Wagga Wagga ditches Kunming sister city over COVID-19 'death and destruction'

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Wagga Wagga Cr Koschel had the casting vote in cutting ties with Chinese sister city Kunming, a move which angered Deputy PM McCormack (From left: Cr Koschel, Image via City of Wagga Wagga; Chinese Pavillion, Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens, gifted by City of Kunming in happier times, Image via Wikimedia; and Deputy PM McCormack, Image via aph.gov.au)

China, communism, the coronavirus — it all becomes a monstrous confection in the minds of the terrified. 

China presents an oddity for the troubled Australian psyche. Subordinate and comfortably servile to Washington, the Canberra set tends to see ancient Cathay as a sexually desperate customer does an alluring prostitute. The prostitute provides a necessary, even indispensable service; the customer loathes parting with money and the soiling of his body but does so anyway. The drive is too strong. Ecstasy and prurience are filled with resentment and suspicion.  

The coronavirus has presented Australian politicians with that classic image of sexualised harm: the prostitute gave them – or at least the country – the clap, and moaning about deception, they want compensation. 

Senator Malcolm Roberts takes up the theme:

'Should China pay compensation for unleashing COVID19 on the world?' 

The answer is implicit in the question; intention and causality are assumed.

On a local government level, the China infection craze has taken root, finding enthusiasts in the little NSW town of Wagga Wagga. It began with a motion from an incensed Councillor Paul Funnell, who fumed that the relationship between his town with that of sister city Kunming was “farcical”. (In one way he is right: Wagga Wagga remains a provincial outpost of civilisation with a modest population of 64,000; Kunming’s is a relatively monstrous 6.6 million.)  The city, he claimed, was part of an apparatus that had “lied to the world” and “brought death and destruction across the world with COVID-19.”

Showing a tenuous grasp over the origins of the pathogen and its spread, Councillor Funnell could only, quite literally, see red: 

“The provincial governing body of Kunming and Chinese national institutions are an extension of the totalitarian communist regime of China — nothing more, nothing less.” 

His, not particularly, insightful solution? To “end that relationship arrangement and not condone such behaviour".

On Radio 3AW, Cr Funnell was adamant that he was not a "sinophobe" of any description: 

“It’s got nothing to do with race. The last time I looked, communism is not a race, it’s an ideology.” 

Highly informed is the Wagga councillor, who assumes that his actions constituted a spear against satanic Maoism rather than an accusing finger to the residents of Kunming.

The vote to sever ties with Kunming took place in circumstances of low comedy. Only six of the nine councillors were present at the meeting and it was left to a casting vote made by Councillor Tim Koschel to break the tie.

As he would ruefully admit

“I let the emotion of the current environment get in the way of my decision and didn’t look at the larger picture.” 

Wagga residents will feel reassured.

Wagga Wagga Mayor Greg Conkey was absent at the time due to illness. The other absentee was Deputy Mayor Dalla Tout, suggesting the makings of a palace coup. “I’m absolutely appalled by the decision,” came Conkey’s grave assessment“It’s hypocrisy — the three councillors who voted in favour of it either directly or indirectly benefit from our very close trading ties with China.” 

To put Kunming in the same basket of complicit party functionaries was to misunderstand both the relationship and the entity:

“It’s all very well for them to say they’re opposed to the central government, but that has nothing to do with our sister city and the strong friendship and ties we have with them.”

Profuse apologies and regrets are being expressed and a resolution proposed to write to officials in Kunming,

“to confirm that the City of Wagga highly values its relationship with our sister city in China and that city looks forward to our strong friendship continuing.”

The matter has even agitated Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who sees the Council spat in terms of monetary damage and, inevitably, potential electoral harm:

“We need to remember that China is our largest trading partner as a nation and the Riverina, and Wagga Wagga specifically, does well in our two-way relationship with China, particularly our farmers in the way of agricultural exports.”

Councillor Funnell, by way of retort, saw little harm in his motion: 

“This action is in no way stopping international trade, communication or the opportunity to deal with China in a fair, transparent and beneficial manner.”

In one of the City Council publications outlining Wagga’s sister-city relationships, which also include Leavenworth in the United States and Nördlingen in Germany, Kunming is described with some flourish: the 'city of eternal spring due to its mild temperatures', 'a popular destination for Chinese', renowned for its 'Lakes and the "Stone" Forest'

The interest in Kunming seems to have sprouted from the green finger enthusiasm of Harold Fraser, a member of the International Camellia Society. Fraser had led a party of horticulturalists with a letter of greeting from former Wagga Mayor Gissing, in 1984. Through the 1980s, moves were initiated to establish what ultimately became a sister city relationship, culminating in respective delegation visits in 1988 and the signing of the agreement that same year on August 20 in the Camellia Garden. All pretty mild stuff.

Since then, the relationship has been characterised by fairs, visits, expos, the sort of run-of-the-mill material that accompanies such low-key associations. Small town councillors like to think big from the security of small ponds, and it shows. The council proudly notes exchange events with Kunming, including that city’s hosting of the International Horticultural Expo in 1999, where Wagga sported a site ('a cottage, hills hoist, windmill, children’s playground and an Australian garden') with a limited budget, and the International Tourism Festival in 2000. 

But nothing these days, especially with China, is run-of-the-mill in Australian politics. Things have soured at every level of government; demagogues are restless and eager to leave their mark.

A statement from the Mayor’s office suggests that matters will be redressed in an extraordinary meeting scheduled to take place on April 22. 

“A rescission motion has immediately been put forward and will be considered at the next meeting and is expected to be passed.” 

Even Cr Funnell feels that his good work will be undone. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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