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Newsletter 368

Published December 7, 2020
Zhao Lijian blows Australia a kiss

As someone with a longterm interest in China it’s depressing to see the depths to which the relationship with Australia has sunk. Things were already pretty rocky when Scummo made his bold call for an international investigation into China’s handling of the Coronavirus in an effort to show Donald Trump we were his loyalest of toadies. It was easy to see what would happen next: not only would we be screwed economically, but Australian citizens in China would start to be victimised. Only a few months later we have bans and tariffs on every second Australian product, and Chinese-Australian newsreader, Cheng Lei, is being detained on trumped up charges.

It’s been much worse than a rank amateur like myself might have anticipated, but the appalling ‘fake news’ tweet of an Australian soldier about to slit the throat of an Afghan child, sent out by Chinese diplomat, Zhao Lijian, represents a new low. A spiteful, undignified provocation, it was a radical departure from China’s usual stance of slow, deniable attrition – the diplomatic version of death by a thousand cuts. Predictably Scummo snapped at the bait, demanding an apology – which is rather like the mouse demanding an apology from the cat. The inevitable result was a hardening of support around this nasty little gambit, as China attempted to adopt the moral high ground in relation to Australia’s war crimes allegations in Afghanistan.

It is, of course, ludicrous that a country with China’s human rights record should deign to point the finger at anyone. Had Scummo approached his task like a statesman he might have argued that the very existence of the Brereton Report denotes an openness on behalf of the Australian government to confront and deal with unacceptable misconduct. He might have said that sending out an offensive, doctored photo is the kind of thing his administration would never countenance, and expressed his disappointment that a diplomat would act in a manner that is out-of-character with everything we have come to expect from a great nation such as China.

He might have reclaimed the advantage without firing a shot. He could have quietly turned the spotlight on the shameful nature of the tweet. Instead he did his habitual grandstanding number, guaranteeing an angry exchange and an extended feud on the world stage. As usual he was playing to his supporters at home, stirring up anti-China sentiment, even as he made a point of praising the local Chinese community. As usual, he was trying to have his cake and eat it. The Labor party quickly fell in line behnd him, obviously feeling they couldn’t afford to take a more nuanced position now that the first blows had been struck. The entire incident, which should have been received as a misstep on behalf of an overly aggressive diplomat (even though it was almost certainly officially sanctioned) has now become caught up in a tangled mess of jingoism and nationalism. I’m starting to suspect there’ll be no thaw in Australia-China relations until Scummo leaves the lodge, but it seems that his popularity is rising. There’s nothing like playing the nationalist card to distract from a long list of offences and blunders.

The art column this week is also looking at nationalistic sentiment, in a touring show called Just Not Australian, currently viewable at the Wollongong Art Gallery. It’s a lively group of works, mainly by artists of indigenous or migrant heritage, with a few Anglo-celtic types thrown in. The emphasis is on humour rather than hard-edged criticality – and that’s refreshing.

When it comes to the movies I’m still on the documentaries, which have been the most watchable films on offer during this lean period for the cinema. Musical documentaries have been particularly prominent, and this week I’m reviewing The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. Anybody who remembers the late 1970s may have mixed feelings about the band, as it was virtually impossible at the time to go anywhere or turn on the radio without hearing something from Saturday Night Fever. Perhaps the most interesting part of this film is the disco backlash that seems to prefigure the political madess we see in America today. Fortunately this was before the days of social media. If the Bee Gees were as big today as they were in 1979, they’d be receiving tweets that would make Zhao Lijian’s efforts look half-hearted.