Clive Palmer's China blast leaves Australia red-faced

Palmer's acerbic remarks have stirred up a hornet's nest both here and internationally, with the government left scrambling around apologising for a man who doesn't represent them.

Clive Palmer’s remarkably unhinged outburst on the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night was offensive in the extreme but the government’s reaction to it has made Australia look like a bunch of nervous nellies.

The Member for Fairfax’s extraordinary attack on the Chinese government was bad enough when he used the words “mongrels” and “bastards” to describe them, but was made worse still when Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie doubled down on her leader’s comments when she warned of a “Chinese communist invasion”. 

"We should be looking into using missiles if another nation attacks us," Lambie told Macquarie Radio on Tuesday, adding "we need to stop our grandchildren from becoming slaves to an anti-democratic power”.

It seems Senator Lambie was not aware of the radical about-turn her leader’s comments represented. Just as Palmer had once been a climate skeptic but has since had a road-to-Damascus conversion, so too has his opinion on the Chinese.

After all, it was only a few years ago that Palmer was lambasting the Foreign Investment Review Board for being a “racist” body that discriminated against Chinese investors (Clive Palmer’s dangerous Chinese misstep June 2, 2014).

But as the government has had to learn the hard way, Palmer may act the fool but he’s smarter than he seems.

Even as he blustered his way around Tony Jones’s insistent questioning -- about whether he had used funds from Chinese state-owned company Citic Pacific for his election campaign -- Palmer managed to lay some land mines for the Chinese government.

The Chinese “shoot their own people”, he said, an oblique reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. By mentioning that, Palmer was making life a bit harder for China’s media censors. How could they cover his remarks without mentioning that?

His methods may be grubby, but as Robert Gottliebsen points out, “anyone who can out-negotiate the Chinese in a deal is a strategic thinker” (Clive Palmer proves he's no fool June 26, 2014).

In tricky situations such as this, the Chinese government’s modus operandi is to first wait for foreign governments and media to tie themselves up in knots and fall over themselves to apologise.

And indeed, for the most part the Chinese media largely didn’t touch the story until it had played out completely in Australia.

It was only after Julie Bishop apologised to the Chinese embassy that the Chinese government put out a statement saying Palmer’s attack was “full of ignorance and prejudice”, absurd and irresponsible.

By getting the Chinese embassy involved over comments made by a member of another party, the government has given more oxygen to Palmer’s remarks. It’s the kind of oversensitive micromanaging of the Australia-China relationship that ends up making us look weak.

While Palmer’s abusive comments were unhelpful, so too is the soft bigotry of low expectations represented by Colin Barnett’s comments yesterday.

“The Chinese are confused by this, he’s a member of parliament,” the Western Australia Premier told media.

That’s simply patronising. The Chinese government knows that Australia is a democracy. Apologising to them for what happens in the rough and tumble of Australian democratic discourse encourages the Chinese government to think they can exert pressure on Australia to dampen debate.

Han Feng, deputy director of the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the ABC’s 7.30 program that the Chinese government would not be happy with Palmer’s remarks, but that “he only represents himself. He doesn't represent the majority of Australian people, nor the Australian government”.

Xinhua, which represents the official line, went out of its way to point out that Australians had taken to social media to express their embarrassment at Palmer’s remarks.

But with the Australian government’s apology already in its back pocket, China’s fiercely nationalistic Global Times newspaper has now been emboldened to quote Palmer in full. In the original Chinese version of an op-ed published on Wednesday, they translated his "they shoot their own people" comment to "massacre their own people".

The paper concedes that Australian pollies on both sides had come out to unanimously condemn Palmer’s comments but implied it was too late. “China has already fallen victim to this foul war of words,” it said.

“China must be aware that Palmer's rampant rascality serves as a symbol that Australian society has an unfriendly attitude toward China” says the paper.

Sanctions should now be considered against Palmer’s company and any other Australian company who deals with him, it argues.

“China must let those prancing provocateurs know how much of a price they pay when they deliberately rile us. Hooligan politics is being employed by the Australian government to deal with China.”