WE ARE IN an era in which the governments or cultural authorities (elected or self-appointed) are engaged in defining or articulating cultural boundaries. This search for national selfhood may be relatively benign, but attempts to codify and delimit the national essence of a territory, a people (and peoples) or a linguistic realm are fraught with difficulties and dangers. To define culture, which is itself the product of constant flux, the co-creation of numerous individuals, groups or collectives is a perilous and deadening activity.
In the case of China, it is now twenty years since the government first mooted codification of the new cultural essence of the nation – the guocui to use an old term imported from Japan in the nineteenth century. In a 1986 central government document on what was called 'spiritual civilisation' in 1986 the Communist Party attempted to articulate what it was to be Chinese under party rule. During the era of Jiang Zemin (1989-2002), new elements were put forward, and more recently Hu Jintao (2003-) and his fellows have propounded ideas about constructing an 'harmonious society'.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities promote Chinese values internationally through language institutes. In the seemingly benign guise of the British Council, Alliance Française or the Goethe Institute, China's Confucius Institutes export a vision of Chineseness along with the dominant version of Putonghua, the Beijing dialect-inflected national language.
Chinese authorities constantly attempt to direct and delineate the range of cultural expressions, and the histories that they have inherited for their own political purposes. Harmonious society is a construct that has been adopted in a reaction to social disconnection, income disparities, political unrest and governmental abuse. While such egregious disharmonies were present before, they have been radically exacerbated by the neoliberal policies of the past fifteen years.
The 'harmonious society' has its own protocols. In 2006, a year rich in commemorative significance,[i] Hu Jintao launched the policy of 'Eight Worthies and Eight Shames' or 'Eight Does and Don'ts' (barong bachi, shorthand for bage guangrong bage chiru). This values statement articulates, in the epigrammatic shorthand favoured by propagandists, what it is to be a good citizen, indeed what it is to be worthy of Chineseness. The list has been extolled by commentators who have since produced volumes of explication and put the policy at the centre of official Chinese identity. It is claimed that the values are a modern articulation of the basic elements of Chinese civilisation, developed and decocted over more than two millennia. The Associated Press translation of the policy is:
AT THE SAME time in the antipodes of Asia, Prime Minister John Howard gave voice to his set of 'Australian values'. Dr Brendan Nelson, then minister for education, managed to pre-empt and outdo the Chinese with a list of nine 'Values for Australian Schooling'. They were made into a poster and distributed to all schools which were required to display it prominently. These values too were appropriately anodyne:
Care and Compassion; care for self and others.
Doing Your Best; seek to accomplish something worthy and admirable, try hard, pursue excellence.
Fair Go; pursue and protect the common good where all people are treated fairly for a just society.
Freedom; enjoy all the rights and privileges of Australian citizenship free from unnecessary interference or control, and stand up for the rights of others.
Honesty and Trustworthiness; be honest, sincere and seek the truth.
Integrity; act in accordance with principles of moral and ethical conduct, ensure consistency between words and deeds.
Respect; treat others with consideration and regard, respect another person's point of view.
Responsibility; be accountable for one's own actions, resolve differences in constructive, non-violent and peaceful ways, contribute to society and to civic life, take care of the environment.
Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion; be aware of others and their cultures, accept diversity within a democratic society, being included and including others.
The list ends rather mysteriously with a few words from nineteenth century novelist George Eliot; 'Character is destiny.' A relief image on the poster is Gallipoli's Simpson and his donkey. Political columnist Alan Ramsey responded in the Sydney Morning Herald in late October 2006: 'Excuse the maniacal laughter given what this Government has come to stand for after a decade's debauched political and policy behaviour.'
CHINA AND AUSTRALIA are by no means alone in this obsession for codifying what it is to be ourselves. Many other polities faced with real and perceived threats in this age of heightened nation-statism are doing the same. What is particular is not the content or the values, but the political will to undermine the civic and civil, to cavil and create what political power-holders regard as acceptable norms and standards for society as a whole. This is a process that has unfolded as economic reforms have privatised social life and community. Areas of public concern and interest have been outsourced to for-profit groups, a trend that bites into many aspects of communal life.
In his 1997 book Is Australia an Asian Country? (Allen & Unwin), Stephen FitzGerald, a former ambassador to China and a leading exponent of Asian language education and multifaceted engagement with the region in which we live, saw the looming dangers of values discussions: 'The mythologising of the history and culture and values of Asian societies is not ... confined to Confucianists. It is more widespread. It is ahistorical. And it contains some dangers, because there are some signs that the emerging Asian "Asia" could go the way the West did and make such myths about itself that it comes to believe it is the ultimate and only repository of virtue and good behaviour. In some quarters this already had the flavour of political orthodoxy. But a united Asian region driven by such political orthodoxy is a united region to be feared, and for Australia it is critically important that we work for the maintenance of regional pluralism as the guarantee of heterodoxy and independence.'[ii]
When discussing the importance of Asia, and particularly North-East Asia, to the future of Australia, FitzGerald was painfully aware of the negative impact the 'race' debate set off by Pauline Hanson's then recent incendiary maiden speech had on the image of Australia and the debate about culture and engagement with Asia. He enjoined us not only to think about the values that Australia as a society holds dear, but also to consider and debate what kind of compromises this country is willing to make in dealing with the region.
It was only in late November 2006 – nearly a decade later – that John Howard, speaking at an Asialink forum in Ho Chi Minh City, voiced his own epiphany: 'Australia is a nation that, for many years now and for an indefinite period into the future, will always see its immediate interests and concerns as being tied up with the Asian-Pacific region.' He went on to observe that Chinese is now the most widely spoken non-English language in Australia, a fact that he said, is 'just an illustration of the way in which we are naturally and comfortably and permanently part of this region and see our future in it. But I think we have done it in a way that has not altered our own sense of who we are, and our particular characteristics, and what we bring to our region and what we bring to the world.'
The long decade of Coalition rule has, however, altered our sense of who we are and what as a culture and a society we bring to the engagement with this part of the world. 'Asia literacy', the possibilities of what we can become and what we can offer, have languished under John Howard's stewardship.
Instead of consensus-building discussion about values, institutions and limitations, governments have narrowed the scope of national life. In dealing with Asian nations Howard and his colleagues have a simple mantra: 'It's the economy, stupid!' Public education has been crippled as a nation that could be clever conspired in its cretinisation.
Then, in September 2007, at the meeting of APEC leaders in Sydney, Opposition Leader 'Kevin 07' Rudd demonstrated how a political figure in this country could bring the message of a literate and engaged polity to Asian leaders, at least to China's Hu Jintao. Despite the ill-tempered caviling of an artless foreign minister, it was a display that showed how a statesman with Australian characteristics may look and sound.
[i] See my essay, 'A Year of Some Significance' reprinted online in China Digital Times (Zhongguo shuzi shidai), UC Berkeley, with notes, at:
[ii] Stephen FitzGerald, Is Australia an Asian Country? Can Australia survive in an East Asian Future (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997), p.145.