‘Let me buy Rio Tinto’: China’s brazen bid to buy our companies

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Within two days of being sworn in as the 38th Treasurer of Australia, Joe Hockey found himself in a traditional-style hut on the island of Bali. Chinese officials had been back and forth to the hut again and again to arrange to the last detail the meeting that Hockey was about to have with China’s finance minister.

But when Lou Jiwei entered, Hockey was utterly unprepared for his opening words.

Lou shook the Australian’s hand, sat down, lit a cigarette without asking Hockey’s permission and said: “Why won’t you let me buy Rio Tinto?” the giant Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate.

Joe Hockey didn't expect Chinese finance minister Lou Jiwei's questions.
Joe Hockey didn’t expect Chinese finance minister Lou Jiwei’s questions.Photo: Alex Ellinghausen, Christopher Pearce

It was Hockey’s first meeting with his Chinese counterpart, once ranked by Forbes magazine as the 30th most powerful person on earth. Recovering from his surprise, Hockey replied: “That’s fine – as long as you’ll let Qantas buy China Southern”, one of the Middle Kingdom’s big three airlines.

Lou, who had a history of buying foreign assets as the previous chair of China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation, tried another angle. “All I want,” he told Hockey through an interpreter, “is to buy 15 per cent of your top 200 listed companies”, according to a person who was in the room during the entire September 2013 meeting on the sidelines of the APEC finance ministers meeting.

The Australian treasurer laughed at the brazenness of the bid. Lou then tried asking for authority to buy multi-billion dollar shareholdings in Australia’s major banks, prompting Hockey to suggest they move the conversation to a “more meaningful topic”.

The hubris of the Chinese Communist Party has reached a great and giddy high.

“If we think about things cooly … China’s enemy is itself.”

Luo Jianbo, head of the China Foreign Policy Centre

Illustration: Dionne Gain
Illustration: Dionne Gain

Sometimes it’s the arrogance on display in the grand offers, designed to impress and intimidate. Sometimes its the lack of old-fashioned manners. Like Lou lighting his cigarette without asking first. Or another case a few years ago. A Chinese minister walked into the Parliament House office of an Australian Liberal Party minister in the course of a negotiation.

The visitor sat on the sofa, reclined with his hands locked behind his head, and put his feet up on the coffee table. He crossed his ankles casually, the soles of his shoes pointed towards his Australian host. A mere detail, yes, but a telling one. It infuriated the Australian, who was still steaming as he recounted the story years later.

Meng Jianzhu in 2016.
Meng Jianzhu in 2016.Photo: AP

And sometimes it’s threats. Like the one last year when a Chinese politbureau-level official tried to bully the leaders of Australia’s Labor party. Beijing wanted to strike an extradition treaty with Australia so that the Communist Party could pursue Chinese citizens who’d fled to Australia.

The Turnbull government had agreed. But Labor was reluctant. A key reason was that Australia has always refused to extradite people to countries that, like China, use the death penalty.

Bill Shorten and two other Labor frontbenchers, Penny Wong and Richard Marles, met Meng Jianzhu, the then secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party, a powerful body that controls China’s police, in Sydney in April 2017.

To get his way, Meng threatened to mobilise the Chinese diaspora living in Australia to vote against the Labor party. The Labor leaders were unbowed and unimpressed. “We cannot let these bastards push us around,” one later remarked to a colleague. Labor continued to oppose the extradition treaty.

Within the Turnbull government, a rebellion broke out against the proposal, and the government withdrew the plan. The extradition treaty is a dead letter.

Last week China’s imperial hubris flared into view in the middle of a meeting of leaders of the Pacific Islands, some of the smallest countries in the world. China is not a member but, like other countries, has been given the status of a “dialogue partner” of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The leader of China’s delegation demanded to be allowed to address the leaders’ meeting. The Chinese official, Beijing’s ambassador to Fiji, wanted precedence over a Pacific leaders. But the chair and host, Nauru’s President Baron Waqa, ruled in favour of the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. The Chinese official angrily made an ostentatious exit.

“He insisted and was very insolent about it, and created a big fuss and held up the meeting of leaders for a good number of minutes when he was only an official,” Waqa later told reporters. “So maybe because he was from a big country he wanted to bully us.”

Every nation has some pride, even Nauru, population 12,000. China talks of equality of nations and “win-win solutions”. But its behaviour towards other nations is increasingly an expression of the remark made in 2010 by its then foreign affairs minister, Yang Jiechi, speaking to his Singaporean counterpart: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

Nauru President Baron Waqa
Nauru President Baron Waqa Photo: Michelle Smith

Are we non-Chinese just being a bit too sensitive to China’s power? It’s not just outside China that this has become a topic of debate. Chinese national hubris has become a point of a running debate within the country itself.

A leading Chinese foreign policy leader and intellectual, Luo Jianbo, head of the China Foreign Policy Centre at the Central Party School, wrote in an essay last year of a “precocious yet definitely immature sense of national greatness” that is “still perhaps undergoing rapid inflation”. He cited specifically China’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative as as illustration of grandiosity.

“I recall a topic hotly debated online by young internet users: Who is really China’s enemy? Is it America? Japan? Russia?,” he wrote. “If we think about things cooly, perhaps none of them are. China’s enemy is itself.”

Luo counselled his compatriots that “fostering a mature sense of national strength is necessary”. “It is about confidence without arrogance, pride without conceit.” His essay is still trending on the social media site WeChat, a year after it was published.

China should remember that although it is still rising at a dizzying rate, it will not continue forever. Perhaps only another decade or two. As the OECD projected in its recent report The Long View: Scenarios for the World Economy to 2060: “China’s share of world output peaks during the 2030s at about 27 per cent and declines slowly thereafter, while India’s share keeps rising. Each accounts for a fifth to a quarter of the world economy in 2060.”

Hubris, as the ancient Greeks knew, inevitably is followed by nemesis.

By Peter Hartcher
SMH

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