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China's "Shared Destiny" Story

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA, Chancellor of The Australian National University, of the ANU China in the World Centre’s Shared Destiny: China Story Yearbook 2014, Melbourne, 5 November 2015

As we have been reminded in Australia in recent years, few things are more important in domestic politics than the capacity of political leaders and their parties to offer and sustain a clear narrative of what they are about, and what they think their country should be about: be it more about fairness and compassion or competitive struggle and winner take all; more about homogeneity or heterogeneity; more about the primacy of history or geography (in our case the Anglosphere or Asia); or whatever else. What matters at least as much as individual personalities and policies is the capacity to tell a story which people find engaging – which gives expression to their basic instincts as to how things should be going.

Telling national stories has been part of the creation of nation-states since the beginning. As often as not those stories have emerged in a happenstance kind of way, the product of individual oratorical brilliance that has stuck rather than any deliberate collective effort.  But in some societies the creation of national stories has been seen as serious government business, with history and related projects being devised as part of a very deliberate process of creating narratives for political purposes.

Few countries have worked harder or more self-consciously at creating a national narrative than China. In 2013 the new Chinese party leader Xi Jinping himself declared it was important for China to “tell the China story well, and to broadcast it effectively”. And the China story currently being told by Xi Jinping, emphasises one particular narrative:  one of modern struggle, achievement, national revival, in order to realise the “China Dream” of an economically, socially, politically, militarily and culturally revitalised Chinese nation.

But Xi Jinping and his government are not the only ones telling China stories.  Our own brilliantly distinguished ANU historian Geremie Barmé – the founder in 2010, with the support of the Commonwealth Government under Kevin Rudd, of the Australian Centre on China in the World, has worked on Chinese stories for his whole professional life, and on oral history projects with the writer Sang Ye since 1985.

And in 2012 he announced the creation of The China Story Project at the Centre, involving colleagues at ANU and the other participating universities of the Centre in a major website www.thechinastory.org and The China Story Yearbook. The first Yearbook, Red Rising, Red Eclipse, appeared in August 2012 – stealing a march on Xi Jinping’s China story by a full six months – and focused on the ideological, political and personal tensions evident in the transition years after 2008. The second in the series, the 2013 Yearbook on the theme Civilising China, focused on the leadership’s efforts to create, or recreate, both for domestic and international purposes a sense of the country as a distinctive civilisation.

And the third in the series, the 2014 Yearbook, Shared Destiny, we are launching here this evening. The title is based on Xi Jinping's policy of creating a “Community of Shared Destiny” in Asia and the Pacific, and addresses a major Chinese effort to engage in the region and to bring its values to bear in international relations as well as its domestic politics.  Those contributing to this volume are, as in the past, an extraordinary collection of international relations experts, economists, businesspeople, media analysts, internet specialists, legal scholars, and academics working on Chinese urban change and global mobility, Communist Party rhetoric and social mores.

What is distinctive about the ANU China narrative, as distinct from Beijing’s, is that it in fact it is a multitude of Chinese stories, told through a multitude of different voices, and from a number of different perspectives – different discipline perspectives, and different national perspectives: Australian and international as well as Chinese.  

And this surely gives us a much better picture of the complex reality that is contemporary China, a much more variegated picture than the officially engineered “Chinese world view”. All those  engaged intellectually with China of course need to understand the official discourse and its historical and ideological underpinning. But to get a grip on larger Chinese realities, possibilities, uncertainties, and to gain insights into how the past and the present will sculpt the future, it is necessary to go well beyond simply a developing an ability to grasp party-state programs and formulations. This is what the China Story Yearbook and online publications aim to do, in accessible, jargon-free language, for a broad and interested public, as well as for people in the policy sphere, business and the media.

Geremie Barme and his colleagues have once again succeeded brilliantly in this endeavour, and once again policymakers everywhere, and all those simply interested in understanding what contemporary China is all about, are very much in their debt. I have much pleasure in launching upon a very receptive world Shared Destiny, the latest China Story Yearbook –  and the precursor to what we all hope and expect will be many volumes more of equally enlightening analysis and argument.