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The cold steel behind China's soft power

Number of visits: Date:2013-06-28

THE row that has emerged over Australian Writers Week in China underlines the danger and the value of such bold attempts to deepen the relationship beyond its mine-ship-steelmill axis.
It also calls attention to the extreme limitations of the "soft diplomacy" strategy into which China's government is pouring billions of dollars.
Australia's excellent ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, has worked extremely hard during his three years in Beijing to build awareness among China's elite that Australia is much more than a quarry.
He has supported and helped organise numerous art exhibitions, musical occasions and writers weeks.
Given the nature of artists - especially their appropriate outspokenness - and of the Beijing regime, largely unyielding on freedom of speech and rights issues, it is surprising that it has taken this long for trouble to arise. The artists, and the people, of both countries get on well when given the chance.
But in so far as China's ruling party can't step aside from trying to regulate and control that process of engagement, it is bound to keep ending in tears: tears over the harshness of the Chinese polity towards artists and free-thinkers within and outside the Great Wall.
The latest fracas started with Frank Moorhouse pulling out of the writers' tour, citing the jailing of Liu Xiaobo, China's most famous dissident. Liu was jailed for 11 years, for inciting subversion, and he has since been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Raby replied to a letter about Liu from Gaby Naher, chairwoman of Sydney's PEN Writers in Prison Committee. The ambassador said the embassy had raised the case with Chinese authorities and had sought to attend his trial and sentencing, without success.
He told Naher: "We are concerned by the nature of the charges and the very harsh sentence meted out to Dr Liu, who was seeking to exercise his right of freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by Chinese law and by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which China has signed."
Moorhouse told ABC radio: "It seemed to me very easy to be a great advocate of freedom of expression in Australia, but very difficult for me now to go to China in the face of the jailing of Liu."
He said that the sending of writers overseas "is considered to be a type of soft diplomacy by governments, the idea being that even when you go to countries where there is some degree of oppression or authoritarian interference with freedom of expression, somehow your presence there and the work you read, and informal contact, can somehow help to affirm freedom of expression."
But, he added, "I don't see it working in China."
It was interesting that Robert Dessaix agreed to replace Moorhouse on the tour. But he was never going to get a visa.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra was reluctant to discuss the matter for privacy reasons.
But Chinese government spokesman Qin Gang said on Thursday that "if he's HIV positive, according to the current regulations in China he is not allowed to enter the country. The regulations are clear."
The standard visa form for China asks the applicant if they suffer from mental disease, venereal disease, leprosy, open tuberculosis, HIV or AIDS, or "other infectious diseases".
Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Booker Prize winner Tom Keneally have joined about 90 writers in seeking the impossible: a public apology from Beijing.
They wrote: "This was an act of discrimination that appears to be founded in fear or ignorance and is behaviour unworthy of any nation that desires to be seen as enlightened and civilised."
Thus, the relationship descends into name-calling, as happened last year with the showing of the film Ten Conditions of Love, about Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
On that occasion Chinese officials lambasted those involved in the screening and in Kadeer's visit.
The Chinese artists who make the biggest global impact have tended to upset their own political class. Ai Weiwei, whose constructions have caused great excitement in Australian galleries, said about the Stars group of artists who emphasised individuality: "Artists believe we have a way to carry our feelings, to express ourselves and our own world views. This may be something quite small, but still to be described as performing an illegal act, or even as a counter-revolutionary, this forced us into a dissident situation."
The global reputation of filmmaker Zhang Yimou has subsided as he becomes more publicly supportive of the ruling party.
Although the international standing and popularity within China of Taiwanese director Ang Lee has kept soaring, Tang Wei, the female star of Lee's Lust, Caution, was banned after an elderly cadre condemned her character in the film as unpatriotic.
Tang has since had to leave her Chinese homeland to settle in Hong Kong to continue working as an artist.
The party paper People's Daily published online an essay on Thursday that cited Premier Wen Jiabao as stating in his annual "work report" to the National People's Congress that "China will attach more importance to cultural development and conduct cultural exchanges with foreign countries actively, so as to enhance the international influence of Chinese culture".
China's investment in "cultural development" is vast and on the rise. But there are few signs of that investment bearing fruit.
China's manufactured goods are ubiquitous. But its brands, its recent inventions since the famous but ancient four (gunpowder, printing, paper and compass), its media, films, books, and its institutions do not resonate globally. Its only Nobel prize for literature was won by Gao Xingjian, in exile in Paris.
People's Daily says: "China needs to take all kinds of measures to educate the world about China so they can love it."
The party's mouthpiece believes that to know the ruling system is to love it. It believes in a form of "soft power" that is chiefly about sanitised arts. But that's not how US culture has become ubiquitous.
We can love China and its people without at the same time loving its political culture. It is awkward for governments on both sides that people in the arts and the media should highlight political difference as well as common humanity. That doesn't tend to happen between businesspeople and politicians.But someone's got to do it or we won't move past the mine-ship-steelmill axis.

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