China and Australia Culture Years: A mission to promote cultural exchanges
—An exclusive interview with Mr. Ke Yasha, Chinese Minister Counsellor for Culture in Australia
Interview by Stephen Chen
Contributing planning and editing by Pinghui Xiao
China is an ancient country with a civilisation over 5,000 years of vicissitudes. Australia is a country with a young mainstream, and a rich aboriginal history. It is an old but young country in which has active ethnic groups with different beliefs and diverse cultures from all the corners of the world. China and Australia differ in historical and cultural backgrounds and therefore, the activities of the Australia Culture Year in China and the China Culture Year in Australia have far-reaching significance.
The proposal of holding a “Australia Culture Year” in China was originally put forward in 2008 by the Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and the Environment and Arts Minister Ge Lante. In November 2009 during a visit to Australia, ChineseVice Premier Li Keqiang, and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a plan to hold the activities of Culture Year respectively in China and Australia. In March 2010, the Australian Ambassador to China Geoff Raby and Chinese Deputy Minister of Culture Zhao Shaohua signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Australia and China to mutually launch Culture Year. In accordance with the MOU, Australia holds an “Australia Culture Year” in China from June of 2010 to June of 2011 and China holds a “China Culture Year in Australia from June of 2011 to June of 2012.
Recently, the China-Australia Entrepreneurs Magazine ((hereinafter referred to as CAE) had the privilege to interview Chinese Minister-Counsellor Ke Yasha (hereinafter referred to as MC Ke) in the Chinese Embassy in Australia. In the interview with MC Ke, together we analysed the macroscopic history and practical geopolitics and discussed the microscopic cultural activities of China and Australia at the operational level.
“We believe that ‘Culture Year’ should be a concept of large culture, which has both vertical and horizontal sections. Horizontally speaking, the cultural and economic activities interact to propel economic and trade development while publicising the positive images of the two countries; vertically speaking, in terms of the promotion of cultural undertakings and exchanges, governments and enterprises can get a lot out of the activities of Culture Year. Non-governmental organizations should also find their position to act as a bridge,” said MC Ke.
MC Ke’s unique analysis fully demonstrated the confidence and sagacity of a Chinese diplomat.
Culture Year and the products made in China
CAE: China is one of Australia's largest trading partners. During this year long presentation the activities of “China Culture Year” in Australia will not only show Chinese culture, but also demonstrate the results of China's economic development, such as the products made in China. What do you think of the role that the China Culture Year in Australia will play in publicising the Chinese economy and the products made in China?
MC Ke: The launching ceremony of the “Year of Chinese Culture” held in the Chinese Embassy in Australia on February 10, 2010 was very successful, and has won the recognition of the Australian mainstream society. Most participants think that this is the most successful and the most high-end one of the activities that the Chinese Embassy has ever organised in many years. On the one hand, it was a grand event; on the other hand, many creative and high-tech means have been applied to the event, including the Chinese-made big LED 6x3m-screen used for the first time, demonstrating the leading technology which has deeply impressed many people.
It is obvious that many companies took the advantage of the activities platform of Culture Year to promote such products, and thus achieved very good results. Some companies participated in the activities of Culture Year by way of sponsorship, which is a more flexible and demonstrates effective publicity. The third-party NGO service providers such as the Chinese Advertising Association and the China-Australia Entrepreneurs Association Inc. (CAEAI) can also make good use of the platform to serve the products made in China and the Year of Australian Culture, and at the same time publicising and featuring themselves.
Of course, to achieve this goal, the effect will be more significant if all the parties make concerted efforts. It is necessary for the competent departments of both governments to promote exchange activities, using foreign institutions to provide a platform for them, and the economic and trade organisations participating in them.
We used to regard cultural exchange as “self-promotion” but now it is rare to use such terms. The so-called “promotion” is actually the expression and mode of discourse formed in a specific historical period. Now we have changed the term “promotion” for the term “exchange”. It appears to be more flexible and neutral in cultural diffusion and is easier to accept. As a result, Chinese culture is smoothly and naturally introduced. As a matter of fact, our concept has been gradually changing. Although the term “promotion” is established by usage in the Chinese language, it has been changed into the term “publicity” in English.
As a diplomatic organ, we are willing to build a platform. We also hope that companies can flexibly promote themselves in the process of participation in such activities as Culture Year.
The Year of Chinese Culture is a good platform. This time we are also communicating with enterprises, trying to get more businesses to participate in the sponsorship. But we still feel it difficult to interest sponsors. Currently, some Chinese enterprises do not have a strong sense of sponsorship, for they have failed to see the role that such activities can play in enhancing the publicity of their brands.
In comparison, foreign companies are well versed in this regard. For example, Rio Tinto has donated money to assist the events of the China Culture Year in Australia. They have also made exclusive restrictive terms so that competitors can not participate in the activities. In addition, they have worked out a complete set of plans to seise the opportunity to publicise themselves with the aid of the events of the Year of Chinese Culture. Many Chinese business persons are not aware of this, so they can not take advantage of such cultural events to publicise their companies, nor do they know how to do this type of publicity.
From the official website of the Year of Chinese Culture, we can see that all the main Australian and Chinese enterprises involved in sponsorship are displayed in motion on the website. But the Chinese are basically displayed as “Supporters” while the Australian enterprises are displayed as “Sponsors” or “Partners” because of their enthusiasm and donations. This demonstrates a distinct difference in the way that the two are looking at their involvement.
Our business departments and some associations should actively encourage Chinese enterprises to promote their products and brand images by sponsoring the activities of the China Culture Year. In western countries, including Australia, it is an important form of corporate public relations for enterprises to take advantage of cultural activities to publicise their image. This form is widely used in business circles. We also hope that Chinese enterprises can take full advantage of such channels and platforms to recommend their corporate brand and enhance their brand culture.
There are a lot of misunderstandings about China-made products in foreign countries. The term “Rome was not built in a day” signifies the development of trying to get Chinese enterprises to use the China Culture Year to publicise themselves. It will take some time to solve the problems related to the quality of some products made in China. Chinese enterprises should constantly improve themselves in order to maintain their existing advantages. For example, they should focus on quality, build brands, and pay attention to after-sales service, etc. As far as the price system is concerned, I hope that China-made products will be exported without this simple model of small profits and quick returns.
Year of Chinese Culture in the context of history and geopolitics
CAE: The mid 19th century saw the rise of the Victoria gold rush and the Chinese began to migrate into Australia in great numbers. The settlers from Europe came to Australia only about half a century earlier than the Chinese. Today's Australia introduces the policy of multiculturism. What role do you think the Chinese play in the cultural context? Is there any change in the status of the migrated Chinese in Australia since China's national strength is increasing today?
MC Ke: As for overseas Chinese, Australia is a very young country. A large number of Chinese moved here in the gold rush of 1850, exactly one year later than San Francisco's gold rush of 1849. – The Chinese called San Francisco “Jiujinshan” which means “old gold mountain” literally just because the gold would quickly be gone and a new gold mountain was found in Australia. Since the start of China's reform and opening up policy, in combination with the 1960s and the 1970s, the overseas Chinese who have migrated to Australia from Malaysia, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries and regions occupy a large proportion of the Chinese immigrants of all the entire western countries.
I am also directly and deeply aware of the fact that the recent standing of the overseas Chinese has evolved and elevated in foreign countries.
I spent eight years living in the Shanxi Province before the start of reform and opening up. China was severely short of foreign language professionals in this early period. Because I had studied in a foreign language school, I received the chance of being transferred back to work in a unit of foreign affairs in Beijing. Therefore I had more opportunities to come into contact with many foreign people. I found that they actually had a good impression of China, but many foreigners’ impression about the Chinese people still remained in the period when Chinese men were wearing a long braid. It was not until 1978 that I heard many foreigners jokingly mention the so-called “Dr Fu Manchu” to me. I was so puzzled that I used to ask them, “Who does this name refer to?” Not until they explained it to me did I find out that it was a character that some Americans had fabricated to smear the image of the Chinese people many years before and then affixed it to all the Chinese people. (Editor's Note: Dr. Fu Manchu is translated into “傅满洲” in Chinese, which is a fictional character created by British novelist Sax Rohmer. In his book, he tried to demonise the Chinese people and created a Chinese figure which had the face of Satan with a combination of all the bad qualities of Eastern nationalities. In 1930, the United States filmed the comic book character Fu Manchu to further demonise the image of Chinese people.)
Many overseas Chinese are patriotic at heart, but because of the previous international image of China featuring poverty and backwardness, they always deny in public their heritage. In the late 1990s, I worked in San Francisco, which is city with a large proportion of overseas Chinese. One third of the jobs for the municipal government were dominated by ethnic Chinese in San Francisco, which we felt was something like Guangzhou. However, in the Chinese community of San Francisco, many people did not admit their roots were Chinese. I was particularly impressed by a local police chief there–who was very popular and had a level of high prestige in his community. I discovered that all the white policemen showed top respect for this Chinese police officer. But he thought he was a real American instead of a Chinese. It was not until he returned to China for a visit that he began to change his thoughts on this.
He told me that when he got out of his car at the place where his grandfather was born, he felt very familiar with the village and villagers although he could not understand their dialect. He also said that he headed straight for the old house in which his grandfather was born even though no one directed him there. He went in and looked around only to find that everything seemed so friendly as if he had grown up in that very place during his childhood. Thinking of all these feelings, he began to weep like a child.
Since then, he has completely changed and admits that his roots are in China. He is friendly to the Chinese Embassy and Consulate.
Now the image of China shown by some Western media is often quite different from the reality of the development of China. Most people do not understand China's development and change until they personally pay a visit to China.
It is also a gradual process in which there are natural soft changes. I agree with our former Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng’s philosophy, that is, “Culture affects people like water which moistens things silently.”
CAE: You used to be a diplomat in the United Kingdom and now continue your career as a diplomat in Australia. Now that you have experience in promoting multiculturalism in your career across Europe and Oceania, what is your view and understanding of it?
MC Ke: Australia is a multicultural country and its culture is characterised between the United Kingdom and the United States. It has a mixture of both the British gentleman bearing and American freedom and openness together with the cultural elements of other ethnic groups including the Asian. Since Australia abolished the “White Australia Policy”, great progress has been made in the development of multiculturalism. Chinese culture has also been recognised by the mainstream society in Australia .The overseas Chinese do well to maintain their own traditional Chinese culture but do not integrate it into the mainstream culture there, or in any other country in which they settle.
Cultural interaction between China and Australia
CAE: The significance of cultural communication and exchange lies in the mutual exchange of culture and the interpenetration of different cultures. Last year, our national treasure pandas settled in Australia, which has become a re-known deed praised far and wide in the history of cultural exchanges between China and Australia. Do you think that similar kinds of exchange activities promoted by the governments or willingly launched by NGOs can be repeated?
MC Ke: We believe that bilateral cooperation of any type is conducive to the cultural exchanges between the two countries. For example, the aboriginals’ culture has a very special place in Australian culture. It has played a significant role in the “Year of Australia Culture” in China. In 2010, Australia’s first female Governor General Quentin Bryce opened the curtain of the “Australia Culture Year” in Beijing and announced the launch of the “Australia Culture Year” with the Australian Aboriginal Art Show, which is so far the most important exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art in China. Through the events of the “Year of Australian Culture”, Chinese people get a taste of the wonderful charm of Papunya paintings of the central Australian desert region and the contemporary Aboriginal art of Balgo – a remote western Australian desert area.
For another example, Chinese artist Zhou Xiaoping is very famous in Australia. He is a window through which the Chinese people come to understand the mystery of the Australian aboriginal culture. In the 1980s when he went to study in Australia, he personally experienced life in the aboriginal tribes. It was a very courageous and forward-looking move. He spent a long time learning from several old aboriginal artists and painted together with them. His paintings were included in the Aboriginal Art Exhibition in the “Year of Australian Culture” held in China. He also planned to invite the Aboriginal artist with whom he had worked with to visit Huangshan in China and paint with him there. Unfortunately, the artist passed away recently.
Although the late Australian aboriginal artist was unable to participate with Chinese artist Zhou Xiaoping, we will continue to organise such interactive activities in the future, throughout the “Year of Chinese Culture in Australia”.
In fact, China and Australia have always had a solid foundation of cultural exchanges. Australian volunteers have gone to work in the conservation of Manchurian tigers in Northeastern China’s Jilin Province. This project derives from the fact that a local zoo in Jilin Province and a zoo in Adelaide have established a “sister zoo” relationship.
CAE: Australia has vigorously promoted its aboriginal art in the “Year of Australian Culture” in China. What can we learn from such a practice in the “Year of Chinese Culture” in Australia? What kind of events will China bring to the Australian people?
MC Ke: The Australians, for the “Year of Chinese Culture” in Australia, will carry out the concept of “Macro-culture”, including film & TV, painting, exhibition, sports and other aspects.
Since Australia has introduced its Aboriginal art to the Chinese people, we have selected some types of original arts with Chinese characteristics. For example, Legend of Shangri-la, a blockbuster of song and dance, directed and starred by the famous Chinese artist Yang Liping of Bai ethnic minority will be performed as a visiting premiere in Australia on June 24 this year.
Moreover, the world-famous pianist Lang Lang will appear in a solo recital. The ballet “The Last Emperor”, which Liaoning Ballet – one of which the famous Ballet Troupes rehearsed recently, will also be put on in the major cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide from June to July of this year.
We have also carried out Chinese cultural activities, such as exhibitions and performances, in a number of small and medium sized cities in Australia. The “Year of Chinese Culture” is full of open events in a variety of forms with contents not limited to one pattern. The performances are well received by the local people in small cities. They have produced a good effect. As there are comparatively few cultural activities in small and medium sized cities, not to mention access to foreign performing groups, the Chinese performance groups are particularly popular and the theatre is filled to capacity in those areas. We can always look for opportunities in similar patterns so as to further promote Chinese culture.
Australia and China both have vast territory and abundant resources. China covers an area of 9.6 million square kilometers and Australia 7.6 million square kilometers. One difference is that China has a larger population and densely populated cities; in contrast, the Australian population is much smaller. Australia is an island continent where cities are distributed along the coast. One city may be very far away from another across the east and west coasts. So this is a challenge for us to organise the events of the “Year of Chinese Culture” in Australia. It is not easy to organise a show. Naturally we hope that more viewers can enjoy this cultural feast, but we have some difficulty addressing the problem with the cost of performances.
CAE: You mentioned that those involved in the sponsorship for the events of the “Year of Chinese Culture” are primarily some of Australia's largest enterprises, but in fact, many community organisations and NGOs are quietly doing their best to promote the cultural exchanges and friendship between China and Australia. As a non-profit non-governmental organisation, the China-Australia Entrepreneurs Association Inc. (CAEAI) has always been committed to promoting cultural exchanges between the two countries. We have spared no effort in working with the Chinese Embassy as a substantive supporting unit in the events of the “Year of Chinese Culture”. Would you please give us some suggestions? How will the China-Australia Entrepreneurs Association Inc. better promote the economic, trade, and cultural exchange between China and Australia in the future?
MC Ke: The China-Australia Entrepreneurs Association Inc. has always paid attention to the development of economic and trade cooperation and cultural exchanges between China and Australia and has made many efforts and contributions. Last year CAEAI President Raymond Wang donated a pair of white marble panda sculptures to the Adelaide Zoo, which garnered high praise from all circles of society.
I also know that CAEAI has recently donated nine million yuan to promote the Chinese language and culture education in Australia, which is a wonderful development in the interest of the current and future generations. At the donation ceremony, Jeff Turner, Deputy Consul General of the Australian Consulate General in Guangzhou and Zhao Yang, Deputy Director of Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council of China, on behalf of the Governments of China and Australia respectively, witnessed this charitable donation. I think this is pioneering work which is worth popularising. I hope that under the influence of CAEAI, more associations as well as more people can join you in the effort to promote the Chinese culture.
It needs the joint efforts of all circles to promote economic and trade and cultural exchanges between China and Australia. Non-governmental organisations are an important force. We should vigorously support all the efforts which are conducive to mutual exchanges between the two countries and promote bilateral friendly relations. I also suggest that CAEAI take an in-depth part in a number of important cultural events. For example the National Theatre Company of China selected and performed a modern drama at the Asia Arts Festival, an annual event in Adelaide (Editor's Note: See the special report in the tenth issue of this magazine, 2010).This drama with a high artistic level was also performed at Arts Festivals in other Australian cities, which also received good responses. Apart from this performance, nearly 100 events of performances and exhibitions incorporated into the “Year of Chinese Culture” in Australia are of the national level. NGOs can play an important role in these cultural exchanges, and economic and trade cooperation projects.
We look forward to the complete success of the “Year of Chinese Culture” in Australia and believe that the China-Australia Entrepreneurs Association Inc. will continue to make greater contributions and spare no effort to further promote the friendly relations between China and Australia, and sharing the fruit of friendship, cooperation and development of the two countries.