China

On 17 November 2011, President Barack Obama quoted Banjo Paterson to an audience of Australian and American military personnel at RAAF Base Darwin. He recited a question that Paterson posed about Australia in a poem he wrote to celebrate Federation in 1901: ‘Hath she the strength for the burden laid upon her, hath she the power to protect and guard her own?’ The question haunts us still. Obama assured his listeners that the answer was ‘yes’, but everything about the circumstances of his speech suggested the opposite.

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‘We are drawn to this China, even though we still do not know China,’ wrote Soviet avant-garde writer and theorist Sergei Tretyakov in 1925. ‘But we must get to know China, we must get to know it well, and we must get to know it quickly.’ Tretyakov’s call was underpinned by a real sense of political urgency: the failure of socialist revolutions across Europe had prompted a Soviet pivot toward Asia, and China had emerged as a potential partner for fostering ‘an international community of enemies of capital’. Yet despite being geographically adjacent, Russia and China had long perceived each other as unfamiliar and distant. In an effort to bridge this divide, a comprehensive cultural campaign was devised to draw China closer to the Soviet public.

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Picture, poem, or puzzle? The Chinese written character has been one of the most enduring obstacles to and catalysts for intercultural appreciation. When, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel wanted to demonstrate the relative backwardness of Oriental thought, he could find no better exhibit than the form of its writing. Attached as it was to ‘the sensuous image’, the putatively pictographic Chinese character forfeited access to the conceptual abstraction that afforded European thinkers their passports to the ‘free, ideal realm of Spirit’.

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Moral certitude, wrong-headedness, and ignorance inform what passes for debate about China in Australia today. There is so much grandiose proselytising born out of flawed history and tired tropes. Considering how ill-informed the most prominent Australian commentators are about China, it’s quite a feat that they’re often more deceived about their own nation.

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Since the time of celebrated figure painter Gu Kaizhi (345–406 CE) of the Jin dynasty (266–420 CE), artists in China have been researchers of sorts. Over millennia, a scholarly ideal in painting would emerge. Late in their working lives, many artists sought an aesthetic that was uncontrived and conformed to the inner workings of nature. For Nanjing-based art historian Xue Xiang, this was Fairweather’s achievement. A Scottish-born artist, son of civil servants to the British Raj, war survivor, migrant, vagabond, builder of makeshift rafts and huts, well-connected recluse, acclaimed foster child of Australian art: what makes Ian Fairweather resonate with Chinese artists across millennia?

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It has become a rite of passage for foreign correspondents returning home from a stint in China to pen a memoir recounting their experiences. All too often, the story begins with the said reporter crossing into mainland China at Lo Wu, having just spent time enjoying the bright lights of Hong Kong. Clearly, the Lo Wu railway station holds a certain allure for wandering Australian journalists.

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The China Journals: Ideology and intrigue in the 1960s by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

by
November 2020, no. 426

When the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) invited Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, to visit China in 1965, he jumped at the chance. It was a decision that all parties concerned came to regret. The eminent historian had a terrible time in China, ‘that land of bigots and parrots’. He didn’t meet the right people. He found no intellectual equals. The interpreters and guides assigned to the group weren’t up to the job. He nicknamed them Cement-head, Duckbottom, Smooth-face, and the Presbyterian.

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Scott Morrison does not like to explain the decisions he makes on our behalf. Sometimes he just refuses to discuss them, as he did when, as immigration minister, he simply rejected any questions about how his boat-turnback policy was being implemented at sea. At other times he is a little subtler, as he has been this year while presiding over what will probably prove to be the most consequential shift in Australia’s foreign relations in decades. The collapse in relations with our most powerful Asian neighbour and most important trading partner is not just Canberra’s doing, of course; it has resulted from decisions made in Beijing too. But Australia’s recent and current choices have certainly contributed to the chill, and our future choices will do much to determine where things go from here.

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Sometime in 2017, one of the world’s largest academic publishers started quietly removing thousands of articles from its websites in China because they covered topics deemed politically sensitive by the Chinse Communist Party (CCP). Much of the offending material related to the three Ts: Taiwan, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. At the time I was a China correspondent for the Financial Times, and an academic who was horrified by this censorship tipped me off. I contacted the publisher, Springer Nature, which admitted that it had begun censoring to comply with ‘local distribution laws’. I naïvely thought that the exposure of such craven behaviour by the owner of Nature, Scientific American, and the Palgrave Macmillan imprint would prompt a huge backlash from academics, universities, and governments.

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Lawyers, media organisations, human rights NGOs, and unions have been lining up recently to warn us of a serious threat facing civil liberties in Australia. It comes in the form of Malcolm Turnbull’s new national security laws, which, in the name of combating foreign influence, would criminalise anyone who simply ‘receives ...

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