Last week’s much-anticipated speech and media grilling of China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, at Canberra’s National Press Club did little to improve the two countries’ tense relationship. On the contrary, the rehearsal of familiar spin – accompanied by a handful of genuinely sinister moments – provided little concessionary space into which Canberra could move toward a “reset” with its biggest trading partner.
This has prompted some reflection on what the purpose of Xiao’s appearance may have been. The event was no minor affair; Xiao was the first Chinese official to attend the National Press Club in 18 years, a shift ostensibly indicative of an openness to improved engagement.
Yet, despite the emollience and smiles, this landmark moment proved to be a wasted opportunity to proffer a fresh and attractive message, if that ever was intended at all. The olive branch presented, on close inspection, suggested the possibility of rapprochement almost entirely on Beijing’s terms.
Indeed, it differed little, in anything but tone, from Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s stern insistence that Canberra take “concrete steps” to make amends. The Guardian regarded the speech as a diplomatic failure, referring it as “sound of China laying out terms that Australia has already declined.”
Regardless of the importance of the bilateral trade relationship to the Australian economy (as Xiao was at pains to emphasize), it would be political suicide for new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to yield to such gambits, whether in response to Wang’s invitation to genuflect or Xiao’s gentler appeal. The Chinese leadership, who are no fools, would have known this. So what was the point of it all?
As the analytical dust begins to settle on the event, it may be worth entertaining a possibility that seems not to have been considered in the media commentary that followed: that the awkward blend of pabulum and menace broadcast by Xiao is best understood not as tone-deaf flailing, but as intentional, performative “political work,” informed by concepts that are discussed candidly in strategic literature produced for internal consumption by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed wing of the party-state.
These include the trinity of warfares (psychological, legal, and public opinion), officially adopted as the “three warfares” by the PLA in 2003 as part of its paradigm of integrated, multi-domain “unrestricted warfare” against perceived enemies and adversaries, both state and non-state actors, large audiences and individuals. As Peter Mattis has observed, these approaches are bound up with attempts by the party-state to influence decision-making by foreign governments and mold perceptions of Beijing more generally. More fundamentally, they constitute (to borrow from Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, respectively) an attempt to compel their target to submit to its will, to “win without fighting.”
This analysis does not presuppose Machiavellian hyper-competency on the part of the CCP or its instruments like Xiao; there is plenty of evidence to contradict any such assumption. But it does invite readers to apply a fresh critical lens to the utterances, frames, and sleights of rhetoric knitted into the discourse wielded, however insipidly, by party representatives and their networks.
Take one example from Xiao’s jousting with the press, mentioned in passing: the weird and misleading comparison of Australian human rights activist Drew Pavlou to jailed Australian reporter Cheng Lei. The latter is a journalist held in conditions that easily fall short of basic standards of justice, despite Xiao’s glib assurances to the contrary; the former, a provocateur and human rights activist held in London on the basis of what is almost certainly a hoax bomb threat designed to frame him and derail his protests outside China’s U.K. embassy.
For context: Last year, Pavlou had his email account hacked, following which time, he says, an impersonator sent a series of malicious emails intended to cause reputational damage (he has insisted that the threatening email was sent to the Chinese embassy by an account he does not use, which nonetheless imitated his hacked Gmail username). Other critics of China’s rights abuses have said they are victims of an almost identical hack-and-defame playbook, which carry some of the hallmarks of the CCP’s wider campaigns of transnational repression, minus the violence.
Xiao’s comparison of two Australians who are likely both victims of CCP persecution was more than a false equivalence; it effectively helped to launder and further a suite of narratives: that of Pavlou’s guilt; Australian hypocrisy; and, perversely, the victimhood of the party-state in Beijing, when being confronted with tough questions about its alleged rights abuses. Xiao’s attempt to influence the Australian public could be seen in this light as an example of psychological warfare, constituting one of the three elements of three warfares.
Arguably, such blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments are highly purposive, even as they give the appearance of an off-the-cuff digression. They are meant to appear seamless, yet also to be noticed, with the added benefit of deflecting criticism through “whataboutism”; this may explain such otherwise baffling and unnecessary drift.
A similarly deft touch was applied when Xiao was asked about his colleague’s shocking remarks earlier this month, when the Chinese ambassador to France raised the prospect, on national television, of post-invasion re-education camps for Taiwanese residents opposed to rule from the mainland.
Xiao’s reply confirmed, if any doubts remained, that the threat of mass detention for dissidents in a future “re-unified” Taiwan was entirely deliberate. Questions on the matter would have easily been anticipated by the embassy in advance; given the opportunity to correct the impression made by his colleague, Xiao instead reinforced it.
Nothing of any substance was denied, even if the language was adjusted: There might be a process through which the denizens of an occupied Taiwan would be brought to a “correct understanding” of the motherland, he said, before pivoting to implicitly dismiss the rights of the Taiwanese to have any say on the matter.
The statements on Taiwan by both diplomats were made consciously, in the presence of the media, knowing that their explosive comments could hardly be ignored. Indeed, the ambassador to France subsequently doubled down on his messaging on camps in a social media post.
Just as Xiao’s message aligned, in a more soft-spoken way, with that of Wang Yi on the need for Australia to “blink first” before relations improve – and his unsolicited reference to Pavlou echoed and reinforced the apparent campaign against him – so too, was China’s psychological warfare against Taiwan furthered through this little echo. Likewise, Xiao attempted (a tactic also used routinely by his CCP counterparts) to blur the lines between the actual stance adopted by much of the world on Taiwan (the “One China policy” which is very much not the same thing as the much-invoked “One China principle”).
The case could be made that the cumulative effect of the messaging, including its unexpected references, distortions, and amplifications, was to conduct a kind of psychological warfare that would be guaranteed to get media attention. By so doing, two of the three warfares are already at play – with the “lawfare” component made visible through the nod to Pavlou, the alleged instrumentalization of the British legal system against him, and lawyerly attempts to equivocate and reframe issues in terms that have meaning to Australian values and laws.
The point of such exercises appears to be to signal that no real compromise is on offer to Australia; to intimidate several audiences at once (particularly the Taiwanese; consider the chilling effect of raising the prospect of 21st century gulags for those outspoken on China); and to further strategic narratives (such as the demonstrably false canard that the world endorses Beijing’s stance on Taiwan). It also helped the party-state preposition itself for the next discursive turn.
As things stand, the narrative that may soon be applied to Australia is that Xiao’s outreach was met with rude defiance – making the country all the more deserving of whatever China does next. This would be entirely disingenuous, of course, because Beijing knows that no government in the current political climate could make a settlement on the terms currently proposed: Australia backs down; China concedes nothing.
Perhaps that was the whole point.