ONE of the great evangelical hymns starts stirringly: “Blessed assurance”

Too often, that’s what businesspeople have been fed by presenters at conferences: simple answers to complex questions.

China is no exception. In the fairly recent past, business audiences in Australia have evinced remarkable ignorance about China, passively taking  in whatever the visiting expert has proclaimed.

But there has been a welcome turning of the tide. It’s no longer enough to say that China satisfies 99 per cent of global concrete gnome demand, or whatever. Every galah in every corner pet shop here knows how important China has become to our economy. Sadly, some conference organisers still churn out speakers who click on one PowerPoint slide after another that makes that point, over and over: bigger, better.

I heard at a recent event that China’s growth had been the greatest “in the history of the world”. This of course casts a long shadow over the usual Australian boast that we claim, say, “the longest bar in the southern hemisphere”.

In this context, it was especially interesting to note that some of the more sophisticated and intelligent contributions to this week’s Davos Connection conference on China, held in Melbourne, came from home-grown businesspeople whose contact with the country has by now been comparatively long, varied and both rewarding and challenging.

The big-name guest speaker, Englishman Martin Jacques, had a very simple theme. It came from his book When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a new Global Order.

He spoke with an evangelical fervour that comes naturally from a former editor of British magazine Marxism Today.

He felt confident to speak for China as a “civilisation state” rather than a “nation-state”, and for “the Chinese”.

But of course China is a more complex entity today than ever. Its economic success comes from its grasp of cosmopolitan realities and possibilities, as well as of its own history which, like most countries, has been glorious and grim.

Confucius is praised, yet his ideas were never pursued in his lifetime by any of the princes whose approval he courted, and only sporadically and occasionally since. China, says Jacques, has family at its heart — but that is something many other countries and cultures share.

He does not perceive that the ruling Communist Party and its leaders are troubled by doubts about its own legitimacy, now as ever, although he claims “the Chinese government enjoys more legitimacy than those in the West”. He views it as inevitable that Taiwan will accept a Hong Kong-style one-country, two-systems governance by the People’s Republic — something even China’s leaders appear to accept remains a very distant prospect.

Yes, China is different. No, it won’t ever be a clone of a Western country. Its path towards modernity does not entail a trajectory towards liberal democracy.

But this does not mean that just because, as he claims, “this is China’s backyard”, Australia will “inevitably come under the influence” of the Chinese party-state.

China is not, however, to be identified with that party-state. It is bigger and broader culturally, and astonishingly diverse.

That is a lesson that many Australians doing business in and with China have learned, and one of the things they like — even love — about the place.

To engage effectively with China in its broadest sense, we need to move beyond doing business, although this is of course at the heart of our shared interests.

The thoughtful Chinese ambassador to Australia, Chen Yuming, stresses that Chinese people do not wish to be perceived as purely “businesspeople” but as people in the fullest sense.

And this is the realisation that is helping drive a far deeper understanding of China and of Chinese people by a growing corps of Australian businessmen who are capable of taking impressively nuanced positions on our relationship and are contributing thoughtfully and from their reflections based on intense personal experience.

– Rowan Callick