In the face of sharpening differences and contested global developments, scholarly engagement with China is more vital than ever. But how can we do this without appearing to condone or legitimise constraints on academic freedom or human rights?

China has experienced perhaps the greatest economic transition the world has seen—from a poor, closed command economy to a modestly prosperous market economy, albeit with continuing socialist and authoritarian characteristics.

This transformation has also involved embracing aspects of liberal institutions in other market economies, though adapted very differently. However, under China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, the role of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been strengthened and human rights and freedoms constrained.

China has also been far more assertive under Xi in reclaiming its aspirational place on the world stage; in turn, this has been confronted by political responses from both Australia, as well as from the US during the presidencies of Obama, Trump and Biden.

These more recent developments have sharpened the differences that continue to exist between China and Western democracies (and in some cases widened them) and increased international tensions, presenting almost intractable challenges for engagement— at a time when China is more important than ever.

So how can Australia, and other democracies, navigate safely between this rock and a hard place?

Australia must invest in understanding China’s governance style. Photo: Michael Godfrey/DFAT (CC BY)

This is a question I and other scholars of governance have been grappling with for many years. While we don’t have all the answers, our latest book, Dilemmas in Public Management in Greater China and Australia: Rising Tensions but Common Challenges, provides a demonstration of what is possible without compromising our own values.

The book includes research from scholars in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as Australia. The chapters explore developments in inter-governmental relations, budgeting and financial management, the civil service and service delivery in the very different jurisdictions. They reveal many similar themes as governments face common challenges, but simultaneously show continuing fundamental differences.

Interestingly, it is possible to identify some shared principles of good governance that have emerged in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Australia (and Taiwan) despite the deep ideological and institutional differences.

These shared principles can be summarised as:

  • Concern for the longer-term notion of the public interest, despite much short-termism in decision-making;

  • The importance of a robust culture of public service, including responsiveness to citizens and communities (particularly for essential services and basic entitlements and accessibility);

  • Efforts to improve transparency and accountability (at least for deliverable outputs and access regimes):

  • Professional, competent and effective administration; and

  • Fairness in administrative procedures and treatment of clients, and equity of access to essential services.

These, of course, fall well short of Western democratic and liberal values.  

Yet, while there may have been some naïveté in the West that China’s ‘opening-up’ reforms, including the use of markets both domestically and internationally, would lead eventually to democratic political reform, the market liberalisation of the 1980s through to the 2000s did deliver more personal freedoms and greater government transparency as well as improved living standards for most of the population.

There is growing evidence, however, that the PRC’s more recent increase in authoritarianism with a winding back of some economic reforms is adversely affecting future economic growth and living standards more generally, not just human rights.

The role of the Chinese Communist Party has strengthened under President Xi Jinping. Photo: 360b/

This leaves open the possibility of some future reconsideration of the balance between state control and the economic liberalism needed to pursue its objective of becoming a ‘moderately wealthy’ nation. Perhaps  China will eventually become aware of the downsides of its recent strengthening of CCP control, including for economic growth and prosperity, as well as for human rights and academic freedom.

The CCP may in time recognise the benefits of a more pluralist society with checks and balances. But we cannot afford to be naïve, and we must accept that China will remain different even if there was to be a return to some of the previous ‘opening up’ agendas.

Still, China may claim that it rejects Western liberal ideas, but its continuing reforms reveal an ongoing desire for improved accountability and responsiveness to citizens’ needs and preferences, drawing on experience in developed countries such as Australia.

In the meantime, there is some recognition in the West of the need to repair damage done over the last decade or so to the application of democratic principles among Western nations themselves, particularly as the West criticises the policies and actions of authoritarian political regimes. For example. Australia may, with justification, criticise China’s authoritarianism, but it too has in recent years experienced excessive politicisation at the expense of impartial administration of the law.

The book encourages reflections such as these while providing details on developments in the three jurisdictions studied (the PRC, Taiwan and Australia). It also demonstrates that  meaningful and ongoing engagement between China and Australia is possible.

Engagement requires an open mind to different cultures and traditions, and to institutional arrangements that differ greatly from those in the West. It must allow scholars from different jurisdictions to express their own views based on their research, and not force a shared view.

It is also important not to require anyone to compromise the values they hold dear. Accordingly, care is needed to ensure engagement does not serve to condone or legitimise constraints on academic freedom or human rights.

It is vital that Australia invest in understanding how government works in China, how it is grappling with common as well as unique challenges. China too should invest in understanding how government works in Australia with which it has strong economic and social ties. Our longstanding diplomatic relations also warrant continued investment.

Engagement between our two countries is crucial, despite rising international tensions. Indeed, engagement is more important when such tensions exist; but care is needed to get the engagement right.

This article is based on edited extracts from the book
Dilemmas in Public Management in Greater China and Australia: Rising Tensions but Common Challenges, available for free download from ANU Press.

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