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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked prime minister Kevin Rudd three years ago, presumably in a reflective tone: "How do you deal toughly with your banker?"

It was widely presumed, when this conversation was revealed by Wikileaks, that this question, about US-China relations, was a rhetorical one, hinting - with schadenfreude from many commentators in Australia - that the spendthrift Yanks were skewered by righteous Chinese savings, giving them no choice but to concede ideological high ground.

But Clinton's question wasn't rhetorical. Rudd's response was: "Multilateral engagement with bilateral vigour."

The Americans have demonstrated that they won't be deflected from the latter, even by economic exigencies. And events in China are underlining the US's role as the key liberal democracy - a role that commands respect even, arguably especially, among the laobaixing, ordinary Chinese.

When the blind Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng managed a daring escape from his illegal home detention in Shandong last weekend, he travelled the 850km to Beijing, where it appears he sought, and was given, refuge in the home of the US ambassador, Gary Locke - a third generation Chinese American, a former Washington state governor and federal commerce secretary.

In February, the former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, drove three hours to the US consulate in Chengdu, where he talked with diplomats for 10 hours.

Wang then left - having been assured he would be taken into the custody of security agents from the central authorities in Beijing, not the custody of his former colleagues who had chased after him from Chongqing, and whom he feared intended to silence him one way or another, as happened to Nick Heywood.

These two dramatic stories - and the events and suppositions that have cascaded from and around them - raise immense questions about power in China, about the practice of politics, about the direction of the ruling communist party as its leadership changes hands, about prospects for the introduction of the rule of law, about the role of the righteous citizen.

And both episodes are still unfolding.

In Chen's case especially, the public appears widely sympathetic to his cause, which has received widespread coverage over the dozen years since he began campaigning for the victims of forced abortions and sterilisations, and for farmers whose land has been stolen by officials.

Ways may be found to resolve the Chen challenge even without his leaving for the US - perhaps starting from the public message he sent to Premier Wen Jiabao, who is widely viewed within China as being compassionate and incorruptible.

Does the idea ever cross the minds of Chinese people in trouble to seek sanctuary or help with the Australians?


Not these days. We don't seem able to do much even for our own citizens such as Stern Hu or Matthew Ng, who find themselves in trouble with the law there, even in this low-key 40th anniversary year of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic.

We seem to be getting nowhere with our negotiations for a free trade agreement to broaden and deepen our narrow economic links with China, even as they enter their seventh bleak year.

And our elite - businesspeople, university administrators, some politicians - appear severely conflicted by their own sense of dependence on their Chinese peers, essentially one presumes, for income.

The Sydney University vice chancellor, Michael Spence, told ABC radio listeners recently about lunching with a Chinese VC "who is a great fan of democracy". Then, as we have grown to expect, came the big BUT: "It (democracy) does not produce leaders of ability. I had difficulty disagreeing with him".

He told a different ABC show earlier that "the Chinese" are asking "again and again, how do you educate for creative, independent, critical thinking that asks the hard questions."

While the Chinese polity dominated by the Communist Party has its strong points, governance and encouraging people to ask it hard questions are not high among them.

It is hugely important that we engage more deeply with China without being patronising or hectoring or deferential.

It is not a mark of US failure that people like Chen seek succour in US sovereignty, or that such issues threaten to "overshadow" talks by Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, a Chinese speaker, that start soon in Beijing.

It is far more of a reminder of China's grave governance deficit - harder to fix than the US trade deficit - which is about to be passed on unresolved to another generation of party leaders.

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