Why is Kevin Rudd using Chinese social media to criticise Malcolm Turnbull in Mandarin?

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Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has taken to popular Chinese social media site Weibo to criticise Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s “paranoid and all over the place” policies towards Beijing, as well as muse about various other China-related issues.

Key points:

  • Kevin Rudd says Mr Turnbull has “derailed China-Australia relations” for political reasons
  • Opinions of his posts are mixed with some cheering him on while others see it as staged
  • Mr Rudd was unavailable to comment

One recent post features a photo of Mr Rudd studying President Xi Jinping’s 2017 speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China with a caption that says “China is entering a new era”.

Writing and blogging regularly in Mandarin Chinese, the former Australian prime minister has found a receptive audience of more than 613,000 followers for his personal views on the Australia-China relationship.

“I have just criticised Turnbull on Australian television because he derailed China-Australia relations for his domestic political interests. That is very irresponsible,” Mr Rudd wrote on April 24.

“Frankly, it was irresponsible and very problematic for Turnbull to say that ‘the Australian people have stood up’,” he adds in another April post, referring to when Mr Turnbull last year struck out at Beijing and declared using a popular Maoism in Mandarin Chinese after announcing new espionage legislations.

“[It was] an insult to Chinese people, to Chinese-Australians, and to Australians,” Mr Rudd goes on.

“I have always called for Australia to value its friendship with China – to establish systematic and comprehensive China-Australian strategic relation instead of being paranoid and all over the place.”

Although Mr Rudd’s feud with Mr Turnbull dates back years — the two most recently clashed in 2016 when Mr Turnbull contemplated but refused to nominate Mr Rudd as a candidate for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations, saying Mr Rudd lacked the temperament for the role — his taking to Chinese social media to express his views has perplexed observers.

“[The posts reflect] personal animosity between him and Malcolm Turnbull, as well as perhaps his own desire to make himself relevant,” Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University, says.

“A lot of controversies right now about Australia-China relations and other related issues are often being read by politicians and people outside of politics through a partisan lens.”

While Mr Rudd’s Weibo commentary about Australian foreign policy and Xi Jinping are unlikely to have any impact on Australian policies, some China experts told the ABC he may be inadvertently promoting a widely held view in the Chinese community that concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in Australia comes from a place of xenophobia and paranoia.

A media spokesperson for Mr Rudd asked for questions to be submitted but responded that the former prime minister would not be able to comment on the topic for the time being.

In the comments sections of the posts, opinions are divided, with some showing appreciation towards Mr Rudd’s Chinese language skills while others chide him for trying too hard.

“You [Rudd] know what Chinese people like to hear,” one Weibo user said.

“He claims to be a bridge that connects China and the West, but he’s really just repeating the same populist nonsense to both sides. He is in fact a cunning, double-dealing politician,” another user wrote.

But with Weibo’s major user group being people who were born post 1990s, Dr Pradeep Taneja, who teaches Chinese politics and international relations at the University of Melbourne, suggests Mr Rudd has been successful winning the hearts of young Chinese.

Growing mistrust of Australia

“In Australia, he won in the 2007 election on the back of support from young people. He was able to mobilise lots of young people and first-time voters to vote for him,” Dr Taneja said.

“That’s his strength. And now he’s trying to cultivate the same thing in China.”

In January, when Mr Rudd visited Wuhan University of Engineering Science, he got down on one knee before student Ye Tian and helped tie her loose shoelaces.

The university’s website later published a news article about the event and said Mr Rudd’s act “deeply moved Ye Tian so that tears wet her eyes”.

Support for Mr Rudd poured in on Weibo, praising him for being a real gentleman.

“Old Rudd, does Australia export prime ministers?” One comment asks.

Mr Rudd has long talked about a desire to build Chinese support in case Australia’s alliances change in the future, but he has also had a fractious relationship with China at times.

When elected in 2007, his fluent Mandarin and impressive knowledge of Chinese culture promised warming relations.

“There was a great deal of excitement in China, but soon after when he visited China and gave that famous speech in Peking University, his relationship with China’s leadership went downhill.”

In the speech, Mr Rudd highlighted human rights abuses in Tibet, as he vowed to keep pursuing the issue with Chinese leaders.

“He burnt his bridges with the Chinese leadership a long time ago, but he is hoping that he can at least rebuild that connection,” Dr Taneja said.

“I think most Chinese people realise that Kevin Rudd is someone who was once a prime minister, and that his chances of becoming prime minister again are basically zero,” Dr Taneja added.

“Therefore, you know, they find it entertaining to see how he is expressing opinions.”

Mr Rudd restricted the comments on one of his posts where he’s sitting at a desk making notes while appearing to read the Chinese President’s 2017 National Congress report.

“It struck me as … unique. It was not something I would expect to come from a former prime minister, who in my understanding probably knows a fair amount about contemporary China and Chinese politics,” Dr Carrico said.

“It struck me as an interesting way of representing himself. I’m sure that this will resonate with some audiences. At the same time, I found it puzzling because I don’t know what he could be intending to convey with an image like that. I think everyone will find it a little odd,” even the Chinese people, Dr Carrico added.

“I mean, does anybody actually believe that Kevin Rudd is actually sitting there studying a report from the 19th National Party Congress?

“It just seems so horribly artificial and fake that I think almost anyone could see through that.”

By Vicky Xiuzhong Xu
ABC News

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