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STERN Hu's confession in a Chinese court to allegations of bribery has exactly the same moral and forensic credibility as the confessions captured journalists make in Taliban custody.

The confession itself tells you absolutely nothing about Hu's conduct. If I had been in a Chinese jail for nine months and had the prospect of earlier release with a confession or later release without one, I'd confess to anything. It's probably as near to a plea bargain as you'll get in the Chinese system.

Labor MP Michael Danby, chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs subcommittee, says: "I have no faith in the Chinese legal system and believe the confession was probably extracted from him [Hu] with the promise of an early release."

An obsession with confessions has a long history in modern China. This emerges more from communist than Chinese culture.

Indeed, those two-bob sages of Chinese culture (who abound in Australia, especially in the less academic arts of the Australian National University), who analyse every move of the Beijing government in the light of millennia of Chinese history, ignore the deliberate and sustained efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to rupture the link between the Chinese people and their traditional culture. This went as far as simplifying the characters used in Chinese language to cut the people off from the classics of their literature.

But in modern Chinese communist culture, confessions have long had a big part.

The classic work on Chinese prisons was by a French Chinese, Jean Pasqualini. His Prisoner of Mao details an astonishingly gruesome experience that included, among other things, 15 months of interrogation leading to a 700-page confession.

China's gulags produced somewhat fewer literary classics than the comparable Soviet gulag, in part because fewer Chinese were released and fewer had any meaningful access to the West or opportunity to publish their experiences.

China has changed since Pasqualini's experiences of 35 years ago. But it hasn't changed altogether. The hardest heads in the Australian system understand what the Hu business is all about. Beijing has sent a message to Australia: tremble and obey.

The Hu case changes the context for all Australians doing business with China, whether commercial or political. Former treasurer Peter Costello captured this most clearly when he remarked soon after Hu's initial detention last June: "Since Stern Hu is now in detention, someone else will have to lead Rio's negotiations with the Chinese steel mills. My guess is they will not push the negotiations as strenuously as Hu." The manner of iron-ore price negotiations is changing substantially, but Costello's broad point is certainly correct.

Evidence that the Chinese intimidation has worked is sadly mounting up. As this newspaper revealed last Saturday, the government made a secret commitment to the Chinese that neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard would see the Dalai Lama on his visit to Australia last December. This was a change in policy, as Rudd had seen the Dalai Lama in opposition and said he would be happy to see him in government.

Similarly, I have learned that the government has pretty much decided that no Australian minister will visit Taiwan during the Rudd government's the first term. This is a big change of policy and a big act of appeasement of Beijing.

Australia follows a one-China policy that recognises a notional Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. At the same time, Australia opposes any threat or use of force by Beijing to change Taiwan's status, which is de facto independent.

Consistent with the one-China policy, Australia has for many years sent ministers to Taiwan to support Australian trade. In truth these visits also recognise the political achievements of Taiwan.

Taiwan represents every single political value Australia admires: democracy, a free press, a pluralist society, respect for human rights, equal rights for women and a productive and economically successful society that provides for the wellbeing of its own people.

A spokesperson for Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says the Rudd government has not made a formal undertaking to Beijing that no minister will visit Taiwan during the first term of the Rudd government. But no Rudd minister has visited Taiwan so far and the spokesperson confirms that there is no plan for a visit.

This will be the first time at least since the Hawke government that a whole parliamentary cycle has gone by without such a visit. If the opposition were not such a complete political and moral vacuum on these issues you might have expected it to have had something to say. It is a signal act of cowardice and appeasement on Australia's part. For a long time we sent a minister to Taiwan every year, but Alexander Downer was weaker on China issues than John Howard and the practice slipped a bit, but certainly we never went a whole term under Howard without a ministerial visit. This is just another way in which China policy is worse, more cowardly and less effective today than it should be.

The world has watched the Hu case. And one lesson is that if you rely on the moral courage of the Australian government or opposition, you are relying on nothing at all.

Could it be that the Vietnamese government, which is preventing two Jetstar executives from leaving Vietnam, drew lessons from the Hu matter ?

Rio Tinto has produced a wonderfully convenient investigation that clears the company of all wrongdoing but leaves Hu's guilt or innocence as a matter on which it cannot pronounce.

Of course it is remotely possible that Hu, like millions of others in China, paid or received a bribe, although there is no reason to think so. But Beijing's decision to prosecute him, and the ostentatiously contemptuous manner in which it has dealt with the Australian government, was taken to intimidate Australia. In this, Beijing seems to have succeeded.