Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Middle Kingdom

This is the third and final article in a series of three that link several topics – the critical nature of our declining cultural institutions, the importance of their international engagement and the power and fascination of China. The first, ‘Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our cultural institutions and its impact on Australia's national heritage’, is an outline of the cumulative negative consequences for our national heritage of the ongoing and accelerating laceration of our major cultural institutions. The second article, ‘Whatever the question, China is the answer’, is a preview of the important new exhibition about China at the National Library of Australia, ‘Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911’, and this third article, ‘The Middle Kingdom’ is about the power and fascination of China in the contemporary world.

‘When famed medieval Italian traveller and explorer Marco Polo first encountered China, the Cathay of legend, he saw it as a treasure house of exotic customs and riches. In many ways this is still an element in our own exploration of China. However China is not simply the exotic world of our shaky imagination. China is well on the way to becoming the Middle Kingdom of its traditional name. Australia has a long history of interaction with China. Many of the rich goldfield cities, like Bendigo and Ballarat, were built by Chinese labour and based on Chinese business. More recently, the Chinese in Australia are one of the largest components of the cultural diversity which fuels innovation and commerce in our major cities. For all its faults and political twists and turns I will continue to be fascinated by the Middle Kingdom and watch its inevitable rise with deep interest’.


When famed medieval Italian traveller and explorer Marco Polo first encountered China, the Cathay of legend, he saw it as a treasure house of exotic customs and riches. In many ways this is still an element in our own exploration of China.

Many years ago, I lived for a time in the heart of Sydney and worked at Community Radio 2SER-FM, perched atop the 26 floor tower building of the University of Technology, Sydney, in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. I used to vanish from the office at lunchtime into the densely populated shelves of the Burlington Centre supermarket. It was packed with an array of goods from China, most of which I had never heard and certainly mostly items I had never seen. I would emerge days later, dazed and confused by an encounter with little more than the daily shopping list of a Chinese world.

Chinatown, Vancouver 1995, with memorial to Chinese icon, Dr Sun Yat-sen

The exotic treasures of an unknown world, so attractive to Marco Polo, were repeated for me at a much more domestic and mundane level but I’m sure I sensed his response many centuries before me.

Whatever the question, China is the answer
However China is not simply the exotic world of our shaky imagination. China is well on the way to becoming the Middle Kingdom of its traditional name. It already owns much of the United States and the health of the Australian economy hangs off its need for our raw materials. As my colleagues in the Australian creative industries, ever alert to export opportunities, once commented – only half-jokingly – ‘whatever the question, China is the answer.’

Perhaps a better name might be ‘the middleman kingdom’, given its entrepreneurial bent and growing ability to have a finger in every pie.

The lessons of escalators
The see-sawing balance of significance between China and the US has not been lost on US commentators. American journalist, Thomas Friedman, has perceptively commented on Chinese dynamism and innovation in the book he co-wrote with Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. In a passage which has been widely quoted, Friedman writes about how the speed at which the Chinese built a new convention center provided a wake-up call to an America grown complacent.

In September 2010, he attended a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin, China. Five years before it had taken three and a half hours to reach Tianjin by car. On this trip, the newly opened train station took him by bullet-train to Tianjin in 29 minutes. The conference was hosted in a massive convention and exhibition centre constructed in only eight months.

On his return to the US, he noticed two escalators at his local subway stop had been out of service for months. He discovered that it would take 10 to 12 weeks to fix each of the escalators. As the authors comment ‘A simple comparison made a startling point.’ It took China only ‘32 weeks to build a world-class convention center from the ground up — including giant escalators in every corner — and it was taking the Washington Metro crew 24 weeks to repair two tiny escalators of 21 steps each.’

Of course to balance that achievement, when I mentioned this account, a friend of mine familiar with China casually commented that there are actually many accidents in China involving escalators, so perhaps the speed of construction is not always so positive. There is certainly a dark side to all this unceasing growth, reminiscent of the robber baron era in the US during its period of immense growth. The massive shock produced by intolerable levels of air pollution encountering a growing urban middle class with rising expectations is just one example of this.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the massive potential of China and the scale of the country brings with it problems like this, which are of a similar scale. Issues such as corruption, what Mao Zedong called ‘Han chauvinism’ towards its many and varied minorities coupled with a rising strident nationalism, a tendency to think force is a viable solution to discontent internally and disagreement externally and a cavalier attitude to human rights will all present big enough challenges for even a dynamic country like China in the decades ahead. There is also no guarantee that the pace of economic growth, on which the West and particularly Australia, has come to rely will continue forever.

The fascination of the idea of China

This relentless move to a dominant position in the modern world, providing as it does a long-running backdrop to our times, made me consider my personal relationship with China. I have always been fascinated by China. When I was a student, in that wave of activism that washed over some of Australia’s youth, like an unwanted New Year tsunami, I became briefly a Maoist. Looking back on it I realise that I didn’t become interested in China because I was a Maoist but I became a Maoist because I was interested in China and it was a suitable, though short-lived, response in the enthusiasm of those times.

Of late I must say that I am beginning to think that period of Australian – and international – radicalism was more significant than I realised at the time. Step by step since then, as that activist strand in Australian life has changed shape and waned, its importance in checking on and counterbalancing the extremes of capitalism – what we could call the unfree market, because there is little that is free about it – has diminished. As a result we have reached a point today where the worst excesses of capitalism, ‘neo-liberalism’, as it has confusingly been called, are totally dominant and unconstrained.

In my own area of interest, the world of Australian arts and culture, the impact of this narrow and dysfunctional world-view on our major cultural institutions and cultural life has been severe.

However much a step forward the collapse of the Berlin Wall represented, the virtual demise of the Western communist and socialist parties and their intellectual apparatus that followed, meant the loss of well organised ‘ginger groups’ that made it harder for the wealthy and privileged few to roam free of criticism and opposition. The challenge now is to find their contemporary replacements – and ones without the major shortcomings they encompassed.

Perhaps we need to think about a recent comment by musician and producer Brian Eno, noted amongst many other achievements for producing David Bowie's three Berlin albums. He quoted Mexican author Octavio Paz, ‘Communism might have been the wrong answer, but it wasn’t the wrong question. Because we decided the answer was wrong, we thought we didn’t need to ask the question about inequality any more.’

The Asian centuries
In recent years the importance of the Asian Century has become increasingly recognised within Government and the potential for Australia of engagement with Asia has become clearer. I’d maintain that the Asian Century began much earlier, with the interaction between the Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land and the visiting Macassans from the land that was to become Indonesia. It’s as Australian as pies and sauce.

Of course Australia generally has a long history of interaction with China in particular. Many of the rich goldfield cities, like Bendigo and Ballarat, were built by Chinese labour and based on Chinese business. More recently, the Chinese in Australia are the largest part of the cultural diversity which fuels innovation and commerce in our major cities.

I felt that we missed an opportunity to really make the most of the Year of Chinese Culture in Australia in 2011. How many Australians even noticed? Yet this relationship is so important, not least to Australians of Chinese background. I think we would have made more of it if as a nation we had a better grasp of the important role culture plays in improving productive relations between nations. We are still getting this right.

Despite the massive challenges China faces, this success and looming bright future require a long term vision and a confident sense of culture and community. Chou En Lai, the legendary Premier of China, once famously (and perhaps actually) said when asked what he saw as the long term effects of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell. I like that sort of sense of history – it exhibits a long-term strategic vision, so often missing amongst political leaders in Australia.

I suppose that’s why – for all its faults and political twists and turns – I will continue to be fascinated by the Middle Kingdom and will continue to watch its inevitable rise with deep interest.

See also

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Whatever the question, China is the answer
‘It has been said, only half jokingly, that whatever the question, China is the answer. China has its own distinctive problems but this has an underlying element of truth, especially in our current century, the much heralded Asian Century. Our major cultural institutions have risen to the challenge of the Asian Century, playing a leadership role in building the soft diplomacy which enables a deeper and more durable relationship with Asian nations. In the latest example of this engagement, the National Library of Australia has done what national cultural institutions do best – it has collaborated with the National Library of China to produce an outstanding exhibition, “Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911”. This is a case of cultural interaction building enduring bridges that all the ore trucks in the world can't match’, Whatever the question, China is the answer.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

The island to the North – turning the map upside down
‘Our geography teacher taught us about the Australian fear of the Yellow Peril, ready to pour down from Asia and inundate the almost empty island to the South’, The island to the North – turning the map upside down.

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe
‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’, Notes from a steadily shrinking universe.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

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