From the Archive: Gao Xiaosheng, ‘The Briefcase’ (September 1981)
China has always occupied a special place in Australia’s imagination.
From anti-Chinese riots during the Gold Rush and the formal legislation of racism in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (the White Australia policy), to the post-World War II anti-communist hysteria ramped up by China’s socialist revolution of 1949, through to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to One Nation’s crusade against ‘the Asianisation of Australia’, and on to today’s uneasy reflections on what Australia’s proper relationship with China should be in the age of the USA’s ‘pivot to Asia’, it is not difficult to surmise the common and lingering theme – at once subdued, and at times rising in stridency – that of Australia facing a threat.
Indeed, when one looks at Australia’s attitude towards China in such a historical trajectory that persistent undertone appears to simply alter its surface costume. At one time the fear was dressed in the garb of a threatened white supremacy, then hastily was it redressed in the red robes of Communist conspiracy, and now, while both of the former costumes are intermingled somewhat, the concern is about China’s economic power, or about its ‘authoritarian’ politics, or its growing vocality on the world stage, particularly as concerns its relationship with the Russian Federation.
In essence, not much has changed when it comes to Australia’s popular attitudes towards China and Asia today; the old racist cartoon from 1886 depicting an Asian octopus spreading its corrupting tendrils into Australian society says just as much about Australia today (replace the Asian face with a West Asian or North African one and you’d be closer to the mark) as it does about Australia in 1886. Indeed, there is something deeply disturbing and perverse about the fact that Australia’s favourite tourist destination, Bali, was the site of some of the most savage of the anti-communist (and anti-Chinese) pogroms of the 1965-66 killings in which hundreds of thousands were slaughtered with Australian and US backing. The fact that virtually none of the Australians visiting Bali know they tread on a graveyard highlights the privileged ignorance of imperial citizenship.
In the context of the post-Bandung era, China is an important example of both an independent alternative path of development and a partner that many post-colonial states are increasingly looking towards as an alternative to Western nations more interested in preserving their hegemony through the IMF and World Bank. China’s recent cancellation of $5 million of Mozambique’s debt, the release of new dietary guidelines that plan to reduce meat consumption in the country in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the announcement that China now possesses the world’s fastest supercomputer (using all Chinese technology), provide just a few recent examples of areas in which China should be praised and upheld as a model to learn from, rather than fear and attempt to ‘contain’ as some US strategists put it.
The story I have chosen from Westerly’s special issue on China doesn’t have much to do with what I’m writing about here, but nonetheless, when one compares the China of the post-war Japanese occupation era depicted in ‘The Briefcase’, and the China of today, it is clear that a lot has changed and that the Chinese people have accomplished feats that many post-colonial nations rightfully envy.
Henry Ward is a writer and researcher from Perth. In 2016, he will be researching Westerly’s archive, focusing on its engagement with the Indian Ocean region, before moving to the USA to undertake a Phd candidature at the University of California, Irvine.