I remember my first girlfriend's father proudly telling me he was born in the house next door, married the girl across the street, bought the house to the right of his parents' place and had happily lived there for 30 years.
He knew everyone in the street and was suspicious of newbies until they'd been to their quota of backyard barbies and passed the local acceptance test, whereupon they were given qualified support.
Today, China has moved into our street. We are suspicious, so it's time for a few backyard barbies to help build the bridge of friendship and understanding.
This journey of friendship and understanding will take decades but it's a journey we should embrace not shy away from. It will enrich us. It will enrich China. It will also protect our children and protect our country.
Friendship and understanding do not always equate to agreement. Show me a marriage where there is constant agreement and I will show you a sham.
Would communism work in Australia? No. Would democracy work in China? No. If you transported Australia's version of democracy to China today you would have 102 different political parties by this time next year and civil war in China by the end of year two. War lords and crime lords would rise to replicate the dismantling of the USSR by the power of 10. And that's not even including the always eager separatist provinces wanting to go their own way. An eco-political tsunami would roll through the world.
Are the Chinese hard handed at times? Yes. It's a tough gig running a country of 1.3 billion people. Better them than me. Have we made hypocrisy an art form in the West? Of course. Call it spin, PR, branding - whatever you want - but deep down we know the truth because we know ourselves. At least the Chinese have the honesty to call their state mouthpiece a Propaganda Department. Not that it should keep that name if it wants to do more business with the West - more subtle spin is required for the Western palate.
Free press is a two-edged sword. I'm always explaining this in China. I used to teach journalism and the fundamental mantra of journalism 101 in the West is that good news is bad news. Harmony doesn't sell newspapers or win ratings.
As in all novels there has to be a villain. I tell my China buddies, who get somewhat peeved at times with Australian press coverage, that it's simply China's turn to be portrayed as the bad guy. Take it on the chin I tell them, but don't take it too seriously. ¡§Other countries have had their turn before you so don't feel special - and we've all got our skeletons in the cupboard. In Australia we can quite comfortably talk about human rights violations elsewhere while many indigenous citizens still live in Third World conditions.¡¨
Above all, I insist at lunches, dinners and
meetings in China that everyone keep a sense of humour. Humour has a better
chance of saving our planet than carbon sequestration or the UN.
There is no point giving China a hard time. China essentially has a good heart and can make a great contribution to the civilising of humanity. We have to respect China and China has to respect us. We have to educate China about Australia and China has to educate us about its 5000 years of struggle in civilisation.
Compared with our 221 years of post-indigenous civilisation, China has far more interesting, violent, uplifting, tragic and meaning-of-life stories than we can imagine. If stories are the currency of life, then China has a lot to offer.
With few exceptions politicians are not the best bridge-builders when it comes to forging positive and lasting relationships between countries, although Colin Barnett and Simon Crean are doing a fair job. Politicians have many agendas and almost everyone is expendable in their desire for survival. Better to leave the building of lasting friendship bridges to more ordinary people: tourists, artists, architects, educators, students, businesspeople, religious workers or construction workers. More exchange programs should be inaugurated between Australia and its largest trading partner. China is willing to build these links. Australia should be, too.
It's time Australia made a renewed effort in understanding China. We need a long-term win-win situation here, not a short-term finger-pointing episode.
Did China handle the failed Chinalco-Rio Tinto deal well? No. A market economy is always moving - it is not a planned economy - and things are fluid. There needs to be a plan B and plan C, which China didn't have. And was rival suitor BHP really just going to go away after putting in the early hard yards? Not likely. Did Rio and Australia handle the Chinalco deal well? No. Public relations courses will be using it as a case study for years in what not to do when handling cultural sensitivities.
Is it easy for Australian companies to do business in China? No. Is it easy for Chinese businesses to do business in Australia? No. Both find it frustrating.
Eighteen months ago I was asked by the chairman of the China Iron and Steel Association what China could do to stop any takeover of Rio Tinto by BHP. I said: nothing, it's market forces. My advice was to support China's Fortescue Metals Group and the Midwest iron ore investments to provide competitive sources.
Is there a vibrant private sector in China? Yes, entrepreneurs abound. Is the central government an evil control freak? No. Stereotypes are dangerous.
Do Chinese try to rip you off? Of course. It's the basis of their haggling system in every Chinese market that Australian tourists love, the pursuit of the best deal. If you don't haggle, the Chinese lose respect for you. To them it's normal business, built into their psyche, part of their culture.
Should the Opposition Leader in Australia have broken tradition on a bipartisan approach to China in an effort to wedge the Prime Minister, using the argument that ¡§the PM has a close relationship with China, maybe it's too close?¡¨, turning a positive into a negative? No; all politics and no policy never lead to a healthy outcome. But the opposition has spooked the government on China to a degree.
Provincial cities in China are screaming out for Australian trade offices to open up in their patch so as to do business with Australia, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade budget allocation is diverted to other less controversial countries. Sure, China is pumping investment dollars into Australia, but the amount is still a small percentage of all foreign investment, so why the fuss?
Once China understands it can't buy resource supply chains to provide cheap returns at Australia's expense, all the better. China is quickly learning that lesson. You'll see far more sophisticated investment vehicles from China soon.
Australia runs the risk of taking China for granted. Not a wise move, as China has other places to invest. Don't look at China today; look at what relationship you want between Australia and China in 20 years. You have to start building that relationship now and it has to be bipartisan.
Should Australia have given US-based Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer a visa to enter Australia to give her version of reality in Xinjiang? Yes. Like it or not, everyone gets a voice in democracy. China has to understand that. But don't lecture the Chinese - explain it to them. Even the most gifted student doesn't always get it the first time.
If China believes Kadeer is a master terrorist, then they should explain that to us, show us the evidence rather than the rhetoric. Democracy also gives China a legitimate voice in Australia and we are willing to listen, but we don't like being lectured to any more than the Chinese. If there is hard evidence, then she won't be back.
My mother taught me when you walk into someone's house you shouldn't be rude. You may not like what you see sometimes, and advice and suggestions can be given in the right spirit and in the right atmosphere, but always remember it is not your house.
When we are in China's house we should show respect and when they are in our house they should show respect. The real relationship should be built around the barbie in the backyard, or the equivalent, in a urbane and civilised way without resorting to threats and painting stereotypes.
A retired Chinese general once said to me, ¡§If there ever was a war between China and the US where would Australia line up?¡¨ I told him that as much as China often says to me the West doesn't understand China, to ask a question like that meant he obviously didn't understand the psyche of most Australians. He cocked an eyebrow for me to explain.
¡§Most Australians would rather have a long weekend, an extra hour in the pub, an afternoon kip or a barbie in the back yard rather than go to war.¡¨
He looked at me and smiled. ¡§Yes, maybe
it's time the Cold War is over.¡¨
One can only agree. The Cold War is over so let's keep it that way.
Greg Rudd is managing director of GPR Asia, based in Beijing. It advises on investment and joint ventures.