It is a warm spring night and Government House in Perth is illuminated with a red, China themed glow.
Industry leaders, dignitaries and diplomats have been invited by the WA chapter of the Australia China Business Council to toast China’s National Day.
The mood is friendly as the state’s political, business and diplomatic elite rub shoulders over a spread of local produce, while Chinese music wafts through the crowd.
From the lectern, the WA Government’s Asian Engagement Minister, Peter Tinley, is eager to demonstrate just how engaged he is with China’s Consul General in Perth, Dong Zhihua.
“Can I also thank Madam Dong and acknowledge her presence, thank you once again. I see you so often I think we’ll move in together at some point,” he jokes.
The atmosphere is in stark contrast to the rebukes China has recently received from federal politicians, including Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who last month proclaimed the Chinese Communist Party had policies, “inconsistent with our own values”.
“We’re not going to allow university students to be unduly influenced, we’re not going to allow theft of intellectual property and we’re not going to allow our government bodies or non-government bodies to be hacked into,” he said.
Economic dependence increases
Former WA Liberal premier Colin Barnett said if he was Prime Minister Scott Morrison, he would have shut Mr Dutton down.
“I would have told him to be quiet,” he said.
Mr Barnett signed big resource deals with China in his eight-and-a-half years running the state during the mining construction boom from 2008–17.
But he said many east coast politicians did not understand the Asian superpower.
“I think there’s been a fair bit of jealousy because this was the big trade event and we won’t see in the future the sort of growth that we’ve seen over this decade,” he said.
While WA’s mining boom may be over, exports to China remain strong.
Resources worth $81 billion head north from WA to China each year.
Unsurprisingly, iron ore exports make up the lion’s share, worth $62 billion.
Exports to China from WA dwarf those of other Australian states, revealing how dependent the state’s economy is on the country as a buyer.
Chinese companies are also significant investors in WA’s mining industry.
It controls eight of the state’s foreign-controlled mines, second only to the UK, which is the controlling owner of 14.
Fortescue Metals Group sells billions of dollars worth of iron ore mined in WA to China every year.
Australia’s trade relationship with China is one FMG’s founder and chairman Andrew Forrest was keen to preserve.
“I find them a tremendous people to work with, to engage with and to make very true friendships from,” he said.
Are we getting too close?
But author, China researcher and Charles Sturt University public ethics professor Clive Hamilton warned some Australian businesses and state and territory governments had succumbed to intense lobbying by China and become too close.
“The best way to understand this is through the lens of [former Chinese leader] Mao Zedong’s tactic of ‘use the countryside to surround the city’,” he said.
“This was a tactic developed during the civil war against the nationalists in the 1920s and 30s — when the Communist Party could not defeat the nationalists in the city, they had to retreat to the countryside.
“They’re using the same principle all around the world, including in Australia.
“When the environment in Canberra became more hostile or suspicious or vigilant, let’s say starting about three years ago, Beijing decided that they would focus a lot more effort on the countryside — that is on the outlying states Western Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory, but also they’ve had these huge victories in Victoria.
“So they’ve been cultivating and building their political influence in Western Australia and other parts of the ‘countryside’ as a way of surrounding Canberra, as it were.”
The huge victory Professor Hamilton cited was Victoria’s decision to sign up to China’s controversial Belt and Road initiative.
China’s most controversial win in the Top End came in 2015, when the Northern Territory Government agreed to lease the Port of Darwin to the Chinese company Landbridge.
Over in Western Australia, the State Government signed a deal that will see the Chinese tech-giant Huawei build a new communications system for Perth’s metropolitan trains, despite the Federal Government blocking the company from Australia’s 5G network on security grounds.
Tensions on the federal level
But not everyone in the west is happy with Beijing.
WA Federal Liberal MP Andrew Hastie made headlines when he used an opinion piece in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers to compare the handling of China’s rise to the failure to contain the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
The comments were “deplored” by the Chinese Embassy in response.
Mr Hastie also called out China’s treatment of its Uyghur population — an ethnic Muslim minority, members of which Beijing authorities have locked up en masse.
“I am very troubled by the clear evidence of re-education camps, where one million Uyghurs have been forcibly detained and indoctrinated into communist thinking,” Mr Hastie told Federal Parliament last month.
Vision, posted anonymously online in September and verified as authentic by experts, showed freshly shaven and blindfolded Uyghurs during a mass transfer of people in China’s Xinjiang Province.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has also recently spoken out against the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“Turning a blind eye to all human rights violations means an acceptance of behaviour that undermines the foundations of international peace and stability,” she said.
“Where there is no challenge, there is no progress.”
But China’s Consul General in Perth, Dong Zhihua, argued the Uyghurs were being retrained to prevent terrorism.
“What we are actually doing is that we help those young people to learn practical skills so that they can find jobs … and avoid those young people being influenced by the extremist ideas,” she said.
WA political, business leaders remain tight-lipped
China’s human rights record was not something Mr Forrest wanted to discuss.
“You could be assured that Fortescue does not do its diplomacy through headlines,” he said.
“We stand on our track record of [fighting] modern slavery, we stand on our track record of human rights.”
WA Premier Mark McGowan also would not be drawn on criticism of China over the Uyghurs issue.
“I’m aware it’s a federal issue, I don’t really engage at that level,” he said.
“My role is to make sure that West Australians have jobs and opportunities, to make sure we have good relationships with the countries in our region.”
Pressed further, he declined to make a single criticism of China’s leadership or conduct in the world.
“Look I’m not going to get into that,” he said.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
“They should, if they have criticisms or they want to take issues up, you take them up in a more refined way, a more subtle way.”
Professor Hamilton said of all the states in Australia, WA was the one that was most under the influence of Chinese Communist Party bosses in Beijing.
“I think that over the last decade or two, political and business leaders in Western Australia have become so hooked on the money that’s flowing in that they’ve decided that they’re willing to trade off human rights and democracy,” he said.
By Eliza Borrello