One of the ironies of our present subservience in the face of the tyrannies of China — Uighurs rendered as muslim terrorists, their leader Rebiya Kadeer as “flyblown meat” who has to be shunned by the west as much as that despotic theocrat, the Dalai Lama — is that it would never have happened without our slavish adherence to economic liberalism and market values.
Without that amoral love of gold, no matter what iron fist clutches it, we would never have seen Rupert Murdoch agree to censor Sky in China or John Howard doing deals with the lineal descendants of the Gang of Four for the sake of selling our ore to the Chinese millions.
In the next few days Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur leader given asylum in America by Condaleeza Rice, comes to this country. This small, charismatic women is herself the product of the new capitalized China; but the still-small voice that calls for autonomy for the former East Turkestan (not necessarily independence) points to the democratic future, not the totalitarian past. If contemporary China is (with its blend of totalitariansm and commercial pluralism) is in some ways more like Nazi Germany than any other contemporary society, then Kadeer is one of the jews who has got out and spread the word about the darkness within.
It seems so long ago that we thought of the Chinese as the “nice” communists. Of course at that time, when young left-wingers thought that Soviet communism was going to be a thousand year reich, Mao was committing some of his greatest crimes with the Cultural Revolution. It was that era of Western naivete that made the late Susan Sontag remark, “The Reader’s Digest was closer to being right about communism than we were.”
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Now, of course, we kow tow to the Chinese for opposite reasons. Because they are a mighty economic power, the West needs their money to fight wars, it needs it to do anything. And Australia is so dependent on China as a trading partner, as the buyer of our iron ore, that we have to cop it sweet when they insult us.
China has been a dragonish and baleful presence in recent weeks. Uighurs are shot down in the streets of West China, the former East Turkestan, and the Chinese government shuts down the Internet and Twitter. In the wake of Australia’s proposed deal with Chinalco falling through Stern Hu, the executive of Rio Tinto who was an Australian citizen, is detained but not charged. The Chinese, while snubbing Australian government representations, let it be known that he will face national security charges, as if to suggest that actions to the economic advantage of Australia (or of a multinational company) could be classified as espionage of the direst kind.
Then, with tragedy mutating into a farce, like sped up version of Marx’s dictum about history, the Chinese government decides to buy into the Melbourne International Film Festival. They insist that The Ten Conditions of Love, the documentary by the Australian director Jeff Daniels about Uighur dissident leader Kadeer, not be shown at the festival.
While the Chinese speaking Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, is cowed into political reticence by the might of China, the director of the Film Festival Richard Moore staunchly resists. The consequence, however, is dire. Several Chinese directors withdraw from the Festival, causing chaos. (Some have subsequently said they were not pressured, but the atmosphere of cultural repression is unmistakable). And for all this, the Chinese commissars of the new capitalism achieve nothing anyway. In a gratifying way the documentary about the Uighur activist gets a full house at the Festival and, as the director says, it’s all down to the Chinese objections.
The whole exercise in propaganda has had a crudeness of which Joseph Goebbels would have been ashamed. Nothing could exemplify more clearly the Chinese government’s incomprehension of any form of pluralism or tolerance of diverging views. And the fact that the slide towards tyrannical gesticulation has been so automatic and so crude has been the one positive thing about the whole shameful business because it shows us what were up against.
It has been everyone’s fond hope that the new Chinese capitalism would, by necessity, bring about with that of the corrosion of totalitarian repression and the eventual emergence of democracy, despite the shadow of Tiananmen, the persecution of the Tibetans and the Falun Gong, the blanket control of media and the absence of any real rule of law.
Surely the freedom to get rich or, at a minimal level, to enjoy the range of goods and services according to personal needs and desires, carries along with it and any implicit requirement of political liberty. Well, does it? There have been recent reports that Stern Hu was a Tiananmen protester. I remember, back then, the chilling American accented voice of a Chinese Foreign Ministry official who said, “We are not going to make the mistake of our former Soviet colleagues who allowed political freedom to proceed in advance of economic freedom.”
I heard that tone of clinical brutality again decades later, once more in the accents of the North American seaboard, when a young Chinese man at a Davos symposium, a man who had a blog that was read by millions of his fellow Chinese, spoke complacently — and it was a distinctly inappropriate effect — to the tune that democracy wasn’t everything.
Perhaps it is not, perhaps it’s just better than the alternatives. Of course everyone is in love with the culture that has come out of the new capitalized China like a revelation of ancient richness. Much of it has had a Hong Kong spearhead but that proliferating glory has flooded back to the centre of the Imperial culture (from which, of course, it originally came).
Just the other day I saw Red Cliff the first film made in mainland China by the great John Woo, one of the supreme stylists of contemporary cinema. Despite being cut — barbarously — from six hours to two and a half for Western release, so that it is an almost less unbroken sequence of battle scenes, Red Cliff has an extraordinary grandeur and exploits a breathtaking cinematic rhetoric in its evocation of the Chinese past.
Is there an irony in the fact that it derives from the Chinese literary classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and that it presents with great sympathy the heroic resistance of provincial rebels against the central power?
The story of that very impressive Uighur lady Rebiya Kadeer is told simply and lucidly in Jeff Daniels’ Ten Conditions of Love. We hear of how her first husband, a Communist Party official, was forced to divorce her, how she took in laundry to support herself, and, how she built up a commercial empire that made her the seventh richest woman in China. How she attracted the attention of Bill Gates and hobnobbed with Hillary Clinton.
We see her talking, steadily and impressively, in her Turkik language. And, yes, we hear her daughter say in fluent American English what it’s like to have her siblings imprisoned in China because of her mother’s defiance of the Chinese government.
Ten Conditions of Love is a simple film, it’s not in The Sorrow and The Pity (or indeed Triumph of the Will), it doesn’t analyze the Chinese anxiety about borders nor the political extremity of what the Uighurs might be driven to because of the way they have been colonized and demonized by the Chinese.
It does make crystal clear, however, that we are dealing with an impressive woman and that the movement she leads can only as a consequence of the grossest propaganda be equated with fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. It is to the great credit of the Melbourne International Film Festival that they have persisted with this film and it is to the shame of the Chinese government that they have tried to prevent it.
Just at the moment, with an Australian citizen detained, and an Australian government hamstrung by the brute assertion of Chinese power, it is appropriate to register the scorn and outrage we feel.
Perhaps we can’t do this at the level of government but we can do it as a community. When we contemplate the beauty of Chinese culture, or experience the warmth of Chinese people, is a terribly sad thing that even great filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai have been drawn into the web of propaganda where they have to back the Beijing line.
One of the great Chinese poems has words in it which were translated by Ezra Pound as “There is no end of talking, no end of things in the heart”.
Like much of the great Chinese art (think of the shimmering stillness of those matchless landscapes) this has great power of restraint. Yes, but we have to believe that at the end of the day it’s the things of the heart, the things that only art can capture, which will defeat the tyranny that cannot ever tolerate the endlessness of talk.