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Australia-China Relations: Being Happy Together Again

Remarks at launch of David Walker & Li Yao, Happy Together: Bridging the Australia-China Divide (MUP, 2022), Sydney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne, 8 July 2022

This is a beautifully written book which tells a story for the ages – two people from vastly different cultures, and with vastly different life experiences, finding each other late in their professional lives, finding fertile common ground in their love of literature, and bonding in a way that could not better demonstrate the reality, and the vitality, of our common humanity. The juxtaposition and interweaving of David's and Li Yao's stories makes for endlessly fascinating reading, and I hope and expect their book will get the very wide readership it deserves.

Li Yao’s story, which centres on his and his family’s attempts to somehow survive the horrors of Mao's Cultural Revolution, makes for not just fascinating, but harrowing and deeply moving, reading. In the literature of this period it ranks in my view right up there alongside Jung Chang's now classic Wild Swans. Certainly it resonated very deeply with me personally, because my first exposure to China was at the time the Cultural Revolution was in its last convulsive twitch.

This was in 1976, four years after the Whitlam Government established our diplomatic relations, and I was a young academic leading an ALP-sponsored delegation of lawyers and trade unionists and a couple of cultural warriors (including a very China-sceptical David Willamson). Zhou Enlai had died a couple of months earlier, and Mao was to die a few months later, but for the moment the Shanghai 'gang of four' was still in the ascendant, the disgraced Deng Xiaoping was the 'arch unrepentant capitalist-roader', and our Chinese minders were incredibly anxious not to be seen to be getting in any way close to their foreign guests. But I will forever remember our interpreter, a middle-aged woman obviously worn-down by years of tightrope walking, telling me very quietly and nervously on one occasion when we found ourselves walking well out of anyone’s earshot, that her lifelong passion had been Western classical music and she terribly missed no longer being able to listen to it. And the piece she most yearned to hear again, was that wonderful Tchaikovsky score for the famous ballet, 'Duck Pond'.

This was a time when bicycles still swarmed on Beijing's boulevards and its hutongs, if not walls, were still largely intact; and there were still paddy fields across the river from the Shanghai Bund. As baseline-setting experiences go, this was hard to beat. China’s physical and economic transformation over the last half-century, as I have personally witnessed it in many subsequent visits, has been nothing short of miraculous. What has also been close to miraculous has been the extent of Australia’s engagement with China during those decades of transformation, and the extent to which our futures have become intertwined – with China by far our largest trading partner, huge numbers of Chinese studying and visiting us, Chinese-Australians forming an ever-larger segment of our population, and a long history after 1972 of close and mutually respectful political engagement both bilaterally and multilaterally, with even the disaster of Tiananmen in 1989 being successfully navigated.

But that has all gone spectacularly pear-shaped over the last five years or so, and although we are seeing right now, under the new Australian Government, the first stirrings of resumption of official and ministerial communication, one has to be even more of an incorrigible optimist than I have always been to believe that when it comes to the 50th Anniversary of recognition at the end of this year, we will be able to celebrate anything like a return to the warmth and normality of those past decades.

In looking for reasons for the deterioration, a great deal has certainly been contributed by China under the very assertive leadership of Xi Jinping, with its its defiance of international law in the South China Sea, egregious domestic violations of human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong (in the latter case tearing up treaty obligations as well), discriminatory and overprotective trade and industrial policies culminating in punitive sanctions now applying to a number of sectors, periodic cyberattacks, some attempts to exercise undue influence over Australia's governing institutions, and the detention of Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei and writer Yang Hengjun.

But we have to acknowledge Australia itself has not been without fault, with too much strident tone-deaf language from Malcolm Turnbull's speech on the foreign influence bill in 2017 through to Peter Dutton’s war talk this year, and from the cross-party parliamentary 'wolverines' group; over-the-top 2020 police and security-service raids on the homes of Chinese journalists living in Australia; very tough foreign-investment restrictions and foreign-influence laws, and tearing up Victoria’s manifestly inoffensive Belt and Road Initiative memorandum of understanding; and the ill thought out operationally and ill-prepared diplomatically braying for an inquiry into China’s Covid-19 response, fueling the narrative that we are just America’s “deputy sheriff” and leaving us - a far easier target than the US – exposed to even heavier Chinese counter-punching.

Getting out of the hole we are in will not be quick or easy, and has recently been made even more complicated by China’s less than helpful response to Russia's legally and morally indefensible invasion of Ukraine, but I have been arguing for some time it can be done by following five guidelines:

First and foremost, Australian leaders, as the Albanese Government has certainly now recognised, need to stop digging and not add any more grounds for complaint to those already on China’s charge-sheet.

Second, we must moderate our official language, as again the new Government has clearly started to do. This should include emphasizing the positives in the Australia-China relationship, and remembering that even when our criticism of Chinese behavior is entirely legitimate, in diplomacy, words are bullets.

Third, the optics of independence are vital. Our leaders should make it absolutely clear that any negative Australian position on China reflects our own national judgment and not the guidance of imperial masters in Washington, DC.

Fourth, Australia needs to acknowledge the legitimacy and inevitability of some of China's international aspirations. That means not getting overly agitated that China wants strategic space, the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and a level of global policymaking influence commensurate with its new strength. We should also accept that some of China's commercial concerns may not be entirely groundless. Many objective observers think that Australia has overdone its anti-dumping complaints against China, which have hugely exceeded the number coming in the other direction.

Finally, Australia should work hard to identify issues on which it shares genuine common ground with China, above all climate change, where again the new Australian Government’s policy stance will give us new leverage.

The reality is that in recent years Australia has not properly managed the need both to get along with China and to stand up to it. As Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China, has put it, we have failed to devise a middle way between sycophancy and hostility. Or, to cite the immortal wisdom of the 1930s Scottish labor leader Jimmy Maxton: "If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus."

In all of this, David Walker and Li Yao have reminded us – to come back to where I began – of the immense importance of human connections, of personal relationships, in recognising that our common humanity transcends political, economic, ideological and cultural difference. If only we could – helped by the magnificent national resource we now have in our 1.4 million Chinese-Australians – build many more personal relationships of the depth and sensitivity of that recorded in this splendid book, I think we could face the future with a lot more confidence.