Former prime minister Paul Keating served his signature cocktail at the National Press Club this week: intelligence, insight and an occasional droplet of wisdom, all overpowered by the bitter taste of malice.
Australians do enjoy a bitter drink, of course, which is presumably why Mr Keating’s erudite vindictiveness so often draws adoration instead of scorn, but something about his bluster was too unsettling to brush aside this time.
Actually, unsettling is too mild a word. His performance was disgraceful.
First, the context. While Mr Keating’s evisceration of the AUKUS submarine deal, coupled with a stinging critique of his own party, were the substantive takeaways from the Press Club event, he got more attention for his personal invective towards multiple journalists.
There was little of the deliciously venomous wit that usually sets Mr Keating’s rudeness apart from, say, someone like Donald Trump. Instead he sank to the former US president’s level of low boorishness.
“I know you’re trying to ask a question, but the question is so dumb it’s hardly worth an answer,” he spat at one journalist. She had asked how Mr Keating could be so certain China was not a threat without being privy to security briefings (a perfectly fair question).
In a lengthier exchange, to which we’ll return momentarily, he suggested a reporter quit his career and never show his face in public again. Charming.
An important factor set all of this apart from Mr Keating’s usual bellicosity. Instead of distracting from some astute point he was making, as is normally the case, the entertainment value of his personal attacks diverted us from an uncomfortable issue he was trying to avoid: China’s monstrous treatment of the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority.
For years, China has been systematically targeting the Uighurs, incarcerating them en masse and attempting to stamp out their culture.
It’s built a series of complexes in Xinjiang province, which it describes euphemistically as “vocational training centres”. They are, in fact, re-education centres where torture and other human rights abuses are rife.
The exchange in question on Wednesday was between Mr Keating and The Sydney Morning Herald’s national security correspondent, Matthew Knott. I am going to quote it at length, in the interest of giving you the full context for Mr Keating’s remarks.
“You have a tremendous skill for invective and criticism. Could I ask you to turn some of that to the Chinese Communist Party and its treatment of the Uighurs, for example? Its treatment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong? Will you be similarly critical of them as you are of people in your own party and journalists?” Knott asked.
Mr Keating started by blasting a recent series of articles from the SMH, in which Knott and columnist Peter Hartcher cited a group of national security experts to argue that China is the “overwhelming source of danger to Australia” and we’re insufficiently prepared for it.
“You should hang your head in shame. I’m surprised you even have the gall to stand up in public and ask such a question, frankly. You ought to do the right thing and drum yourself out of Australian journalism,” Mr Keating said, accusing the paper of selecting “China hawks” as its specialists.
“You represent them to your community as having an independent view. You know full well that you’ve selected them to do this thing. And here you are asking me about Uighurs.”
(Side note: I’m not remotely interested in critiquing any other publication’s coverage here. Whether you agree or disagree with Mr Keating’s opinion, it has no bearing on his failure to adequately address the question at hand.)
Mr Keating then brought up Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s recent visit to India, and accused the media of ignoring that nation’s human rights abuses.
“There’s the Prime Minister and everyone over in India. Not one question from any one of you about (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi shutting in the Muslims in Kashmir in the pro-Hindu policies. Nothing,” said Mr Keating.
“There is still a question, Mr Keating, about the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs,” Press Club President Laura Tingle interjected.
“I’m not going to defend China about the Uighurs. There’s a dispute about what the nature of the Chinese affronts to the Uighurs are. There’s a dispute about that,” he responded.
“What if the Chinese said, ‘Look, what about the deaths in custody of Aboriginal people in your prison system? You know, wouldn’t that be a valid point for them? Would it not be a valid point?
“In other words, great power diplomacy cannot be about reaching down into the social entrails of these states any more than they can with us.
“But The Sydney Morning Herald, frankly, has lost – it’s a newspaper without integrity. And The Age follows it in like a little pup running behind. I mean, if I were you mate (he turned his attention back to Knott), I’d hide my face and never appear again.”
Knott jumped back in to respond.
“For the record Mr Keating, we’re very proud of our journalism and we think it has made an important contribution to the national debate,” he said.
“But can I just clarify, do you think it really is in dispute, what China has been doing in Xinjiang? It’s been very well chronicled by the United Nations, who issued a detailed report last year.”
“Well let me ask you, what do you believe Modi and his Hindu party are doing to the Muslims in Kashmir?” Mr Keating replied.
Knott pointed out that his question was about China, not India.
“Because you’re not honest enough to recognise that the guy that you support, Modi, has the same sorts of problems the Chinese have,” the former prime minister said.
“We have reported on problems in India as well. But we’re talking about China right now,” said Knott.
“No, you’re all a soft touch on India. That’s the truth of it,” Mr Keating said.
And at that point, Tingle moved on to a new question.
Compare the venom with which Mr Keating slams Australian journalists to his utter lack of curiosity, let alone criticism, when it comes to an alleged cultural genocide.
Write some articles he disagrees with: “You ought to hang your head in shame. You ought to drum yourself out of Australian journalism.”
Systematically oppress millions of people: “I’m not going to defend China about the Uighurs. There’s a dispute about the nature of its affronts to them.”
What sort of answer is that? It would be weak as watery piss coming from anyone, let alone someone with a legendary acid tongue.
The only genuine dispute about China’s “affronts”, incidentally, concerns scale and degree. We do not know exactly how many Uighurs have been unjustly imprisoned, for example. Is it one million or two? We do not know exactly how widespread each specific, horrific form of physical or psychological torture is.
It doesn’t matter. We know enough to form a judgment of China’s actions.
As Knott mentioned, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights published a report on China’s treatment of the Uighurs last August. It detailed “interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights”.
That report was only published after a lengthy delay, on the commissioner’s final day in office, after a sustained Chinese effort to suppress it.
Its findings added to an already significant body of evidence that the Uighurs have been subjected to torture, gender-based sexual violence, forced abortions, forced sterilisation, forced labour, arbitrary imprisonment and family separations. Those crimes are in addition to draconian restrictions on expression, movement and religious practices.
In mid-2021, the US State Department’s annual human rights report formally declared that China’s conduct amounted to genocide.
In June of that year, Amnesty International released a report detailing the accounts of more than 50 former detainees.
“Members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been subjected to an attack meeting all the contextual elements of crimes against humanity,” the report said. It’s worth reading in full.
“The Chinese authorities have created a dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said at the time.
“It should shock the conscience of humanity that massive numbers of people have been subjected to brainwashing, torture and other degrading treatment in internment camps, while millions more live in fear amid a vast surveillance apparatus.”
Yet, when this subject came up, Mr Keating’s first instinct was to have a go at the guy asking him about it. His second was to resort to feeble whataboutism: what about India’s treatment of Muslims? What about our own treatment of Indigenous Australians?
What’s the logic here? Modi gets away with repressing Muslims, and that makes it OK to ignore China’s crimes? Our own human rights failures, which most Australians deeply regret, permit Xi Jinping to commit his own without shame? Because that is the implication.
Pathetic. Disgraceful. There is a line between opposing alarmism, which is what Mr Keating thinks he’s doing, and becoming an apologist for Xi’s repressive regime. That line is not thin; it’s easy to spot. Somehow, our former PM is in danger of stumbling across it anyway.