In general, to be a master politician is to be a master of the euphemism, of roundabout speech, of deception and spin. Speech is designed to conceal thought, at least according to Talleyrand’s dictum, and the successful politician’s intentions are generally hidden behind veils of wordy explanations, jargon, and truths told with bad intent. Hence, the so-called “honest politician” is a well-known oxymoron.
Unfortunately, when it comes to international politics, a huge number of euphemisms lies, and deceptive rhetoric have crept into common use so that universities, corporations, the media, and the political class are often on the same misleading page. Constrained by polite euphemisms and grounded within shallow linguistic confines, the awful truth of government policies and lobby groups’ desires are concealed, albeit in plain view. Language, as Orwell would say, not only “corrupts thought,” it also “anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain,” and it has undoubtedly dulled the capacity of many brains to honestly discuss East Asian politics and security.
Consider the recent article by Australia’s former foreign minister, Bob Carr. Tellingly, his article opens with the statements of a confused “investor,” as though the worries of the corporate elite should be the chief policy concern, as opposed to the myriad oppressed people of China, or even the average worker in his own country. In advocating that Australia not oppose China’s future invasion of Taiwan, Carr states that “a horrendous war fought over which political order prevails in Taiwan is not worth this price.”
By “political order,” he euphemistically refers to the radical choice between democracy and Chinese fascism and thereby applies a stunning level of an understatement to the stakes. By “not worth the price,” Carr means Taiwanese lives do not matter very much to him. Whether a democratic nation with a population similar to his own is captured by totalitarian aggression is worth little. One wonders whether Carr would consider it distasteful if American or Japanese ministers substituted his own country’s name for that of Taiwan, yet therein lies the point – the debate is constrained in such a way that the moral principle is blurred.
To Bob Carr, what matters is that Australia retains its export market. That Australian exports have dropped due to Chinese sanctions clearly worries him, yet Carr is misleading even when he uses raw facts. When he says that Australia’s barley exports have “been totally lost” since December 2019, what he really means is that barley exports were the fourth highest of all time in 2020. The export decline is real. However, it matters whether we add or remove context. In effect, Bob Carr is unsatisfied with having the fourth highest barley exports in 100 years and instead wishes to trade other people’s democracy for greater gains in grain. What courage he has.
Regarding Taiwan, one particular euphemism has become so powerful that Taiwan’s security is rarely discussed without it – the “One China” policy. Politicians around the world line up to voice support for the One China policy, claiming that this is the best way to uphold peace and security in Asia. What they mean is, they will pretend that Taiwan is not a real country because, if they do not, a dictatorship will punish them. If you think this policy is fair and reasonable, substitute your own country’s name into that place of pretended non-existence, and see if it worries you that the entire nation’s act as though you already live under a foreign dictator’s rule.
Given that Taiwan is entirely independent and that China (i.e., the PRC) has never ruled Taiwan, the One China policy actually seems rather harsh when explained without euphemism. Consider the true meaning, which is that Taiwan can temporarily remain independent and not under military attack so long as its rulers don’t actually say the following (accurate) words — “Taiwan is not China.” If this obvious statement is voiced aloud by the wrong person, China will commence murdering Taiwanese people, along with anyone who attempts to interfere.
There will be bombing. There will be civilian deaths. There will be orphans. All this and more, and all caused by stating a fact. This is the pettiness of totalitarianism. This is the awful truth of the One China euphemism. This is the morality of the regime the world seeks to trade with, in plain view, meekly acknowledged via a sterile euphemism.
Occasionally, the grim reality that the lives of common people do not matter much to the political elites is laid bare. Yet, still, there is often an explanatory or descriptive gap to be crossed. Take the following statement by Nick Whitlam, a former prime minister’s son. He says, “Whatever our thoughts about China’s treatment of Uyghurs, it’s not Chinese aggression; these are internal matters.” Of course, he is absolutely correct. These are internal matters, much in the same way as Nazi Germany killing its Jews, homosexuals, trade unionists, socialists, academics, publishers, Gypsies, and anyone else they didn’t like was an “internal matter.” Mass murder certainly can be “an internal matter.”
The question should not be, “Is China’s imprisonment of Muslims an internal matter?” The question should be, “Do we want to enrich a regime that imprisons its Muslims, Tibetans, trade unionists, academics, publishers, and anyone else they don’t like?” Fundamentally, everyone who opposes action against China is answering “yes,” not to one, but to both of these questions. A considerable explanatory gap is always used to conceal that ghastly fact.
A deceptive euphemism can also come about accidentally, particularly when we are searching for simplicity in description. For instance, “Trump’s trade war” dominated the news cycle for a period of time, and disruptions to trade were inevitably blamed on Trump. In fact, China has cheated on every trade agreement, manipulated its currency, destroyed other countries’ manufacturing, stolen billions in technology, and runs a protectionist economy. But all those changes aren’t as catchy as “Trump’s trade war,” particularly when he is so hated by so many.
Today, a new and pernicious catch-phrase is emerging, one designed to evoke troubling times and the prospect of Armageddon. The threat of a “new Cold War” is being used by a broad coalition of media, lobby groupsand political activists as a way of delegitimising any policies designed to constrain Chinese expansionism and market dominance. As no one literally “wants” a new Cold War, merely raising the prospect of such a lengthy and costly confrontation is designed to force concessions from China’s opponents. That is, under threat of a new Cold War, we are being asked to compromise on our morality.
More explicitly, if you do not want China to control global production chains and sanction other countries, you want a Cold War. If you wish not to enrich Chinese bankers and the captains of its fascist industries, the ones who rule their non-unionised factories, then you want a Cold War. If you believe that Taiwanese people should be free from Chinese bombs and, later, you want a new Cold War from Chinese concentration camps. If you do not acquiesce to Chinese slave labour, or to a Chinese-controlled Internet, or Chinese censorship over your life, you want a new Cold War.
Why, dear reader, do you want a new Cold War? Can you not simply tune out the sounds of tyranny in faraway places? Can you not ignore it in the manufacturing of your products? Why are you so set on preserving trivial freedoms, especially when the loss is not yours, but that of other people…for now?
The questions posed above are the kinds the appeasers rarely ask openly, yet they are there, in plain view, where euphemisms flourish.