The Elephant and the Dragon

As per usual, an Adelaide Festival opens with an aboriginal flourish; this one struck me as the most noble in recent years, four young men performing dances of welcome and handover before cleansing the room. A hint of humour and steeped in respect, there’s a gentle nod to aboriginal rights, and the prospect of hope in young Aboriginals in the future.

This year’s Festival of Ideas is dedicated to Elliot Johnson, who took to the stage and proceeded to tear into the Government’s recent reaction to Aboriginal child abuse issues, scouring the prescribed eleven-point action plan. The first six points were dealt with cynical consideration, but the final five were identified by Johnson to be a direct attack on the Aboriginal process of self-determination.

“The Elephant and the Dragon” refer, of course, to the global powerhouses of India and China; this session aimed to contemplate the impact of the two countries on the world economy & the environment. First up on the panel was Joseph Cheng, quiet but firmly spoken. His primary assertions were that China’s continued growth was a big win for Australia, as it would be resource- and capital-fuelled. He later (bravely) referred to the “September 11 incident“, made mention of the impact on the Taiwanese economy by the return of talented students who had sought to further their education in the USA, and insisted that Australia was in a good position to place international pressure on China – as long as we didn’t kowtow to American interests. Later discussion saw Cheng describe the almost Orwellian approach the Chinese government has to pro-democracy demonstrators, and stated that the current political regime is far more strict on public demonstrations than in 1989.

Ramachandra Guha leapt to the podium with a swaggering confidence. His humorous recap of India’s democratic history – predictions of doom, gloom, and decay for the first 50 years, then constantly predicted to be a superpower – was fabulously entertaining, as was his likening of the two Ghandis at either end of India’s political spectrum to Presidents Jefferson and Bush. Ramachandra owned the stage, and his rapid-fire heavy accent was, at times, a little difficult to follow; but he imparted some absolute gems of information. Tribal people in India being aggressively dispossessed by mining companies; the environment is of little concern to the current government (an is deemed the least glamorous ministry).

Robin Jeffrey also focussed on India, but painted the government in a more positive light – after all, with a nation of many different languages, scripts, and religions, they’ve still managed to maintain a reasonably stable country. This is countered later in proceedings with the observation that TV is becoming a fixture in more and more Indian homes; and with it comes information, particularly the opportunity to see how other parts of India live. This has the potential to create a feeling of disparity where previously none existed.

Colleen Ryan spoke far less favourably of China than Cheng, but also referred to the lack of media penetration (especially in the more isolated provinces). This prevents the knowledge of disparity mentioned above; the poor accept that they are poor, but don’t actively react against it because they simply don’t know there’s any other option. She brings up the point that neither China nor India possess any major brands or corporations; Ramachandra countered that “home-grown” brands need not follow western-established branding models, as Bollywood has shown. Ryan posited that, should the Asian countries start influencing world trade too heavily, the West may respond by simply scaling back globalisation opportunities – a form of selfish protection.

Last on the panel was Philippe Legrain – the poor bugger. As he stated upfront, he had no expert knowledge on either country in question – his area of expertise lay in patterns of migration – and questions posed to him seemed awfully contrived.

The moderated discussion leant heavily on the environment and economic growth, with some eye-opening facts being bandied about, but no real fireworks. Audience questions led to some pretty reasonable topics – the link between democracy and global capitalism, the role of education in the development of these countries, the ability to acquire or manufacture major brands – but the big giggle was the socialist chap who insisted that democracy didn’t work, that the downfall of society was linked to the fabrication of evidence of genocide… blah blah blah. Much hissing and booing to be had there.

How to wrap this up? I learnt a fair bit here, and there’s certainly a few themes that are of interest to me that’ll require a bit more mulling.

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