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Newsletter 349

Published August 4, 2020
Australia in a corner

Each morning I wake up to some fresh indication that we are headed into a new Cold War – or worse. To learn that the Australian Foreign Minister and Defence Minister were winging ther way to Washington D.C. this week, to assure the appalling Mike Pompeo that we’re going all the way with the USA against China, was a truly disturbing discovery.

How dumb is this? As China accounts for about two-thirds of our exports, it would be the most fundamental piece of diplomacy not to go racing off to America in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis to sit like schoolchildren in the headmaster’s office. The Coronavirus provides the very best excuse for not taking up a dubious invitation to endorse Donald Trump’s re-election strategy of blaming everything on the Chinese.

Having seen the way the President has casually betrayed the Kurds and systematically insulted all America’s traditional allies, why would the Australian government want to become cheer-leaders for his inflammatory, self-serving policies? Are Scummo’s gang too reckless or too ideologically-blinkered not to see the dangers? As it happened, Marise Payne made a big effort to stress that Australia will make “independent”decisions about China. But she also signed new “secret” agreements, and generally gave Pompeo the photo op he wanted.

With the economy already reeling from the COVID-19 lockdowns we are inviting the Chinese to inflict a massive knockout blow. Has anybody considered the thousands of Australians living and working in China who may suddenly find themselves arrested on trumped-up charges by way of the Chinese government expressing its displeasure with our politicians?

The worst of all worst-case scenarios sees a desperate Trump, plummeting in the polls, orchestrating a military confrontation in the South China Sea to which we are expected to lend support. Woud we really want to get into armed conflict with China? It’s not like John Howard sending troops to Iraq in search of fantasy weapons of Mass Destruction, it’s inviting mayhem onto our own doorstep. It may sound alarmist but history tells us this is exactly the way wars start: through small tensions and niggles that need only a single spark to set off the explosion. We can be sure Donald Trump won’t be hastening to our assistance if the Chinese decided to teach us a lesson.

None of this is to excuse China’s increasingly high-handed behaviour in Xinjiang, and now Hong Kong, but there’s a difference between expressing a principled opposition and making foolish, theatrical declarations meant to impress Trump and play to the lingering xenophobia of much of the Australian electorate. To risk deliberately stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment at home is immoral and indefensible.

I say this as someone with a longterm interest in China and Chinese art, not as an apologist for a regime that has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years. Whatever their policies may be, the Chinese put great value on the concept of ‘face’, which means that all business dealings should be conducted with respect and dignity. It doesn’t mean we have to agree or co-operate with Beijing’s world-view. To act like loudmouth idiots on the world stage is the very best way to ensure that none of Australia’s legitimate concerns are ever addressed.

World Realpolitik doesn’t make it into the art column this week, which examines the cultural residue of the greatest pandemic of all time – the Spanish flu of 1918-20. There’s an interesting study to be written on the many subtle, long-lasting social and cultural changes brought about by the Spanish flu, which may have killed up to 5 percent of the world’s population. In the meantime I’ve settled for looking at some of the artists who were directly effected by the illness. As the virus lingers in Victoria and creeps back into New South Wales, I suspect I might be mixing reviews with thematic essays for some time to come.

Remember, the link will now take you to the newspaper page, with my own version of article appearing on the website next Tuesday.

The film column is also on an art theme this week, with The Burnt Orange Heresy, a slightly disappointing mystery tale featuring an unlovable art critic. When I come to think about it, have critics ever been portrayed as anything but louses? I could argue it’s the penalty one pays for not always agreeing with artists’ self-perceptions, with curatorial fantasies and market hype. Sticks and stones.