Charming China while criticising her human rights record: Kevin Rudd shows us how

by | Apr 13, 2008

Australia’s PM Kevin Rudd – who as David noted is “surely the wonkiest head of state ever” – continues to charm the pants off everyone he comes across. 

While Gordon Brown manages to annoy everyone with his foreign policy equivocations (FT: “He will not be going to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, but that should in no way be construed as a boycott. He receives the will-o’-the-wisp Olympic flame at 10 Downing Street but lets it be known that he did not touch it.”), Kevin achieves the opposite: he goes to Beijing, wags the finger on human rights, and leaves his audience purring.

Here’s an excerpt from his Beijing speech last week:

This year, as China hosts the Olympics, the eyes of the world will be on you and the city of Beijing. It will be a chance for China to engage directly with the world, both on the sports field and on the streets of Beijing. Some have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of recent problems in Tibet. As I said in London on Sunday, I do not agree. I believe the Olympics are important for China’s continuing engagement with the world.

Australia like most other countries recognises China’s sovereignty over Tibet. But we also believe it is necessary to recognise there are significant human rights problem in Tibet. The current situation in Tibet is of concern to Australians. We recognise the need for all parties to avoid violence and find a solution through dialogue. As a long-standing friend of China I intend to have a straightforward discussion with China’s leaders on this.  We wish to see the year 2008 as one of harmony, and celebration – not one of conflict and contention.

So obviously that would lead to swift condemnation from the Chinese press for ‘meddling’, together with vociferous outrage from students, nationalists and other hotheads, right?  Er, not quite.  The Australian newspaper polled some of the audience afterwards:

Although Mr Rudd’s comments about “significant human rights problems in Tibet,” might draw ire from his hosts Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, China’s top students appeared unfazed. Many went so far as to agree with Mr Rudd that handling ongoing unrest in Tibet peacefully and through dialogue was the best way to resolve the issue that has placed China’s communist leaders under the global spotlight for nearly a month.

“I agreed with what he said,” Li Yang, a graduate student in environmental sciences, said following the speech. “The Tibetan issue should be resolved without violence and through dialogue, this is correct.” Although Mr Rudd’s speech touched on many such sensitive issues, he also received praise for voicing intentions to become a friend in the true Chinese tradition, who can “offer unflinching advice and counsels restraint”. 

And of course, it can’t have hurt that the whole speech was delivered in flawless Mandarin: 

“His Chinese is very good, he speaks Chinese very well,” said Hong Ziyun, a first year law student. “He really understands Chinese history and culture.”

Meanwhile, China Daily had this to say: “Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd enthralled his audience at Peking University with an intimate grasp of China affairs and a thorough understanding of global politics yesterday.” 

Top marks to Rudd for diplomatic deftness.  But also a clue, maybe, as to what kind of approach towards dealing with current concerns over Tibet is likely to have most influence…


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...