"Political power grows from the barrel of a gun" was once a
much-quoted saying of revolutionary Chinese leader Mao Tse
The world has moved on from the Cold War era in which the
words assumed currency - both among supporters and detractors
of the great dictator and his brutal brand of communism.
In a post-detente era in which there are sufficient nuclear
weapons to guarantee mutually assured destruction should
armed conflict be initiated, real politique is more about
terms of trade.
But from time to time China still insists on resorting to
brute force - albeit in economic terms.
The ammunition may be different, but the threats are real and
the effects are unhelpful.
If it is undoubtedly true that the West has much to learn
about negotiating China's political psyche - particularly as
it seeks to unlock that country's prodigious potential
markets for exporters - it is also beyond question that China
must discover, first, the extent to which the West will bend
on sacrosanct notions of freedom and democracy to accommodate
the "friendship"; and, second, the nature of the
media-information nexus that it sometimes seeks to influence.
While the latter may be self-evident to those who have lived
their lives in open societies, it sometimes seems lost on
heavy-handed officials who have not.
The latest clumsy attempt to intervene in the cultural
affairs of other nations involves Australia and, coming on
top of the arrest of Australian national Stern Hu in the Rio
Tinto "spying" furore, has seriously elevated tensions in the
relationships between the two countries.
Ironically - although unsurprisingly - it has served only to
highlight and publicise the very subject that China sought to
The row erupted at the beginning of the month when the
Chinese Government attempted to pressure the Australian
Government into cancelling the planned visit to Melbourne of
exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.
The visit was to coincide with the screening of a film about
Ms Kadeer, The 10 Conditions of Love, during the
Melbourne International Film Festival.
Australia's Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, was called to a
dressing down by the country's foreign ministry where
vice-foreign minister Zhang Zhijun told him that Australia
must "immediately correct its wrong-doings" and cancel Ms
The meeting came as Chinese hackers attacked the film
festival website and closed it down, and as Chinese
film-makers boycotted the festival.
The ensuing publicity meant that the audience for the film
rocketed and its venue was changed to a larger theatre - in
this case the Melbourne Town Hall.
And so the schism escalated when, at the weekend, Chinese
officials threatened to end Melbourne's 29-year sister-city
relationship with Tianjin if Lord Mayor Robert Doyle did not
intervene to stop the screening.
It is understood that the Chinese consul-general in
Melbourne, Shen Weilian, requested a meeting with Mr Doyle
after the venue change was announced.
And that at the meeting, Mr Shen told Mr Doyle he risked
jeopardising the Australia-China relationship, including the
Melbourne-Tianjin arrangement, if the screening was not
Rightly, Mr Doyle remained unmoved, despite pressure from
many of his own councillors to concede on economic grounds.
The Chinese have labelled Ms Kadeer a terrorist and have
accused her of inciting the ethnic clashes that killed up to
200 people in western China last month.
They were particularly upset that she was to be given a
public platform so soon in the wake of the riots between the
Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang.
This is not a new tactic.
Chinese authorities have used their economic muscle to
supress the Falun Gong movement, and to attempt to silence
the Dalai Lama and the aspirations of the people of Tibet.
More locally, there were ugly scenes and political fallout in
1999 when Free Tibet protesters in Christchurch were
aggressively moved on from outside a State dinner in honour
of Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin.
Reportedly, this was so that the premier did not lose face.
But more likely it was so that he did not have to be
confronted with an unpalatable reality: that much of the
democratic world, however much it wants and needs to do
business with China, does not accept its oppressive approach
to censorship, human rights and political opposition in its
This makes it all the more important it understands that when
it attempts to export the same attitudes and standards, its
overtures will be rebuffed.
A bouquet is due to the Lord Mayor of Melbourne and his
city's film festival.