David Walker on China and tech

James Riley
Editorial Director

As China’s economic power grows, its cultural power will also grow, together with a desire to project that cultural power, according to long-time China watcher and the inaugural BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at Beijing University David Walker.

This simple observation will apply as much to the development of global technology standards as it does to more generic cultural issues and will be one of the most difficult challenges for the West – and Australia in particular – to comprehend and accommodate.

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Professor Walker, who is the director of the Foundation for Australian Studies in China and an Emeritus Professor at Deakin University, this year published Stranded Nation: White Australia in an Asian Region which explores the Australian relationship with our region – and China in particular – between the 1930s through the post war era to engagement in the mid to late seventies.

There are lessons that can be drawn from the historical relationship with China. The book covers the period of transition in which Australia shifted itself from being an essentially white nation that framed its identity as set apart from its time zone neighbours to recognising that it had to be a part of the region.

The vast economic growth of China from the 1980s is simply a latest chapter in the relationship – but it is still being framed as threat.

Prof Walker does not claim to be a technology expert, but he says there are lessons that should be understood about the way China’s economic influence is viewed.

‘Technology’ has increasingly become a central theme in the relationship – because both the technology and the language of technology has become intertwined and integral to issues of defence and security – particularly in relation to communications technology.

“These technologies have a capacity to interfere and to intrude upon domestic politics. And communications technology is integral to defence, security and maintaining our hold over who we are and where we are going [as a nation],” he said.

David Walker is the featured speaker at the ‘Listening to China’ Q&A session being hosted by the China Australia Trade Investment Council (CATIC) on Thursday. The conversation is being moderated by InnovationAus.com publisher Corrie McLeod who will co-lead CATIC’s 2019 Senior Women Leaders trade mission to China in September.

Professor Walker calls it the “securitisation of communication” and says this will continue to be a sore point in the relationship.

As China’s economic influence grows, so will its desire to set the road rules of how things are done in the world. This is a normal manifestation of economic growth and power, but will likely have a big impact on the development of technology and technical standards.

“This is going to be one of the things that is really hard for us to comprehend and to adapt to, because for 250 to 300 years of European dominance, our ideas have been the ones that determine how things are done,” he said.

“I run an argument whereby cultural power is not entirely related to economic power, but that they are pretty closely related.

“As China’s economic power grows, its cultural power will also grow. And with that cultural power comes an expectation that its way of doing things will be regarded as more normal.

“It will see its role in determining how things are done and in setting the rules for how things are done are commensurate with its economic power.

“Those are huge shifts for us, because by-and-large in the west we have ruled the roost and called the shots … for three centuries.”

Professor Walker says a bright spot for Australia in the technology relationship is in its research and development relationships. Australian universities and research institutions have strong relationships in China.

He says the most recent manifestation of the way the China relationship is viewed in mainstream Australia is around the trade relationship. But he argues this new chapter is not suddenly more important that other periods in the China-Australia relationship.

“It wasn’t as if China was unimportant and it has suddenly become important [to Australia]. What has happened is that China has always been important to us, but that importance has always kept shifting,” Prof Walker said.

“With the opening of China in the late 1970s, that story progressively shifted to a trade story, and a ‘rise of China’ story,” he said.

“One of the things that we need to pay attention to is the fact that our framing of China has often been a negative one. We’ve often been looking for malevolent behaviour in China or dangerous behaviour, and so our antennae tend to be alert to that or even hyper-alert.”

Prof Walker says that kind of thinking is prevalent in Clive Hamilton’s recent book ‘The Silent Invasion’ and feeds into deeply embedded stereotypes.

“You can’t use the term ‘invasion’ without being aware of the fact that that has been one of the central motifs about ‘rising Asia’ from the late 19th century onwards – that they are going to take us over, or they are going to overwhelm us or somehow destroy us,” he said.

“We have to be aware to be aware of the fact that we might be influenced in all sorts of ways by a predilection to see China in negative ways.”

David Walker is the featured speaker at the ‘Listening to China’ Q&A session being hosted by the China Australia Trade Investment Council (CATIC) and Mitchellake on Thursday. The conversation is being moderated by InnovationAus.com publisher Corrie McLeod who will co-lead CATIC’s 2019 Senior Women Leaders trade mission to China in September. You can register to attend here.

On the 22nd of May in Sydney, InnovationAus.com will host a conversation with Jared Mondschein, Senior Fellow and Senior Advisor at the US Studies Centre, Andrea Myles, CEO & Co Founder of the China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP) and Duco Van Breeman, General Manager of Haymarket HQ, on the opportunities to collaborate in innovation. You can register to attend here.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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