The corona/Wuhan/Covid-19 virus has done an excellent job of educating everyone in Australia regardless of politics — except for Bob Carr and Andrew Forrest. And by education, I don’t mean how to flatten the curve. I mean educational in the sense of the two important lessons we should have learnt.
Those lessons are related to the two policies that Western nations like the United States and Australia have argued will moderate the rising military power of the Chinese Communist Party even while we profit from them.
The most obvious policy has been our economic engagement with China, an engagement that involved the voluntary and involuntary transfer of science, technology and manufacturing from the West, but mostly from the United States, to China and the abandonment of domestic manufacturing in favour of Chinese imports.
Australia was a little different. By encouraging the sale of iron and coal to China with no quid pro quo, it adopted much the same policy for which Menzies was called pig-iron Bob.
The basic assumption of the Clinton and Bush administrations was that Chinese economic engagement with free markets would moderate the Chinese attachment to Communism. Looking objectively at Chinese domestic policy and its hegemonic foreign policy, we can now see the mistake was in believing that the CCP were real communists. The CCP was only ever attached to increasing wealth and worldwide power, and they could have their cake and eat it while the US and Australia kept supplying the ingredients.
The other policy was so intellectual that I wondered how the Chinese stopped laughing long enough to agree to it. It involved the supply of educational services to mainland Chinese students – at least, to those who could afford the enormous fees.
With education, it was argued that by requiring Chinese students to study in a Western nation like Australia (or the United States), those bright, young, intelligent (intelligence?) Chinese men and women would learn the value of freedom, return home and change its politics.
We know now that the education these young people received did not change their opinions about liberal democracy at all. How could it, when the education in Australian and US universities has abandoned any consideration of theory, whether of science or philosophy in favour of teaching the skills they may need in future employment.
It is an education favoured by both the left and the right: the business sector wants skills to be readily available without having to provide it, and socialist education unions have opposed all meaningful changes to the education paradigm because their own members would not be fit for purpose and then there is always their own job security.
Many Chinese students have obtained a STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) education in Australia and the US which has been critical to Chinese R&D. When compulsory technology transfer, unauthorised collaboration and research theft from the US universities are added, all of which happen in Australia as well, it has been the Australian and US education systems that have been responsible for the accelerated development of Chinese military technology.
The idea that engagement with China through education will liberalise Chinese politics might have been successful had the Commonwealth understood what true education was. Then young Chinese men and women would have learnt what the best political regime according to human nature really is and from reading Xenophon why communism will always be a tyranny. Instead, the Commonwealth has been instrumental in allowing universities to offer only skill-based training at the expence of theory.
The Greek philosopher, Plato, understood true education to be character-forming. Plato meant by character, good character, the character of the perfect gentleman. That is what is meant by a liberal education. Of course, it is not available in Australia and only marginally available in the United States.
Had it been provided to Chinese students one might expect that over time have those students would have had a moderating influence on the power of the CCP.
A liberal education is the opposite of what the CCP wants from our Western education system; the last thing young Chinese men and women need is to understand why Marx’s Communism is defective and how to recognise a tyrant.
Perhaps that is precisely why it isn’t available in Australia. Representatives of Australia’s left-wing education unions displayed the same ignorance and lack of concern for their students’ when they opposed the introduction of Western Civilisation courses to Australian universities.
So we have learnt something from the corona shutdown. We have learnt that Adam Smith was wrong when he thought trade alone would provide a moral education for those so engaged. China has become more wealthy, a bigger trader and just as reprehensible.
We have also learnt why our children go to university and emerge worse than when they went in.
Dr David Long is a retired solicitor and economist.
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