Australia and China: The Art & Business Connection

Rising Trade And Cultural Exchanges Between Two Countries Leading China-West Partnerships

Ambassador Raby has been a contemporary Chinese art buff since the 1980s. Could Raby and Rudd lead the way to better Sino-Australian ties?

Ambassador Raby has been a contemporary Chinese art buff since the 1980s. Could Raby and Rudd lead the way to better Sino-Australian ties?

There have been several stories in the last few days about the relationship between Australia and China, two countries which have economically benefitted in alternating cycles through increased trade and commerce over the last 20 or so years. While Australia has a Mandarin-speaking PM who has shown a muted interest in deepening Sino-Australian ties, recent articles have indicated that the China stigma continues to play a role in business deals and politics.

Xinhua, far from the best journalistic source, nonetheless has fairly decent apolitical coverage of cultural events or developments. I noticed this article today, which brought up something that I think we’re going to see a lot more of in coming years: Sino-Australian cultural exchange.While Australia has the distinction of being an “early adopter” of Chinese artwork, one of the first places where contemporary Chinese art was taken seriously and seriously collected (not least by Ambassador Geoff Raby, himself a fan since the mid-1980s). Recently, Ambassador Raby has indicated that exchange of contemporary artwork could prove a conduit for better overall relations between the two countries — paving the way for more two-way dialogue and a breaking down of xenophobic tendencies on both sides — ultimately leading to more business. Xinhua reports on the recent “Midway” exhibition in Beijing:

At a reception held in celebration of the art exhibition…Raby noted that the exhibition was “a very significant collection of work” and it would further deepen people’s understanding of the very close links of visual arts and culture between Australia and China.

Raby said, “This exhibition is a timely and worthy example of the unique depth of relationships that exist between the Australian and Chinese art worlds,” adding that these are relationships that go back many decades to when the first Chinese artists traveled to Australia and opened up the passages for significant cultural exchanges.

“The bilateral relationship between Australia and China is excellent. The cultural exchange is becoming broader and more active all the time. So actually we have seen a general strengthening of the relationship in this area,” he said.

According to Jin Sha, the curator of the exhibition and secretary-general of the Beijing Art Institute of Chinese Fine Arts Painting, the “Midway” exhibition is a collection of 62 pieces of works from 15 Chinese and Australian contemporary artists.

The “Midway” exhibition in China and the upcoming show of Contemporary Chinese Art in Melbourne are two good examples of how art exchanges are becoming a more attractive form of cultural diplomacy, one that could, over time, be a potent tool for greater dialogue and deeper Sino-Australian ties. Already, a number of business-minded journalists in Australia are calling for the country to open up, not only culturally but economically, to its Asian neighbor. The ongoing saga of the Chinalco-Rio deal, however, shows that major Chinese-Australian deals that concern natural resources are going to be fraught with political drama for a while:

The continuing disagreement between officials of the defence department and the intelligence community about the extent of the Chinese military threat and how to respond to it doesn’t help the atmospherics.

Nor does the silliness of the Opposition in suggesting Kevin Rudd is some sort of Chinese apologist. That’s even if the Prime Minister opens himself up to such populist criticism by his secret meetings with Chinese officials and the stupidity of his Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, in not disclosing paid trips to China and the closeness of his personal relationship with a Chinese-born Australian woman.

But in the end, the the Government’s decision on Chinalco will have to be made independently of all this white noise. And it won’t be easy.

The contradiction is that Australia officially welcomes all foreign investment — except, just quietly, when it comes to Chinese investment in key Australian resources.

Going against the ongoing theme of suspicion — particularly when Chinese SOEs are involved in deals, a piece in The Australian calls for Australia’s leaders to follow the lead of American businessman Warren Buffett and look more objectively at doing business with China — an economic area which has benefited and suffered in alternating periods due to a willingness of businesspeople to seek these deals coupled with a sometimes-hostile public opinion. The article looks at the example of BYD, a company we have looked at before, and the potential that working with these young companies has for Sino-Australian business.

While it may seem obvious to Buffett and others, it is almost bizarre that in the past few months some in Australia — which has prided itself during the boom times on its strong ties with China — have been stirring up anti-China controversy for domestic political purposes.

It was only in 2003 that the Howard government patted itself on the back after a $3 billion liquefied natural gas deal in which Chinese offshore oil company CNOOC took 5 per cent stake in the northwest shelf gas field.

Now, with decisions still pending from Canberra on the proposed Chinese investments in Rio and OZ Minerals — both of which are facing very challenging times — the fact that potential buyers of the minerals produced by the two companies also want to invest in them is suddenly being regarded with suspicion.

Like Chinalco, which wants to buy into Rio, CNOOC began as a stated-owned enterprise. Yet former treasurer Peter Costello, who is now on the opposition backbenches, was one of many in his government who applauded the deal at the time.

As the Australian economy weakens and unemployment rises, more potential deals that could bring Chinese investment in Australian resources are reported to be on hold because of the apparent sensitivity about Chinese investment in Australia.

It begs the question — who benefits from stirring up this sensitivity?

Looking back at art as a way to link these two countries together, and the potential that cultural exchange has for decreasing misunderstandings on both sides — not to mention the investment possibilities for both sides in purchasing contemporary pieces (a field we talk about often) — it looks like Australia is the perfect venue for more Chinese art exhibitions. With ethnic Chinese making up about 4% of Australia’s population, and existing government initiatives like the Australia China Cultural Exchange Center already working to promote better ties, it looks like just a matter of time until political, business, and cultural decision-makers both in China and Australia start to see the potential for cooperative exchange. While changing public perceptions and killing xenophobia sounds like a daunting task (and it is, in some ways), the success of artistic exhibitions in Sydney and Beijing alike are a positive sign that artwork diplomacy could soon join ping pong diplomacy and orchestra diplomacy in the annals of brilliant international relations decisions.

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One response to “Australia and China: The Art & Business Connection

  1. Pingback: Australia and China: The Art & Business Connection

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