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The China syndrome

Nick Bryant | 09:38 UK time, Monday, 6 April 2009

It seems that virtually every front page story about Australia these days has some kind of Chinese dimension.

Only last week, we reported from the Western Australian communities of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun, which have been completely devastated by the decision of BHP Billiton to shut down its nickel mine after just eight months of operation.

BHP Billiton nickel mineThe main reason? The slowdown in China has led to a collapse in the price of nickel.

When Pacific Brands recently shed 1,850 Australian jobs it was because the company decided it was cheaper to make its underwear and smalls in China.

Defence Secretary Joel Fitzgibbon has been fighting off calls for the resignation because he accepted undisclosed gifts from a wealthy Chinese businesswoman, Helen Liu.

Then there's the decision pending from the Australian government over whether China's state-owned Chinalco should be allowed to take its holding of the mining giant, Rio Tinto, up to 18%.

At a whopping Aus$23bn (£11bn), this would represent China's biggest single foreign direct investment and lay down another milestone in Beijing's inexorable rise.

Then there is the related story of how Chinese spies allegedly tried to hack into Rio Tinto's computers during the initial stages of Chinalco's bid, and also allegedly targeted the phone and computer of Kevin Rudd during a trip to the Beijing Olympics.

For the first time, of course, Australia is being led by a Sinophile, who managed ahead of the last election to parlay his fluency in Mandarin into favourable headlines and poll numbers.

Kevin RuddCuriously, the pollsters identify two big spikes in Rudd's approval ratings in the run-up to the election: the first, after it was reported that he'd had a drunken night out at a New York strip club; and second, when he addressed the Chinese delegation at the APEC Summit in flawless Mandarin just weeks before the 2007 election.

Now, though, there is a fear in the prime minister's office that his relationship with Beijing could turn into a liability.

How else do you explain the decision by his image makers and media handlers not to tell Australian reporters about his pre-G20 meeting at The Lodge in Canberra with Li Changchun, who serves as the Chinese propaganda minister?

And what about his reluctance to sit next to the Chinese ambassador to London during a BBC interview in London last month, which Mr Rudd suggested was simply because he wanted to sit alongside his old mate, David Milliband, the British Foreign Secretary.

Admittedly, I've heard of speed-dial diplomacy, but sofa diplomacy?

Seemingly, the Australian prime minister is desperate to avoid being tagged "the Manchurian Candidate".

"Rudd's Manchu Muddle" is how the Sydney Morning Herald characterised things over the weekend.

No doubt there will be those who think it makes perfect sense for the Rudd government to realign and recalibrate its foreign policy to reflect the growing economic and diplomatic power of China. There will be others who worry that he's getting too close.

And should people here be worried that Kevin Rudd's meeting with the Chinese propaganda minister made headlines in the Chinese media but was the subject of what was essentially a media black-out here in Australia?

+ A final word for the time being on Kevin Rudd - I promise. Moresby-Parks asks why I haven't yet been to Nambour, the prime minister's birthplace? The answer is that I have been there, and was disappointed by the lack of tributes to the town's favourite son.

This, after all, is the land of the Big Banana and other over-sized landmarks. So perhaps the town centre could be enlivened by a giant pair of titanium spectacles or even a mound of ear wax? Other suggestions are more than welcome...


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  • 1. At 10:41am on 06 Apr 2009, rymnd2008 wrote:

    oh my god, sinophobia again.

    regarding to purchasing power, china is already super power, get used to it now.

    chinese are not just restaurant waiter/waitress, who wrap your takeaway.

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  • 2. At 10:46am on 06 Apr 2009, smartlondon wrote:

    Just one thing, Rudd's Mandarin is actually far from flawless. In fact, it's pretty basic, on a par with most British people's grasp of French.

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  • 3. At 11:50am on 06 Apr 2009, SaintOne wrote:

    Maybe, but you can't compare Mandarin to English like you can French to English. Basic Madarin is much harder to get to grips with than basic French

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  • 4. At 12:49pm on 06 Apr 2009, wollemi wrote:

    Rudd is not the first Sinophile Australian PM, that tag probably belongs to Gough Whitlam and has been carried through by Australian PMs since, on both sides of politics

    Rudd's Mandarin is certainly of conversational level at least and does not require interpreters, He is probably the only Western leader, if not the only current leader of a country with that skill in Mandarin. I think the Chinese appreciate his learning their language as a mark of their importance in the world

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  • 5. At 1:06pm on 06 Apr 2009, nomadtenzin wrote:

    Ultimately we have to judge the leader by his actions.If he sacrifices principles for gains and does not balance the two then he will be remembered for the wrong reasons.

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  • 6. At 2:35pm on 06 Apr 2009, Antonio_1_Garcia wrote:

    I thought everything was made in China, If you look at 99.99 percent of goods and products and notice those little labels/stickers it usually reads MADE IN CHINA.

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  • 7. At 4:59pm on 06 Apr 2009, QinGuangWang wrote:

    If you choose to dance with the devil (China) always stay alert. China spys on everyone about everything. They support North Korea and Somolia and Burma, not a reputable set of friends. Chasing the cheapest is not the way to build and economy. Think about the recent past and think about how does a country protect itself in the "global economy." Diplomacy should not be based on what the Chamber of Commerce wants, although that is what it has become. Anyone who believes that China will change though engagement is a fool.

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  • 8. At 5:07pm on 06 Apr 2009, newsjock wrote:

    So far Australia seem to have steered her own independent course through international waters.

    No one disputes that China is now a leading world and commercial power.

    I hope that PM Rudd + Co are able to remain on good terms with their Asian neighbours, without being ensnared by international pressures (what we punters call blackmail!).

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  • 9. At 7:13pm on 06 Apr 2009, mikelia wrote:

    #7, Your apparent "self berating masochistic criticism" is indeed very amusing.

    IMHO, the Western, French-Anglo-Saxon super race. Which has been dominated the world for centuries should stop to mud sling China and really serious about cooperating together to solve the world economic crisis.

    The nationalistic boycotting mentality will satisfy one's racist ego, but in reality it only hurts yourself at the end.

    The proof: Fifty years boycotting here and there has not been very effective, except to make all the "evil axis" even more reclusive, stronger and more "dangerous", such as, North Korea.

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  • 10. At 8:20pm on 06 Apr 2009, beijing_2008 wrote:

    #7 It seems to me that somebody is a little bit annoyed at the emergence of China...
    It must be terrible growing up thinking you will rule the world forever, only to discover that there is a peculiar looking race of people on the other side of the world who have the temerity to stand up.

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  • 11. At 10:42pm on 06 Apr 2009, smartlondon wrote:

    I would imagine number 7 was referring to China's terrible human rights records, it's complete disregard for democracy and its rather questionable foreign policy and investment decisions, which are all legitimate concerns. To dismiss them as racism is silly and patronising.

    Also, beijing_2008, China is not the other side of the world to Australia.

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  • 12. At 11:45pm on 06 Apr 2009, Bren54 wrote:

    Engagement with China has been a reality for Australia, more than any other "Western" country, since the 1970s.

    It's no longer a question of if or when, should we or shouldn't we, just HOW , within the bounds of the possible, do we manage our side of the relationship?

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  • 13. At 04:48am on 07 Apr 2009, BryantObsessed wrote:

    wow, this topic really brought the heavyweight opinions in response to Nick's blog.

    maybe we should go back to Sport and Beach stories...

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  • 14. At 05:31am on 07 Apr 2009, BryantObsessed wrote:

    wow, heavyweight opinions above...(ALERT, irony in use)

    I wonder if this means that our leaders are taking strides into a topic that the Australian and British population barely understands.

    For Bren54, Japan is most engaged country with China, not Australia
    For anyone discussing Rudd's linguistic skills, get over it.
    For QinGuangWang, Australian government's engagement with China is not synonomous with ignorance of the issues.
    For Mikelia, can you clarify which countries fall into the "Western, French-Anglo-Saxon super race" and which fall outside of it? (ALERT, rhetorical question)
    For Antonia 1 Garcia, one might also consider Japan and Germany as the 2nd and 3rd largest economies in the world and also big exporters to answer your question about 'where is stuff made?'.
    For rymnd2008, can you please explain where the sinophobia is present? as the first poster are we too assume you meant Nick Bryant's blog? please confirm.

    Most upsetting for me is the media's handling of China. it seems that they don't trust their readers with real news, so resort to extended coverage of Rudd's meals on planes, and other useless topics.

    China and Australia is very complicated - trade, military, global politics, foreign ownership, QC on imports, etc. And I wish the Australian media would nudge their own engagement up a notch so we can all start engaging in the topic with a slightly more intelligent point of view.

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  • 15. At 06:52am on 07 Apr 2009, Eliza_nsw wrote:

    Nick, Is it true that the money we have got for these stimulus payouts and other monies are from china - that we are borrowing from China in the here and now. It will have to be paid back - is that why the word deficit isnt being mentioned because we are borrowing. I cannot stand Labor or Dudd but if Dudd & Goose are making the situation worse that is disgraceful as in the years to come all of this either the borrowing or the deficit has to be topped up - paid back. The taxes will hike up and the paying back begins. Dudds popularity will plumett. $9 million wouldnt get me to put an X in Dudds square. Let alone $900. Good to see a change in topic. If I lived in Nabour I wouldnt brag that Dudd come from there its no shining example. Dudd is not a popular as the opinions tell, radio talk back and paper reports have him well - bottom of the barrell. Remember what we have and are getting NEEDS to be PAID BACK and how by TAXES. Goodbye Goose and Dudd. Thank GOD.

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  • 16. At 10:42am on 07 Apr 2009, beijing_2008 wrote:

    #11 I did not want to say too much on this particular blog (normally I reside on BBC Beijing Correspondent Reynolds' blog) but I think I will have to.

    To address each of your "concerns" in turn:

    "Support for repressive regimes" - China provides food aid to N Korea. If it didn't, many N Koreans would starve given that there are immense sanctions placed upon them. China is supporting UN efforts in the waters off Somalia (this is how you spell it - take note #7) to combat piracy, thus taking a more responsible role in international affairs that other countries always pester it to do.
    "Spying" - It's difficult to know the extent of China's industrial espionage activities, but what is certain is that Australia is part of the world's largest spying network (google Echelon) that would make China's activities seem trivial.
    "Human rights" - You're right that much more needs to be done, but also much more recognition should be given to what has already been achieved.
    "Disregard for democracy" - You will find that China is beginning to implement village elections. These may be skin deep, but it is a step in the right direction.
    "Questionable investment decisions" - In terms of raw materials, China must satisfy the increasingly insatiable demand from its consumers and its manufacturing industry. Where it has commitments in certain "unpalatable" countries (Zimbabwe, Venezuela etc), it is only because the West has a monopoly on oil from the Middle East.

    I suspect it's often difficult to get a perspective from the Chinese side in the media, probably because China bashing is much more fun.

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  • 17. At 11:21am on 07 Apr 2009, smartlondon wrote:

    Don't care enough about China to get in to a debate, but it is right that people have, and express, concerns about China, and to dismiss them as china-bashing and say people are doing it for fun is insufferably arrogant.

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  • 18. At 11:31am on 07 Apr 2009, pciii wrote:

    Eliza, we get the message that you're not a big fan of Mr Rudd. The reason seems to be that you don't trust Labour, based on their historical record. However, despite what you say, he still seems pretty popular. Maybe that will change as a result of the govt handling of the KFC, but it ain't happened yet.

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  • 19. At 2:08pm on 07 Apr 2009, Bren54 wrote:

    bryantobsessed, I took the view, reasonably some might say, that Japan is not thought of as a "Western" nation, whereas Australia is.

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  • 20. At 6:53pm on 07 Apr 2009, zhangchi36 wrote:

    This is an extract from an expact in China, i think it very well summarised how the Western world and chinese people sees China differently.

    "In the case of China, if you are a Westerner, I’d bet good money you might think like this: “China is currently an authoritarian state with many human rights abuses and lots of injustice, although the government does provide for decent economic growth and does many things fairly well. The problem is, they have the legacy of having a top-down Communist-imposed Leninist structure, and they have the legacy of a large, uneducated rural population. But, as time goes on, as the middle class grows and the Internet allows for more freedom of thought, it’s really only a matter of time before the country allows for more democratic reforms and more human rights”.

    many Chinese people actually think something similar to this: “The Chinese government, and we the Chinese people, generally view our system as an extension of our 5000 years of history. Western democracy hasn’t brought great economic growth to developing countries in SE Asia, India, Latin America, and Africa, and in fact, has often times widened ethnic tensions, and increased dependence on former colonial oppressors. Human rights, although good in theory, in fact are just the West’s way of weakening the government and encouraging rebellion, and the West doesn’t have our interests at heart anyway, after all they invaded us in the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Instituting a popular vote would almost certainly weaken Chinese rule over ethnic areas. The last 30 years shows that the government indeed has taken many effective economic measures to spur on growth (such as the complete transformation of cities or the building of dams, the restructuring of SOEs) that simply wouldn’t be allowed under a democratic system. The top leadership of the Politburo is, in fact, chosen through a fairly rigorous internal process, and our system could never produce a George W. Bush or a Chen Shubian. Blindly copying a Western liberal democracy means we’ll always be a second-rate copy of the West, and we’ll lose our soul in that process. The last 30 years have shown that we can achieve economic growth, achieve worldwide respect, and maintain our utmost independence by sticking with the system that allows us to stay Chinese and keep our traditions. ”.

    Certainly, anyone who has been in China a while is familiar with those views. You may claim that they are historical distortions or half-truths, or convenient lies propagated by an elite so that they can plunder the country blind with corruption, but I’d argue that whether or not any of the above is true or not isn’t as important as assessing to what degree those views are widely held. I would say that, especially after last year, they are very widespread, even though there are quite a few “rightists” who vigorously argue for universal values, and in fact have quite a bit of influence in the commercial media and on the Internet. As important as individual rights are, for many people, especially outside of the West, group identity politics in deciding which “we” "I" belong to emotionally trumps ideas related to abstract political systems."

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  • 21. At 01:00am on 08 Apr 2009, AustGirl wrote:

    Wow Smartlondon your are as blunt as Eliza. You both have the point. I also am concerned about how to pay it all back and yes I have heard it said that we are borrowing money. In a few years to come the money does have to be paid back and all of these young new home buyers who get the help now have to keep their jobs and keep pace to keep their homes. Its just not the wisest move, 30 years is a long time to have a mortgage, yes it might get people buying (the first home owners grant) but then as is the norm it has to be paid back. And I agree with Eliza 100% the one way of paying it back is taxes, so then how do we repay home loans or keep living when our wages are less. And the employers are paying the kept tax out of our wage back to the Govt, it all "forking out" on the employees side and the employers side. No Rudd is in for annilation in the years to come. Then the next Govt will be dogs poo for trying to correct and payback what we have borrowed in the here and now. I think it was funny though that Eliza wouldnt accept 9 million to put an x, I must admit that made me smile. Sorry Paul I do disagree as Ive said before I talk to people and listen and no Rudd isnt popular because the oldies and mid age folk are worrying about well, how to pay it back. You see, we've seen it all before. And dont forget what Youngwateva wrote, he/she says he/she is still at school and already is forming an opinion for him/herself, Labor are treading a fine line with the young as well. And Independants are becoming stronger, I think overall alot of us have had it.

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  • 22. At 02:00am on 08 Apr 2009, NETCRUSHER wrote:

    To all the Liberal Aussies using the terms " Krudd ", "Dudd" and Kevin 747 - we have all heard it around 1 million times, but original thinking is never your ways is it..... Just keep the same old formulas coming over and over and over again. Conservatism did not work for the world hence the giant shift with Obama. It took the worst of the worst to bring out the best of the best. Crickey we might even finally see electric cars in our cities by 2012 starting with L.A and turn China into a mass production lab for them to be made cheaply for Aussies. .... finally

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  • 23. At 02:38am on 08 Apr 2009, AustGirl wrote:

    Netcrusher you also made me smile - You left off Goose (for Swann) (The))Cricket (For Gillard) Poodle (for Mrs Rudd) and the fact that we have for years put nicknames to people. Its apart of our culture. And lets give people the benefit of the doubt KRudd just might have the . left out K. Rudd then becomes KRudd. We had Little Johnny for John Howard, he wasnt too fazed. Come on - its apart of being in the publics eye - One I heard the other day Sunday Rose is Sunday Roast and thats a child. But Im sure its not worrying little Sunday. Have the worrying times caused you to lose your sense of humour, come on. We have to laugh because these are hard times or whats the alternative - NO its best we laugh. I bet you laugh at some cartoons you might see in the newspapers, or on telly. And no its not the best of the best, because you left off Britain. Brown is equivalent to Labor and Democrat and has been in for years Britain are not doing too well. So no, all and every party must take responsibility, its the lenders, loaners and just nature of the "timeline of life" that is reponsible, it will all happen again in years to come as its happened in years gone by. As for The Liberals they left us with a suplus to deal with hard times, even Labor aknowledge that, so why do you praise Labor and not Liberals when even Labor praise the Liberals. We as Australia would be in alot worse predicament if we never had the reserves that I might add are being used very very quickly. Alot of the countries in dire straits had a "Labor" Govt in over the last few years, why do you choose the two that didnt - The US & Aust. When Aust was doing very well. So to say Aust was a bad example to use.

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  • 24. At 02:46am on 08 Apr 2009, Eliza_nsw wrote:

    One question Netcrusher, how do expect to have electic cars when the NSW State Govt cant even afford the rail system it has, or hospitals and some roads are so full of pot holes that we need a galvensied iron suspension. We are broke and so will the Federal Govt be. So to buy them from China who will beable to afford them. As for the same old formulars its Labor who is handing out funds which does match the old formular. NSW is in a bad way, and dont forget NZ they voted in a Liberal person and outsted the Labor person. Things are bad world wide, keep our job, and hope for the best. Because we will be paying it back shortly. thats the formular we all (the countries) will be using, and who can blame them.

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  • 25. At 03:46am on 08 Apr 2009, dungutti wrote:

    All this harping on about the Australian Government debt is ridiculous. Especially if you actually went and had a look at the economic data produced by the OECD or IMF you would see that Australia has an insignificant amount of debt at around 8% of total GDP for all governments that includes federal, state and local. If you compared this to Japan it has a whopping 198% and growing with the debt predicted to reach 200% by next year or the ‘great free market economy’, that is the USA is around 65%. We are one of only a few countries that has a debt in single figures, yes this is because of the mining boom and Howard government using the money to reduce Australia’s debt in the good times, but also because of the continuing reforms put in place in Australia by both the Labour and Liberal governments since the 70’s by moving away from a protectionist market to a free market economy. In this time there has been no significant difference between the two major parties in Australia and if you think there is you are kidding yourself.

    I think the Rudd government has done a good job so far in providing short term stimulus e.g $900 bonus, to kick start the economy again and long term stimulus e.g infrastructure. The current recession is not of Australia’s making and because of good economic decisions over the last couple of decades we are now in a relatively good position to ride it out.

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  • 26. At 10:08am on 08 Apr 2009, brightSharon wrote:

    I live in Sydney, and in Sydney at least, we have a huge Asian and in particular, Chinese, input in most aspects of our culture. I live in the so-called Anglo Sutherland Shire and people as diverse as my doctor and dentist, my dry-cleaner, butcher and my next door neighbour are all Australian/Chinese. We must engage with China and it is surely of benefit to us that our PM has worthwhile skills in that area.
    Some people seem to be really concerned about the increasing government debt. I believe that well managed debt is beneficial, both personal and government. Our accountant told us many years ago that you have to borrow money to make money, and we have. Naturally it must be well managed and I have confidence in the ability of the government to do so.

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  • 27. At 10:54am on 08 Apr 2009, Ray Hunt wrote:

    Many people across the Australian political spectrum thought the last tory Government got too close to America and many people right across the spectrum perceive that the current Government has got to close to China.

    Between 1983 and 1996, the Hawke-Keating Labour Government developed the Asian Pacific Economic (Community) framework, with Japanese help, and built Australia's wealth by doubling exports as a share of GDP.

    Hawke and Keating delivered these truly historic Australian political outcomes by convincing all sorts of countries around the world that Australia was a reliable partner that could deliver mutually beneficial outcomes.

    Hawke and Keating did not build a better future for all Australians by appearing to favour one diplomatic and trade partner at the expense of many others.

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  • 28. At 8:34pm on 08 Apr 2009, Alex wrote:

    Hi Nick,

    As an avid follower of your blog (and a homesick Aussie currently in exile in a UK University), I'd just like to add my two cents, especially about your comments regarding Nambour, since this is also my birthplace as well as Kevin Rudd's!

    Not only the land of the Big Banana but also the Big Pineapple, (technically situated in Woombye, although we Nambourites claim it for ourselves :) ) Nambour is a fine little town, although perhaps lacking slightly in decent shops, and the last time I went back there last year the local Hotel had been burnt down and shuttered up. Such are the delights of the Sunshine Coasr hinterland!

    However, linking in with your earlier story of the WA Nickle mines, Nambour has unfortunately also suffered heavy economic hardships, which has sadly hit hard on local unemployment. Up until very recently, the main industry in and around the town was based on the Sugar Fields that grow (or, sadly, used to) in abundance around the town. The town itself thrived on the industry, and there used to be annual outings when the locals would go and pick the sugar fields, old and young!

    But since the local mill closed around 2003, these fields have been left unrefined and turned over to dairy farmers: needless to say this put a lot of people out of a good, local job.

    When I returned, I was disheartened by the fact that so many of the younger generations had headed off either down south to Brisbane or further along up the coast in search of jobs, leaving behind little more than a ghost town in Nambour. I may be exaggerating, but only slightly: the town is reminiscent of some of the old Gold Mining towns down in VIC. Back then, the whole town would close each day to let the little train carrying Sugar from the fields to the Mill trundle through the centre of town! Sadly, this also has stopped, and the miniature train tracks now grow rusty with overflowing weeds.

    It's a real shame because when Rudd was elected (Nambour is in hardline Labour country), there were so many high hopes among the people there that the new PM, even more so because he grew up in QLD, could help revitalise depressed communities like Nambour and start all the old local industries up and running. Alas, this looks increasingly unlikely: symbolic of rural Australia at large, perhaps?

    With regards to your idea of a monument, there was talk a while back of forming a small Cane Field collage just off where the Train Station now is to commemorate the importance of this industry to the Town. Alas this idea, like the re-opening of the mill, never materialised. Although I, like Rudd, have spent most of my life outside of Nambour, I am still proud of my roots and my hometown: perhaps the most relevant monument would be the placing of the small Sugar Train on the roundabout in the centre of town, to remind all the visitors/locals to Nambour of what this place used to be like in the past, and what it can regain if the Rudd Government goes full steam ahead and carries through his promises of re-industrialisation in the Hinterland.

    We can but only hope...

    thank you for allowing me the oppotunity to write this, and I look forward to more of your blogs!

    Young Matador

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  • 29. At 05:56am on 09 Apr 2009, Smudge wrote:

    As a former resident of Palmwoods I beg to differ with Young Matador about Nambour being in hardline Labour country. It once was but now, following the recent Queenland State Elections, the Sunshine Coast could now be said to be LNP "Heartland". The nearest Labour seat is now Caboolture to the south - in fact so slim were the chances of Anna Bligh's govt of winning a seat on the coast that she never bothered to come electioneering on the coast.
    And as for the nearest "Feral" - that's Federal for you non Aussies - labour electorate I guess that again would be the outer northern fringes of BrisVegas.

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  • 30. At 4:24pm on 09 Apr 2009, QinGuangWang wrote:

    It is important not to confuse peoples with governments. The Chinese people are like any other group of people, for the most part good, interesting and peace loving people. Their government (mainland China)is a collective group in the traditional style of warlords consolidating power and wealth. Do not romantize Chinese history as some 5,000 year continual process. It was mainly warlords and corrupt governments providing little to the people but taxes and starvation. The Chinese people have suffered more than any other people from bad and abusive governments. This is just one more in that long history. That the Chinese peole have endured and produced philosophy and high arts speaks volumes about their fortitude and character.

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  • 31. At 9:14pm on 11 Apr 2009, Macthree wrote:

    Even being a world power, does China not need the rest of the world to sell commodities,buy raw materials and crude oil? If Walmart does not purchase any Chinese products, the Chinese economy would probably get in dire straits.

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