Perhaps the most compelling of the paintings in the 2013 Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW is Xu Wang's Self-portrait (interviewing Maoist victims). This is part of a series of work titled The silenced: from 1957 to today in which the artist honours the brave men and women who spoke out against the repression imposed on the Chinese people by the Communist Party of China and its founder Mao Zedong.
Wang, who arrived in Australia after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, recently commented: ''While enjoying a life of personal security in Australia, I am still deeply affected by the terrible social and political injustices that continue to occur in China.'' It is not just sole Chinese nationals who suffer. A report in Monday's Financial Review said a briefing paper prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Attorney-General's Department has expressed concern about the Australia/China relationship. Apparently both departments have focused on the risks of doing business in China since a number of Chinese Australian dual nationals have been charged with and/or convicted of crimes following business disputes.
Wang's Archibald Prize entry focuses on the victims of the anti-rightist campaign in 1957. The previous year, Mao had called for intellectuals to speak freely about the faults of his regime since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Those who spoke out were immediately purged by Mao's regime. In recent years Wang interviewed and filmed about 150 survivors of Mao's duplicity.
The anti-rightist purge was but one of a series of repressive campaigns carried out between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s. The so-called Great Leap Forward, effectively a forced famine, ran from 1958 to 1962. The consensus of recent books by Jasper Becker, Frank Dikotter, Yang Jisheng and Zhou Xun suggests that close to 50 million Chinese died as a result of Mao's policies.
The so-called Great Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and concluded with Mao's death in 1976. No one knows how many died in that decade but it is known that millions were purged – including some Chinese who have come to power in recent times. The new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whom Julia Gillard met on her current visit to China, was exiled to rural areas during the Cultural Revolution.
The American civil rights activist Sidney Rittenberg was one of the many members of the Western intelligentsia who supported Mao, whom he met. However, Rittenberg was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. On his release, he returned to the United States. Interviewed by the FT Weekend Magazine in January, Rittenberg said: ''I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history.''
Despite some continuing repression and the absence of a transparent legal system, China is an infinitely better place than it was in Mao's time. No one knows the nation's past better than the Chinese, despite the regime's secrecy.
That's why both Kevin Rudd and the Prime Minister have taken appropriate action in raising human rights with the Chinese leadership in recent years.
The 19th century British politician Lord Palmerston once said words to the effect that a nation has neither eternal friends nor perpetual enemies but only eternal and perpetual interests. This is broadly correct and serves as a useful guide to the Australia/China relationship, which has grown enormously over the past four decades as China abandoned Maoism and embraced the market economy.
Australia's political and business leaders are correct in pointing out the importance of China to Australia. However, this is very much a two-way relationship. Australia also happens to be important to China. The Chinese do not buy Australian mineral resources, in particular iron ore and coal, because they like us. Rather, China is attracted to Australia because we have fine products at competitive prices along with the commercial reliability that can only be found in efficient democracies with transparent legal systems.
Australia and China have mutual interests, of the economic kind. John Howard, then Rudd and now Gillard are correct in maintaining that Australia can have good relations with our traditional ally, the US, and with the rulers in Beijing.
Moreover, Australia's contacts with the Asia Pacific nations do not – and cannot – turn solely on China. We have longstanding relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – all of which value the American presence in the region that Australia facilitates.
As Wang's work demonstrates, it was wrong to fawn over Mao in the 1960s and '70s. And it would be wrong for Australia to determine our contemporary policies with respect to what the Chinese leadership wants.