.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was, indeed, the world's unipolar moment, which continued until the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001. The problems began with the US invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent quagmire that sucked up resources, money and effort. Most critically, however, the broad dynamic began to change as, led by Russia, autocrats took control in one part of the world while in others, such as China, communitarian governments began to flourish.
This is the idea that societies are based on communities, not individuals. It's important to understand the depth of this challenge to traditional liberalism, because it's not simply a cobbled-together justification for the policies of the moment. Communitarian governments view the world differently, and until we recognise this our dialogue will continue as two streams of separate, one-way communications where we can't even agree about something as basic as the weather.
China genuinely doesn't believe it's repressing its Uighur minorities because, as the video showed, the standard of life in the region is improving. Sure, this means controlling the spread of Islam (which, by definition presents a competing worldview) but isn't that exactly what Washington attempted to do in Iraq? And yes, this requires encouraging people to integrate and embrace the advantages of modern life such as cars, washing machines, computers and condos, and abandon the impoverishment of nomadic farming in return for city life, but isn't that a better way of life for everyone?
How can any Australian who considers our own remote Indigenous communities, for example, insist that this country has discovered a better way to live?
The press conference was never going to answer our questions, just as we could never comprehend what we were being told. The fundamental chasm between both sides was too great, a gulf that no amount of interpreting could possibly bridge.
This is not some sort of admission of defeat or suggestion by a "panda-hugger" that we should simply abandon Western ideas of human rights. Today, however, we inhabit a new world. It's one where competing powers are presenting rival definitions of ideas we've previously taken for granted.
Three new divisions are cutting across the world. Authoritarians, the prime example of whom is Putin in Moscow; communitarians, like Xi Jinping in Beijing; and democracies, although these include such obviously flawed examples as Boris Johnson in London, Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia and Narendra Modi in Delhi (and our own Scott Morrison here in Canberra). Is it any wonder communitarianism is becoming popular?
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and regular columnist.