In earlier years Hastie had noted China's vast, global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative spanning at least 68 countries to date, and still in its early phase. But it didn't occur to him that this might be just a minor part of a much bigger Chinese strategy until he opened an email from John Garnaut early last year.
Garnaut is an Australian former Beijing correspondent for The Age and the Herald. He'd been retained by Malcolm Turnbull to write a classified report on China's operations in Australia.
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis Credit:
Garnaut's findings so alarmed the government that it led directly to Turnbull's bill outlawing foreign interference in Australia, a bill Labor helped pass into law. The Garnaut report remains classified. But Garnaut did send Hastie something else he'd written. As Hastie read, it struck him like a thunderclap.
We all know that China is vital to the living standards we enjoy every day in Australia. And we all know that our dominant trading partner is driven by an ideology that's alien to our own.
But how many of us have taken the trouble to study that ideology? And especially to study it in the way that Xi Jinping is implementing it in the world's rising superpower?
A bare handful, is the answer.
The former soldier started reading a speech the former journalist had delivered to an internal federal government seminar hosted by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in August 2017. It was titled Engineers of the Soul: what Australia needs to know about ideology in Xi Jinping's China.
Garnaut explained to his audience that today's Communist Party rulers of China are guided by the ancient imperial books that are "all about the rise and decay of dynasties". Garnaut related a telling fact about the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong: "Mao in particular was obsessed, as Mao’s one-time secretary Li Rui explained to me. He told me: 'He only slept on one-third of the bed and the other two-thirds of his bed was covered by books, all of which were thread-bound Chinese books, Chinese ancient books. His research was the strategies of emperors. That was how to govern this country. That was what he was most interested in.'"
The Garnaut paper sketched the connections between Mao then and Xi now. Xi's father worked with Mao in advancing the Communist revolution of 1949, and that makes Xi a "revolutionary successor", a so-called princeling in the Chinese Communist Party's aristocracy.
"In the view of China’s princelings," Garnaut wrote, "China is still trapped in the cycle which had created and destroyed every dynasty that had gone before.
"In this tradition, when you lose political power you don’t just lose your job (while keeping your super) as you might in our rather gentrified arrangement. You lose your wealth, you lose your freedom, you probably lose your life and possibly your entire extended family. You are literally erased from history. Winners take all and losers lose everything ... Xi and his comrades in the red dynasty believe they will go the same way as the Manchus and the Mings the moment they forget."
How to keep the red dynasty alive? Mao drew on a 1938 work by Russia's iron-fisted Communist ruler, Joseph Stalin, Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks.
According to Garnaut, it was Mao's manual for ruthlessly purging his peers, who were in cahoots with imagined Western agents working to restore liberalism and capitalism. Xi's deep purge of his party – in the form of an anti-corruption drive – is an earnest compliment to Mao and to Stalin.
"The key point about Communist Party ideology – the unbroken thread that runs from Lenin through Stalin, Mao and Xi – is that the party is and always has defined itself as being in perpetual struggle with the 'hostile' forces of Western liberalism," Garnaut continued.
"Xi is talking seriously and acting decisively to progress a project of total ideological control wherever it is possible for him to do so. His vision 'requires all the Chinese people to be unified with a single will like a strong city wall'," Garnaut wrote, quoting Xi.
Of course, communism is no longer a functional economic ideology in China. "All that remains is an ideology of power, dressed up as patriotism, but that doesn’t mean it cannot work," Garnaut wrote.
"Already, Xi has shown that the subversive promise of the internet can be inverted. In the space of five years, with the assistance of Big Data science and Artificial Intelligence, he has been bending the internet from an instrument of democratisation into a tool of omniscient control ...
"The audacity of this project is breathtaking. And so too are the implications. The challenge for us is that Xi’s project of total ideological control does not stop at China’s borders. It is packaged to travel with Chinese students, tourists, migrants and especially money. It flows through the channels of the Chinese language internet, pushes into all the world’s major media and cultural spaces and generally keeps pace with and even anticipates China’s increasingly global interests."
When Hastie finished reading, he saw the Chinese regime through an entirely new prism. And he paid much closer attention, testing Beijing's emerging behaviour against Garnaut's explanation.
Hastie now saw the news of Xi's sweeping censorship, for instance, through the lens of a program of total ideological control. The news of Xi's mass incarceration of a million or more of China's ethnic Uighur minority people in re-education camps, too, was now much more comprehensible as a part of his program of totalisation.
And so, too, Beijing's manipulation of its Confucius Institutes, embedded in dozens of universities around the democratic world, was starkly obvious as another tool for extending Chinese Communist Party ideology. Only now, as illustrated by the recent student demonstrations at the University of Queensland, have Australian universities started to wake up to their unwitting part in Xi's totalising project.
And then, in recent weeks, Hastie has heard for himself about Xi's intensified religious persecution of Christians. Hastie's father established the Mandarin Presbyterian Church in Sydney's inner west suburb of Ashfield. Through this connection, Hastie has learned of how Australian Christian missionaries in China are being questioned and detained, their networks dismantled.
The people of Hong Kong understand the threat to their slender, remaining rights. They are now struggling desperately. We know that Beijing has no moral compunction about using mass murder to control political protest, even peaceful protest. How? Because just this year Xi's Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, said the 1989 decision to massacre thousands of unarmed students in Tiananmen Square was "correct policy" to end "political turbulence".
John Howard, long an optimist in Australia's dealings with China, this week recognised that the old formula for Australia's relationship with Beijing can no longer operate.
"It is getting harder, because the regime in China now is a lot more authoritarian than the one that was in power 10 years ago," Howard said. "And what we are seeing in Hong Kong perhaps represents a glimpse of the future for Chinese society.”
Andrew Hastie thought that Australia needed to wake to the danger of Beijing's relentless intrusions. If he erred, it was to use a comparison to Hitler's Germany. Xi is ruthlessly repressive but not guilty of genocide.
Nonetheless, it was telling that Prime Minister Scott Morrison, while not embracing Hastie's warning, certainly did not contradict him. He merely pointed out that, as a backbencher, Hastie was "entirely entitled" to put his views.
Indeed, while some Liberal and Labor politicians criticised Hastie's language and his comparisons, not one of them argued against his central proposition. Hastie, taking Xi's own ideology seriously, is now deeply worried that China is a present threat to Australian sovereignty and liberty and his realisation is widely shared across both of Australia's major parties.
The final words of his piece this week: "The next decade will test our democratic values, our economy, our alliances and our security like no other time in Australian history."
The Hastie experience shows that Australia is still working out how to talk about the threat from China. But the big change is that, however awkward the topic when it involves your biggest trading partner, Australia is now talking about it.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.