China’s then commerce minister Gao Hucheng (left) and Australia’s then prime minister Tony Abbott (centre) and minister for trade Andrew Robb pose for a photo after signing a free trade agreement between the two countries on June 17, 2015, in Canberra, Australia. The era of enthusiasm and optimism from the wider world over engagement with China appears to be at an end, representing a loss for all sides. Photo: Getty Images
Harry Harding
Harry Harding

A China closed off from the rest of the world is a loss to everyone

  • The days of China’s rise driving international forums, meetings and events bringing people together from all over the globe seem like a distant memory
  • The growing gap between China and other countries is a loss for everyone involved, the world as a whole and the future of multilateralism

Politics and China have long been a tedious combination, requiring the delicate application of subtlety and ambiguity to straddle an omnipresent gap. The lengths required to keep one foot planted firmly on either side have now become so great that those attempting to maintain balance see that even the slightest wobble could result in a devastatingly steep fall, in terms of both career and personal relationships.

The four decades following China’s exploration into reform and opening up saw levels of engagement skyrocket to unprecedented levels. The Belt and Road Initiative has acted as additional fertiliser that saw the spawning of international forums, meetings and events bringing people from all corners of the world together, as long as they weren’t opposed to the grand plan.
But since China has seemingly recalibrated its direction, tensions between Western countries and China have grown worse and Covid-19 has all but closed China’s borders, those days of fruitful interaction feel more like a distant memory.

Almost three years since the pandemic’s initial outbreak, it is unclear when, or if, that kind of engagement might return. If it does, it is also unclear who might be welcome to rejoin.

Among those once invited to attend such gatherings were former heads of state, CEOs and directors of the world’s top enterprises, as well as global scholars who had dedicated their lives to understanding an ever-evolving China. Some might now find themselves unsuitable for participation when the gates reopen.

As an Australian journalist and presenter for a Chinese media organisation, I have long felt the pressure associated with living simultaneously between two oftentimes contradictory worlds, especially in the last two to three years as diplomatic tensions rose between my home country and my host country.


Talking Post: Kevin Rudd unpacks the risk of war between China and the US with Yonden Lhatoo

Talking Post: Kevin Rudd unpacks the risk of war between China and the US with Yonden Lhatoo

Nothing has made that more obvious than the response I sometimes receive on social media platforms, both inside and outside China, where context is difficult to provide but the backlash can wreak havoc on your mental health. A comment or even a like on a post can lead to real-world repercussions and even end friendships.

But for those engaged in China from outside the country in 2022, those difficulties have been felt to an even greater extent. Some who have enjoyed gainful careers with a focus on China and a passion for bridge-building now worry that statements or works published outside the country could jeopardise their ability to return once China’s border restrictions do ease.

Others already know they will most likely be excluded from the invite list once they do, despite their wealth of knowledge and experience in the field, because of various public political stances.


Trade ‘only one part of the battle‘ in China-Australia dispute, says legal expert Bryan Mercurio

Trade ‘only one part of the battle‘ in China-Australia dispute, says legal expert Bryan Mercurio
Tough questions are being asked. Be vocal on issues such as trade disputes and human rights, regardless of one’s position either way, or maintain a low profile in hopes that tangible engagement will soon resume? Suffer short-term ridicule or criticism among peers on both sides of the fence to maintain access and prospectively contribute long-term, or hedge one’s bets and make an early withdrawal?
Aside from the obvious barriers brought on by Covid-19, ideological divisions are also seeping their way into many fields that would once have been thought purely apolitical, such as energy and climate change.

And for the first time in more than four decades, for some, the prospect of engagement with the world’s most populous country is now coming at simply too high of a price.

Australia warns of ‘long road’ ahead in stabilisation of ties with China

Reform and opening up not only brought about one of the most sensational economic rises in human history, bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China, but it also brought two once-alienated worlds together. Those worlds are now colliding with so much force that anyone unlucky enough to find themselves caught wedged in between are slowly losing hope that the common ground on which they once flourished has all but evaporated.

This is a growing challenge that isn’t just a loss for China. It is a loss for the global community and the future of multilateralism.

Harry Harding is a presenter and journalist based in Guangzhou and Guangzhou Chapter Director of the Australia-China Young Professionals Initiative