Location, location, location
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Michael Wesley
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Michael Wesley's biography and other articles by this writer
I was more tired than I'd ever been when the fleet of black Volkswagens arrived. We watched them pull into the hotel forecourt from our table in the lobby cafe. All the other tables were empty and set for the morning; even in Beijing the hours after midnight tend to be quieter. We were distributed in pairs among the Volkswagens, and the convoy purred out onto Chang An Avenue, past Tiananmen Square, towards one of the suburbs close to Zhongnanhai, the secluded enclave from which China is ruled.
I was surprised at the size of the apartment we were taken to, even though I knew our host was a ‘princeling', the son of a very senior cadre, and held a senior post in one of China's ministries. Several of the apartment's rooms and corridors were lined, floor-to-ceiling, with wooden shelving carved in the Ming style. On the shelves were scores of antiques: jade carvings, intricate silverware, pottery, rich lacquerware. Our host was in an expansive mood, clearly delighted at this visit by Australia's first ambassador to China. He talked enthusiastically about ‘his' antiques collection, passing around this and that ancient jade or bone carving, before tossing each back into its display box. After a couple of hours our host's wife, a princeling in her own right, arrived home. Clearly tipsy, she was eager to show us her prized possessions, which included a framed photograph of her shaking hands with a grinning Bill Clinton.
We left as dawn began to lighten the dirty skies. I knew that, like each day of the previous week, what I'd just seen and heard would destroy any chances of sleep. Most of our previous week in China had been spent in discussions with Chinese counterparts at the Huairou leadership retreat, across a toxic lake from the conference centre where the year before China had hosted the 1995 World Women's Conference. There was much to discuss. The Howard government had not had a happy first six months managing Australia's foreign policy, and China had been a major cause of the heartburn. In March 1996, the month the Coalition took office, China began launching missiles and staging aggressive naval exercises in the waters around Taiwan, with the intention of intimidating Taiwanese from voting for Lee Teng-hui, an advocate of an independent Taiwan, in that country's first presidential elections. When the Clinton administration despatched two aircraft carrier battlegroups to the Taiwan Straits, the Howard government, which had pledged to ‘reinvigorate' the alliance with Washington, issued a supportive statement.
Beijing was furious, and went out of its way to let the new government know. It almost cost the new Foreign Minister Alexander Downer his job. One of the first decisions of the Howard government had been to cancel a tied-aid scheme, the Development Import Finance Facility, which had long been criticised as a taxpayer-funded subsidy to Australian companies operating in the region. Under Opposition questioning, Alexander Downer told Parliament on June 18: ‘As I have travelled around South-East Asia and North-East Asia and met foreign ministers and other ministers from those countries there and here, not one minister – be he a foreign minister or an economic development minister – has expressed any concern to me about the abolition of the DIFF program. Not one!'[i]
Beijing's official response, ‘The Chinese government has, both prior to and after the decision of the Australian government, expressed many times and through various channels its grave concern over the termination of DIFF,'[ii] was leapt on by the media and the Opposition, which called for Downer to be sacked for having misled Parliament.
When in August 1996 Australia and the United States issued the ‘Sydney Statement' announcing closer military ties, the People's Daily called Australia and Japan ‘the claws of a crab' used by the United States to try to contain China.[iii] Beijing's mood darkened further after Defence Minister Ian McLachlan stated that China was a strategic concern in the region, and after Canberra condemned a Chinese nuclear test. Beijing lodged an official protest at the visit of Primary Industries Minister John Anderson to Taiwan in September 1996, choosing not to honour the unspoken protocol of turning a blind eye to such visits if they were characterised as ‘unofficial'.[iv] The Chinese government also chose not to be understanding about the Dalai Lama's visit to Australia, and Howard's decision to meet with him; in the face of vociferous denunciations in the Chinese state media, the Prime Minister asserted that he would not ‘bow to Chinese threats'.[v] Another official Chinese periodical wrote that Australia was ‘confused' about whether it wanted to be close to Asia or the United States.[vi] The Guangming Daily carried an editorial arguing that Australia's embarrassing defeat in its bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nation's Security Council was because the Howard government had ‘altered the direction of [Australia's] foreign policy' away from Asia towards the United States and Europe.[vii]
Such jibes meant we were unsurprised at the talks at Huairou when the Chinese raised Samuel Huntington's ‘Clash of Civilisations' argument. In the Summer 1993 issue of the New York-based journal Foreign Affairs, Huntington had argued that ideology would no longer sketch the lines of amity and enmity among nations; the next century would be driven by confrontations among several of the ‘civilisations' into which humankind is divided. He observed that so many of the conflicts of the early 1990s – in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Kashmir, and the Levant – traced along what he called ‘Islam's bloody frontiers', where the Muslim world abutted the non-Muslim world. ‘The Clash of Civilisations' made that issue of Foreign Affairs the highest-selling issue since the journal was founded in 1923.
Huntington's call was for greater solidarity within the ‘civilisation' of the West as it came under challenge from others; his was a vehement rejection of the views of those who argued that the end of the Cold War would usher in a period of globalisation-led universal conversion to democracy, capitalism, human rights, rule of law and toleration. He argued that globalisation's uncertainties would drive a rise in nativism – a greater identification with tribal, ethnic or religious identities. This would place particular pressure on what he called ‘torn countries', which had ‘a single predominant culture which places it in one civilisation but its leaders want to shift it to another civilisation ... the people of torn countries agree on who they are but disagree on which civilisation is properly their civilisation'.[viii] Huntington listed Australia alongside Russia, Turkey and Mexico as a torn country: ‘In the early 1990s ... Australia's political leaders decided, in effect, that Australia should defect from the West, redefine itself as an Asian society, and cultivate close ties with its geographical neighbours.'[ix]
IN HIS BOOK, Engagement – Australia Faces the Asia Pacific (Pan, 2000) former prime minister Paul Keating dismissed Huntington's characterisation of his foreign policy: ‘The last claim is right; the first two are rubbish.'[x] But Huntington had picked up on a broadly held, if inaccurate, perception of Keating's intentions within the Australian community. In his off-the-record ‘Placido Domingo' speech to the National Press Club on December 7, 1990, which marked the beginning of his rise to topple Bob Hawke for the prime ministership, Keating argued that politicians can change the world, but Australia had never had a transformative leader such as Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. ‘Leadership is not about being popular. It's about being right and about being strong.' In that speech, Keating gave the first broad hints that his would be a visionary, transformative premiership, that he intended Australia would be a very different country when he left office.
When Keating took up residence at The Lodge, Australia had seen a decade-long renaissance of nationalism and self-belief. Australian movies, literature and music in the 1980s had repopularised the national myths – Gallipoli, The Man From Snowy River, Bradman, Phar Lap, Ned Kelly – and Australia's stories had been enjoyed overseas. A powerful theme was that from battle field to sports field, grit and determination were at the core of the national character. Keating's transformational message drew on this new nationalism to reject the old anglophile conventionality that he attributed to conservative rule in Australia.
Keating defined his approach with big themes – multiculturalism, reconciliation, the republic, Asian engagement – which he presented as intimately interlinked. His message was that, to really move forward, Australia needed to transform itself from within, sloughing off its old conservative habits of mind to reinvent itself. It was a period of highly charged identity questioning.
For Keating, multiculturalism, the republic and Asian engagement were deeply related: ‘Australian cannot represent itself to the world as a multicultural society, engage in Asia, make the link and make it persuasively while in some way, at least in constitutional terms, remaining a derivative society.' The internal transformation had to proceed hand-in-hand with the external engagement. Taking heed of the 1989 Garnaut Report which argued that, in order to take the greatest advantage of economic engagement with Asia, Australia must become more Asia-literate, the Keating government launched a program funding Asian language education in Australian secondary schools. Culture and language were barriers that needed to be overcome. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans argued that globalisation would bring not a clash of civilisations but a ‘cultural convergence' around commonalities – the growing use of the English language in Asia, shared experiences of multiculturalism, market systems and liberal democracy – that sounded like Asian countries were doing much of the converging, not Australia.[xi] While Australian school kids were becoming more Asia-literate, it seemed Asian countries were becoming more Australia-literate.
By the early 1990s Australian popular culture began to register a broad, visceral discomfort with the Keating agenda. Movies that gave national myths, symbols and lifestyles an irreverent twist began to emerge; a national mood of self-deprecation seemed to greet Keating's transformational intent. Something in the Prime Minister's soaring rhetoric jangled against deep-seated cynicism about transformative visions and ostentatious display, self-deprecation became evidence of genuineness, pragmatism and philistinism acquired new cache. Perhaps the most emphatic statement of this reaction came with the 1994 release of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in which three identity-bending transvestites travel to the heart of Australia. One Asian appears in the film: a garish, irrepressible Thai bar girl who shoots ping-pong balls from her vagina and has duped a genuine Aussie bloke into a bizarre, mutually-contemptuous marriage.
She is a character well-drawn to resonate in the Australian imagination. Whether or not they have been to Patpong Road, Australians have encountered the ‘me love you long time' Asian bar girl in countless songs, movies and television series. They are a recurring image of the seductive, dangerous exoticism of Asia for Australians. Cold Chisel's paean to Australia's post-Vietnam War rootlessness, ‘Khe Sanh', nicely captures this ambivalent attraction:
And I've travelled round the world from year to year
And each one found me aimless, one more year the more for wear
And I've been back to South East Asia
But the answer sure ain't there
But I'm drifting north, to check things out again You know the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone
Only seven flying hours, and I'll be landing in Hong Kong
There ain't nothing like the kisses
From a jaded Chinese princess
I'm gonna hit some Hong Kong mattress all night long.
Of course Australians' attitudes towards Asia have always been heavily shaped by the ebbs and flows of Western pop culture, from Madama Butterfly to Madonna's henna-ed hands. The 1980s saw a focus on Asia as a way of expressing post-punk androgyny in popular culture; for many artists, Asia became the permissive frontier of experimentation and transformation. But even here there was an undercurrent of tentativeness and regret, perhaps best expressed in Iggy Pop's ‘China Girl', which David Bowie was to repackage into one of the biggest hits of 1983 in Australia:
My little China Girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are.
I'll give you television
I'll give you eyes of blue
I'll give you men who want to rule the world.