Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor
From: The Australian
May 01, 2010 12:00AM
JOHN Lewis's luck may be running out. His good fortune was created by the Chinese party-state. And now it's starting to look as if China has decided to snatch it back from him.
The former ABC journalist has had a dream run since he agreed to produce the modestly budgeted film profile of Uighur leader-in- exile Rebiya Kadeer, The Ten Conditions of Love.
She was then an almost unknown figure on the margins of the global power game, battling from her base in Washington to gain any attention at all for her seeming lost cause, which veers between genuine autonomy and independence for her homeland of Xinjiang, the size of Queensland, in northwest China.
But Lewis was nevertheless attracted by the enthusiasm of young American director Jeff Daniels, and by his theme of the dignified champion of an ancient Turkic people calling for space within the vast Han Chinese empire. Now the hour-long film is about to be screened on ABC television, in the popular timeslot of 9.30pm on Thursday, May 6. But while the original screening to about 400 film fans provoked public outrage, the prospect of perhaps a half million people viewing it on TV has brought no response at all.
Lewis would love the Chinese to create another great row over Kadeer before Thursday, which would send ratings soaring. But they're not going to oblige.
And Deakin University academic Baogang He has developed a convincing thesis as to why not: because China is using Australia as a testing ground for how to promote its interests effectively in Western countries, and this time they've learned a lot from former counterproductive mistakes.
"We got the film into Melbourne International Film Festival on track record and trust," Lewis says.
"Festival director Richard Moore took the risk, partly because Rebiya Kadeer had promised to attend the screening if it got in. I assured Richard that her visit would get his festival out of the arts pages and into the news."
Privately, Lewis felt that they'd be doing well to gain a day or two of publicity, chiefly by milking interviews with Kadeer to the maximum.
This was a couple of months before the riots in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, in July, during which at least 200 died.
Lewis says: "I was astonished by the clumsy and cack-handed way it was handled by the Chinese officials but, of course, deeply grateful for the free publicity. It simply didn't tally with what one assumes are sophisticated, well-informed and worldly diplomats."
He believes it may have been simply inexperience on the part of the diplomat who made the initial phone phone call to Moore that started the whole row. "But then they went on with it."
The MIFF's online booking system was brought down by an attack believed to have emanated from China.
"The Chinese consulate rang Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, a senior official threatened the National Press Club where Kadeer was to speak -- I mean, fancy picking a fight with the Canberra press gallery."
Lewis could hardly believe the coverage the film received: news references in almost every mainstream media outlet across the world and tens of thousands of internet and blog pages. But China "wasn't entirely unsuccessful", he says. "A lot of knees buckled."
The controversy appears to have contributed to the parting of ways since between the MIFF's board and Moore. Lewis believes that, "having inadvertently -- I suspect the experiment got out of control -- created a global brand around Rebiya Kadeer, China promptly turned off the oxygen."
In New Zealand, when the film received its first TV screening on Maori TV, Chinese embassy staff visited the station's management to make their views known. But publicly they said nothing.
When the NZ Greens invited Kadeer to Auckland a few weeks later, there was again no row, hence no publicity. The visit made the media only when a University of Auckland official cancelled a lecture theatre booking for fear of trouble.
Again, when she flew to Japan shortly after: a single critical statement from the embassy, then silence.
Where now? "We're delighted that it is going to air on the ABC, but internationally it has struggled," Lewis says.
No leading TV network has bought it. The film's British sales agent, TVF's Zecki Gerloff, says: "The decisions are having to go to the upper echelons of broadcasters", where people appear scared of Chinese reaction.
An extra factor, she says, is that China provides international co-production funds when such money is becoming harder to find.
"Perhaps Kadeer will win this year's Nobel Peace Prize, then we might do some business," Lewis says forlornly.
Baogang notes that while Kadeer lives in the US, and her World Uighur Congress has its main base in Germany, Beijing has not launched fierce protests against those governments.
He believes that Australia has become a testing ground for Beijing's influence because of "the rise of China, Australia's increasing dependence on China's economy" and because of Beijing's need to create a pilot scheme -- as it does with domestic policy, tried out first in a single city or province -- for international strategy too.
Baogang says that a Chinese official recently used the metaphor of a basketball. If it is hurled down hard it will bounce back high. If it is left lying on the ground, it has nowhere to go.