Wednesday’s edition of 7:30 included a fascinating piece on the campaign of the Chinese government to make China the world leader in film production, a Chinese Hollywood so to speak. Seeking to influence the perception of China more and more films will be rolled out to glorify Chinese civilisation and culture to a worldwide audience. This is part and parcel of a well-funded campaign to promote Chinese interests across the globe by pushing a positive and uncritical portrayal of contemporary China and assembling an army of important people to defend Beijing.
Naivety about Beijing’s intentions is running rife. 7:30 quoted an Australian student on a Confucian Scholarship in China as saying that concern over China’s soft power campaign was driven by fear of ‘the Asian invasion’ and ‘yellow peril’.
The principal of an Australian school that had accepted $10,000 from the Chinese state for language training programs reassured 7:30 that there was no quid pro quo involved. It is fairly certain that there was none since one school in Tasmania is not going to have any effect on Australia’s foreign policy. China’s approach is not an explicit endeavour but a highly subtle one designed to gradually wear down those who may make criticisms by giving them a financial incentive not to do so.
One needs to separate the people of China from the state one-party leadership. Of course, it is positive that there is greater personal and cultural exchange between the Chinese people and the people of Australia. But China’s soft power campaign through film, education and business is a vehicle for state influence. As Niall Ferguson said, the problem is that a society ‘not based on individual freedoms’ will potentially surpass the democratic world in terms of real power.
Essentially this is a replica of the Soviet Union’s attempts to subvert Western nations through funding of parties, nuclear disarmament movements and even terror groups. Vladimir Putin continues the heavy-handed approach of his predecessors in the Kremlin, making financial contributions to parties that support the national interests of Russia.
China is not so flagrant and acts more passively, employing, either through state agencies or through private businesses, leading former government figures from foreign states. China’s tactics are more sophisticated than the Soviet Union but the goal remains the same, to obscure their strategic designs and to cause division within western states.
Western states are supposed to defend their values of openness, freedom from persecution and the promotion of academic freedom. But will they be able or willing to defend those values in the face of a determined attempt to discourage free and open discussion?
An example of the relationship with China causing a challenge to Australian values was the Q&A episode broadcast live from Shanghai in April 2014. Heralded by many as a sign of the softening of state control of the media, the panel evidenced more obfuscation than honesty. There was no real discussion of the denial of civil rights and political freedom by the contemporary regime, nor was there any talk about the suppression of ethnic minorities, Tibet or religious freedom.
The Q&A homepage states that the show aims to:
Create a discussion that is constructive, that reflects a diverse range of views and that provides a safe environment where people can respectfully discuss their differences.
But the panel did not include any public opponents of the Communist Party and those that did appear have connections to the state through business, employment or work for organisations operating with approval of Beijing. The programs stated purpose of providing a balanced discussion between individuals with differing points of view was essentially suspended for this program. One couldn’t imagine a broadcast from Moscow in which only Vladimir Putin’s defenders were in attendance.
To be fair, an honest discussion would have been a bit much to expect. Had Q&A sought out diverse opinions the show would never have been allowed to air on Chinese airwaves.
The one Australian on the panel, former Ambassador Geoff Raby, is a perfect example of the way in which the Chinese state seeks to secure influence in Western democracies. The former diplomat, now based in Beijing as a business consultant advising corporations on operating in China, has been awarded a series of honorary titles for promoting engagement with China. He was never going to compromise his position in China by criticising the Communist Party’s record on human rights, corruption or democracy. Like many former well connected and respected officials, Raby is in a position where it is not in his interest to criticise abuses by the Chinese state.
The Shah of Iran operated in much the same way. Exploiting the state treasury to employ, through one avenue or another, important and well connected US and European bureaucrats, politicians and diplomats. Rather wisely the Shah believed having influential voices on his payroll was an insignificant expense in the business of regime preservation.
But with regard to the power of films it may be difficult to influence the world through the cinema screen. The heavy hand of the state censor is evident in modern Chinese film and television. There is a none too subtle effort to reinforce the virtues of state authority, the wisdom of leaders and the unimportance of things such as individual freedom and political dissent. There is also a noticeable recourse to anti-Japanese sentiment in many Chinese films and television series that often verges on the absurd. It’s not clear if non-Chinese audiences will be all that receptive to the political line of Beijing when it so blatantly appears on screen.
The calculation behind the proposed Chinese Hollywood is simple. Western actors and co will have a choice, they can accept highly lucrative film contracts from Chinese studios or they can be critical of human rights abuses but they will not be able to both. Many leading actors and actresses in Hollywood have stood alongside the Dalai Lama in support of Tibet. This is something they wish to counter by drowning out such voices. And in time this will probably have the desired effect. The deficiencies of the Chinese Communist Party regime will be obscured via an avalanche of positive publicity and hushed voices.
Professor Ferdinando Taviani, an Italian academic, appeared on a satirical documentary that exposed a number of the shady activities of the former Berlusconi government. Taviani spoke about the sinister nature of post-modern dictatorships that don’t use the aggressive tactics of fascists which often provoke more spirited resistance. What he said was:
It’s a kind of shit dictatorship but without torture. The army isn’t outside my house. I won’t get arrested if I say certain things. I’ll be insulted, but not arrested. They won’t torture me or beat me. But you don’t have the strength to oppose it beyond a certain point. I spoke to many people who endured dictatorships and they told me the decline of certain honest people became evident when, years later, after one or two years, they’d still be saying, “Now it’s going to fall, it can’t last.” That’s the great illusion. That what is empty, phoney, cannot last. That’s not true it can last.
It is also hard to see a slow moving attack on intellectual freedom. The most effective dictatorships are not those that rely on secret police forces or the constant fear of death. It the dictatorship that exists in the mind that says to you ‘don’t ask that question, not watch that film, don’t attend that play’. If that voice is ever present then a state doesn’t need mechanisms of enforcement, we’ve done all the work for them. Benign and smiling dictatorships are dictatorships no less.