ALTHOUGH there is a lot of water still to flow, we can now say that China has succeeded in its essential aim in the arrest of Australian citizen Stern Hu. Beijing's aim is to intimidate Australia, our government, our corporations and the broader civil society.
Only a fool could imagine that Hu's arrest was anything other than a complete political set-up.
The idea that, just coincidentally, Hu embarked on a new career as a criminal just after Rio had rejected a $25billion bid by the Chinese government-owned Chinalco for 18 per cent and two board seats, and in the midst of tense iron ore price negotiations, is ludicrous.
Similarly, that Beijing refused to communicate privately with the Rudd government about Hu's case for a week, and treated subsequent comments by Kevin Rudd with ostentatious contempt, eloquently explains the purpose of this arrest.
Given Hu's seniority as the No.2 man in China for one of the world's biggest mining companies, it is clear his arrest was approved personally by China's President Hu Jintao. In other words, Beijing has very deliberately decided to discipline and instruct Australia. Of all our politicians, former treasurer Peter Costello has recognised this most clearly, saying: "Since (Stern) Hu is now in detention, someone else will have to lead Rio's negotiations with the Chinese steel mills. My guess is that they will not push negotiations as strenuously as Hu."
As so often happens in matters of fundamental importance, our federal politicians have responded much better than those who give them advice, especially the academic experts. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith publicly criticised the Chinese for not providing information to Canberra, rejected outright the initial Chinese espionage charge against Hu, and commented that it was difficult for Australians to understand how normal commercial negotiations could be regarded as criminal security matters.
Financial Services Minister Chris Bowen and Smith both said China would harm its international reputation through the Hu matter.
Rudd made similar comments and took them further by saying the world was watching China's treatment of Hu, and reminded "our Chinese friends" that they too had big economic interests at stake in the relationship with Australia.
Three things about these comments are notable. First, they represent the truth. Second, they make sense only if Hu is innocent. And, third, they are probably as tough asany prime minister could make in the circumstances.
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has played a constructive role by asking the government to do more. Naturally, he couches this as criticism of Rudd -- we live in a two-party adversarial democracy, after all -- but the effect of Turnbull's comments is to strengthen Rudd's position and solidify Australian society in its objection to the blatant act of aggression involving Hu.
The main argument about China's national interests that Rudd and others can deploy is that the Hu case harms China's reputation in the international business community. US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, in a distinguished act of solidarity with Australia, raised the Hu case in China and made that very point.
Nonetheless, it seems clear Beijing has decided it is happy to pay that reputational price. The weeks wear on, Hu stays in jail and the pull back to business as usual will get stronger. Its sheer unreasonableness almost guarantees Beijing a victory. But the less fuss Australia makes, the more Beijing will see it as a weak country and a pushover, and the more it will be encouraged to repeat acts of intimidation. When dealing with a much bigger power, pre-emptive, wide-ranging surrender denoting a lack of self-respect is seldom the way to maximise your position.
What has been galling in this episode is the needless and sterile pro-appeasement attitude taken by those quasi-academic commentators who dominate debate about China, both through their own interventions and because most press gallery journalists seem to have only three or four names in their contact book when seeking expertise on China.
Ross Garnaut, a former Australian ambassador to China, has argued constantly that we should see the iron ore dispute from China's point of view, even, with infinite fatuousness, citing Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Garnaut seems to think that by charging China the market price for commodities Australian companies have caused deep cultural offence, and of course he argues the Hu case should not be "high profile".
Hugh White, a professor of sorts at the Australian National University, says: "I do not believe there is anything Rudd can achieve apart from insisting that Stern Hu be treated according to Chinese law and our consular agreement be upheld. Beyond that, we have no standing. The trick for Australia is to avoid seeing that situation as a defeat."
This is bizarre. If you suffer a defeat, the germ of wisdom is to at least understand the reality of what happened. If Hu, an Australian citizen and a senior executive, was imprisoned without just cause to intimidate Australia and we cannot secure his freedom, how is that anything but a defeat? White is counselling national derangement in the interests of not offending Beijing.
But the prize for the most foolish Australian newspaper column written about China surely goes to another ANU professor, Peter Drysdale. A couple of weeks before Hu's arrest, Drysdale, writing in The Australian Financial Review, characterised the Chinese policy community's attitude to Australia thus: "There is generosity -- to a fault -- about what failings we might have in the Chinese scheme of things ... Above all there is a genuine warmness towards Australia ... Senior officials puzzle over why it is that Australia is so liked in China."
Drysdale here sounds like The New York Times' famous Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, who in the 1930s declared that Joseph Stalin had solved the food problem, while failing to report on a famine. It's at the very least difficult to discern warmth for Australia in the Hu affair.
The point about these experts is that all their accumulated knowledge produces absolutely lousy policy advice. Moral courage, it is often said, consists of speaking truth to power. Any innocent Australian languishing in a communist prison who relied on the moral courage of this fearless trio would be well advised to count their rosary beads instead.
For all their faults, our politicians are infinitely better than our academics. That is not to say they will be able to free Hu. But if they don't keep trying, and publicly, we will know we are a nation without self-respect.