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Bill Birtles & The Railroad Switch Technique

In August 2020, Chinese Deputy Ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, gave a speech at the National Press Club on the topic of improving Australia-China relations.

Here’s a key excerpt:

We know that China and Australia are different in many aspects, be it length of history, root of culture, size of population, feature of economy, level of development, form of government, type of law system. Respect will anchor our relationship in the torrent of differences.

The benchmark of respect between countries, in my understanding, is to follow the basic norms governing contemporary international relations. We should respect each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and refrain from interfering in other's internal affairs. We should respect each other's choice of social and political system and mode of development, and refrain from imposing one's own idea onto the other. We should respect each other's legal system and rule of law and refrain from interrupting the other's legal proceedings and undertakings.

China respects Australia's sovereignty. As China's sovereignty was constantly in jeopardy or disarray in modern history under intimidation and threat from external powers, the least thing China wants to do is to inflict on others what China suffered, or to bully others as we were bullied. We Chinese know dearly the vice of such conduct. We despise it, reject it and will never engage in it.

China does not interfere in Australia's internal affairs. Nor do we have any intention to change Australia's political and social culture. The Chinese government always requests our corporate and natural persons, when they come to Australia for various purposes, to abide by Australia's laws and regulations, follow local conventions, fulfill social responsibilities and contribute to local communities.

Naturally, China expects reciprocity in terms of respect, which I believe should arise from better mutual understanding through conscientious academic study and social exchange based on genuine facts and objective analyses, free from sway of political force or vested interest.

The Deputy Ambassador makes it clear that, when he refers to the word ‘respect’, he means China and Australia should refrain from interfering, imposing, interrupting, inflicting, bullying and changing one another. At no stage did the Deputy Ambassador state that the word ‘respect’ went further to encompass China and Australia refraining from criticising or critiquing one another.

Indeed, the Deputy Ambassador is reflecting the United Nations’ Friendly Relations Declaration of 1970, which states:

No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of another State. Consequently, armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.

It also bears mentioning that Australia enshrined its own ‘non-interference principle’ in its anti-foreign interference laws back in 2017-2018, with the provisions broadening the ‘non-interference principle’ out to a ‘non-influence principle’.

In other words, there is nothing controversial about the Deputy Ambassador’s speech… unless you’re a China watcher like Bill Birtles.

I’m going to introduce to you a propaganda technique I’m coining ‘The Railroad Switch’. The terminology is inspired by the film ‘The Train’. Set in 1944, the plot centres around valuable artworks looted by the Nazis from a French museum and put on a train headed from Paris to Germany. The French Resistance get involved and devise an elaborate ruse to reroute the train by stealthily switching consecutive railroad lines to incrementally turn the train back towards Paris, but still appear as if the train is heading towards Germany.

You know the Railroad Switch technique has been used on you by a China watcher if you get the sense there’s something not quite right with what you’re being told, but you can’t quite put your finger on why.

Here’s how I see Bill Birtles using the Railroad Switch technique in his interview with the Lowy Institute in September 2020 (I’ve broken up the italicised script with my own non-italicised commentary):

Wang Xining - the Deputy Ambassador - the other day gave a speech at the Press Club in Australia, and he put China’s position on the table and said what we are asking for is mutual respect. And mutual respect is a euphemism basically for ‘we stay out of your business and you stay out of ours and we’ll be happy and the relationship will go well’.

This is the first switch. Bill oversimplifies, and thereby muddies, the Deputy Ambassador’s original nuanced meaning of the word respect. The result? Your mind is no longer squared up with international law norms, but rather with a shifty (you get that from Bill’s use of the word ‘euphemism’) request for quid pro quo.

Bill goes on:

But this really is an imposition of Chinese Communist Party values on Australia because this idea of ‘well we don’t talk about what happens in other countries and you don’t talk about ours’, that’s not a Western value.

Here, Bill manages to squeeze in a double line switch.

The second switch is Bill walking your mind from ‘China wants us to stay out of their business’ (a muddied universal non-interference principle) to ‘China doesn’t want us talking about what happens in their country’ (a free speech issue).

The third switch is Bill’s loaded words of ‘an imposition of Chinese Communist Party values on Australia’, which triggers a fear response in you due to your internalisation of the West’s religion of anticommunism. At this stage, the resentment is rising in you!

Bill continues:

Western values, or Australian values, or whatever you want to call them, of free speech, of taking an interest in the affairs of other countries, or speaking up when there are human rights concerns, this has long been something you’ve seen Australia do, other countries in Europe or the US do.

Bill outdoes himself here with a triple line switch in just one sentence!

The fourth switch is his implicit praise of the value of free speech. Here, it is important to note that the central philosophical justification underpinning the value of free speech, espoused by enlightenment thinker JS Mills, is the pursuit of truth. Indeed, the Deputy Ambassador’s call for ‘genuine facts and objective analyses’ reflects this philosophical justification. But what we have seen often from China watchers these last few years is their muddying of waters and their crowding out of sunlight, not the pursuit of genuine facts and objective analyses. In this context, free speech is not a virtue worthy of praise, but rather a blunt tool deserving of censure.

The fifth switch is Bill knitting the Aussie spirit into the value of free speech. But Bill claiming that free speech is an Australian value is actually inaccurate. A European value and a US value? Yes. Free speech protections are enshrined in their countries’ constitutions or charters of rights. But an Australian value? No. There is nothing in the Australian Constitution that enshrines the value of free speech. Australia merely had the good fortune of an activist High Court bench in the 1990s that managed to squeeze an implied freedom of political communication into the express constitutional right to vote; and, unfortunately, that implied freedom has been narrowed down by the High Court since.

Moreover, when Australia had the opportunity to introduce a federal human rights act protecting free speech, it was knocked back by our then prime minister, Kevin Rudd. This is in spite of the fact that the nationwide public consultation at the time received the most submissions in Australia’s history (over 35,000) and 87.4% of those submissions supported the enactment of human rights legislation.

We cannot claim that Australia upholds the value of free speech if our national leaders still don’t want to enshrine it in federal law in the 21st Century. All you can say, at the most, is that Australia upholds the value of free political communication, which is much narrower than the value of free speech.

The sixth switch is Bill categorising ‘taking an interest in the affairs of other countries’ as, not just a value, but a value exclusively held by the West, and, moreover, a Western value that’s under threat from the Chinese Communist Party.

The fact is that being curious about other countries is not a value, it’s an attribute; and it’s not an attribute exclusive to Westerners. Rather, it is an innate attribute of the universal human condition. Moreover, to suggest that this universal human condition is under threat from the Chinese Communist Party is laughable!

Without knowing, or reasoning out, the above, your resentment would have likely turned to seething anger at the Chinese Communist Party daring to snatch away your 'Australianess' and your 'Westerness'.

Bill concludes:

So the idea that there’s this mutual respect bargain of ‘hey, what would be a really fair thing is you shut up about us, we shut up about you, and it’s all hunky dory’, that really would be an imposition of the sort of Chinese Communist Party’s political values on Australia. That’s what’s really being offered here.

The final switch: You’ve arrived in Paris, France… aka, you’ve been propagandised!

This is the ‘Railroad Switch’ technique: when a China watcher shunts you down a line-of-thought of their choosing, and, through multiple imperceptible switches, you end up further and further away from reality.