This week began in Canberra where I went to see The Historical Expression of Chinese Art at the National Museum of Australia. A deadly title (and not in the indigenous sense), but a pretty good show, it’s also the subject of this week’s art column. The title was a reminder of the way China is tightening up its control of culture as part of a general turn towards a more authoritarian system. It was also a reminder of the age-old virtues of Chinese art that transcend the policies of the present day.
As I’ll be in China soon, leading a Fairfax tour in Xian and Beijing, it’s rather depressing to see the direction the country is taking. I can understand that the Party is eager to supress challenges to its power, but ever since the upheavals of 1989 the Chinese people have shown themselves to be compliant with the existing system so long as the general quality of life keeps improving. That improvement is undeniable, but instead of relying on citizens’ continuing acceptance of the political status quo, the government has felt the need to crack down on even the smallest signs of dissent. This is really disturbing and may ultimately be counterproductive, for while life is good, people’s natural conservatism will reject any radical political change. Make life unbearable, put restrictions of basic freedoms, and it invites a rebellious attitude.
The problem also extends to contemporary Chinese cinema where a huge input of funds has led to a dramatic dive in quality, as big budget blockbusters (Great Wall) and sentimental schlock (Youth), replace the masterpieces of a previous generation. Last year the body responsible for administering the Chinese film and media industries was eliminated and control of the sector handed to the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party. This has resulted, inevitably, in a more restrictive censorship regime.
China is such an exciting place, with so much to offer the world, the growth of political paranoia threatens to put the brakes on its expanding influence and booming economy. A report on the ABC’s Four Corners this week, detailed the Chinese attempts to influence Australian politicians from both sides of the fence, and even to bully an independent Chinese-language newspaper in suburban Hurstville. And what about Australian citizen, Yang Hengjun, who has been detained for three months in China without charges, and without access to lawyers?
Such heavy-handed, quite unnecessary activities will only help raise barriers between China and Australia at a time when we should be co-operating to our mutual benefit. The heat has to go out of these issues before the damage becomes even more drastic. China has produced some of the greatest art and cinema of the past three decades. It would be a disaster to see everything return to the sterile realms of propaganda.
This week’s movie is The Aftermath, a disappointingly bland ‘love in the ruins’ story, set in the wreckage of Hamburg at the end of World War Two. All the elements of a rip-roaring tale are present, but the execution is too stiff and sterile. Movies like this make me long for the lurid delights of a great B-movie, but the golden age of Eurotrash is over. In these politically-correct times filmmakers seem mostly concerned to avoid offending anyone. It’s an attitude that would be wholeheartedly endorsed by the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party.