Australia’s China in 1976: an ambassador’s advice

On 18 September 2015, Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s China Envoy published by Melbourne University Press, a memoir by Stephen FitzGerald, was launched at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW). Previously, Steve, Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (1973-1976), wrote a book-length essay titled Australia and China at Forty — Stretch of the Imagination for CIW. A thoughtful and uncompromising view of the sometimes rocky bilateral relationship with China, a bilingual book version of the essay appeared in 2012 on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Steve, more than many Australians involved with China over the years, is particularly aware of the unsteady history of Australia’s dealings with Asia more broadly since the nineteenth century. In his memoir, the story of a life and the history of an era, he speaks with unsettling clarity about what he calls this country’s ‘litany of discoveries of Asia’, and his repeated personal efforts through diplomacy, education, policy and business to broaden the Australian mind as it contemplates what was once called the ‘Near North’.

With his appointment by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam as ambassador to the People’s Republic of China in 1973, Steve would spearhead another age of discovery. However, as he notes soberly in Comrade Ambassador:

I had a whole collection of books by or about Australians in China, mined from the shelves and catalogues of second-hand booksellers. I was conscious of this history, that we had to re-connect it with the present China, that I was not the first anything from Australia in China, not even first diplomatic envoy or first ambassador, for there’d been an Australian diplomatic mission in Chungking from 1941, headed by Sir Frederic Eggleston as minister, then Professor Douglas Copland in Chungking and Nanking, and finally Keith Officer, as ambassador, from 1948 until the communist victory in late 1949.[1]

During his time in Beijing, Stephen FitzGerald would also learn that, like his predecessors in the 1940s, diplomatic despatches sent back to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra might often lie around, launguishing for attention, or end up being pointedly ignored. Sometimes, fortunately, they were taken seriously, and for that we are all grateful.

This is hardly a new story. Indeed, as William Sima notes in China & ANU — Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars (CIW and ANU Press, 2015) — an exhaustive study of Australia and China in the 1940s and 1950s and the establishment of The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra in 1946 — Australia’s first diplomat to China, Frederic Eggleston, was himself disillusioned with the lackadaisical response to his despatches from the wartime Chinese capital of Chungking (today’s Chongqing).

As Sima writes:

On one frosty morning in January 1943 he [Eggelston] confided to his diary that: ‘like children in the marketplace, I pipe unto you and you do not sing. Is it right for me to waste my sweetness on the desert air, in the vacant spaces of Australian minds.’ He would later advise Douglas Copland, Australia’s second minister to China, that: ‘there is no doubt that you can do exceedingly valuable work for Australia in China … [but] you will always have to insist on attention being given to your reports and advice. Otherwise, they will be ignored, pigeonholed or left in the kitchen piano.'[2]

In the following, we reproduce with the author’s kind permission the details of four despatches that Steven FitzGerald composed with Australian embassy staff in Beijing in mid 1976. It was a crucial moment in modern Chinese history, and one of profound significance for China’s engagement with the world.

The despatches were written for a new prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and his foreign minister, Andrew Peacock, on the eve of their official visit to the People’s Republic shortly after the April 1976 purge of Deng Xiaoping and not long before the death, in September that year, of Mao Zedong and the coup d’état the following month against Mao’s political supporters. Although these despatches were not ‘left in the kitchen piano’, they were, as Steve notes, hardly greeted with unalloyed delight in Canberra.

Through his work in academia (Steve studied Chinese at ANU and, following his ambassadorship to China, for a time headed the university’s Contemporary China Centre), his public service and through his personal example, Stephen FitzGerald was one of the inspirations behind my 2005 manifesto ‘On New Sinology‘. By way of the ideas expressed in that essay, and in subsequent speeches and essays, and through our collective efforts at CIW since the Centre was founded in 2010 to enmesh research and teaching in the humanities and social sciences with public policy and the public interest we underline our hope to continue and expand the varied traditions of China-related work at ANU.

In his memoir, Steve acknowledges the special atmosphere he encountered at ANU, when he took up the study of Chinese; it is an atmosphere that would suffuse also the years of my own induction into the Chinese world at ANU (1972-1974). Steve’s reminiscences are worth quoting here:

I have a gentle and civilised entrée to it [that is, the study of Chinese], in the Chinese department in a converted army hut at the ANU, with fewer than a dozen students and an enthusiastic and happy teaching staff… . Bursts of laughter float along the corridor from their offices. They’re first-class teachers, and the relaxed and happy relations they have with each other and with students, and the intimacy of the small class, make this the most conducive learning environment I’ve ever experienced. I look forward to these hours at the ANU. Any uncertainty about learning Chinese dissipates and fascination and pleasure take over. Here are teachers deeply literate in the language and culture, and they encourage and coax us towards a literacy of our own. It’s another opening of the mind, a joyful experience I’d wish on anyone.[3]

We mark the launch of Steve’s book by offering our readers the following material from Comrade Ambassador, by providing a link to his 2012 Stretch of the Imagination and by publishing the speech ‘Seventy Years On & Australia’s Unfinished Twentieth Century‘. — Geremie R Barmé


ComradeAmbassadorHow do you brief them [Fraser and Peacock]? How do you assist them to think about relations with China when you can’t even see the politics now or the other side of the watershed of Mao’s demise? One thing is to give them broader and longer context, which we’re doing in the think pieces we’ve been preparing. We work on them together, but they reflect my distillation of where we’ve got to with China over the three years I’ve been here, and what I think we’ve got to do over the next twenty to twenty-five. In the first two weeks of May [1976] four formal despatches go to [Foreign Minister] Peacock, on poliitcal, economic and cultural relations and, to address [Prime Minister] Fraser’s concerns about the Soviet Union, one on Sino-Soviet relations. …

On Politics

The first, ‘Political Relations with China: Are they too hard?’ addresses the China-sceptics. I write that no matter how hard it might seem working with China, Australia can’t walk away. After Mao dies China will rapidly pull out of the political mess it’s in and abandon Maoist fundamentalism for a position more attuned to the real problems of governing, and more reform-oriented strategic development, and this will make China a very different proposition for us. Historically, China has been the predominant political and cultural force in this region, and the ‘further extension of its power and influence will be an increasingly dominant factor in our political environment in the latter part of this century’. Given close involvement with the region is a constant for Australia, this means we have to work out how to accommodate to Chinese influence, and it provides a clear and basic justification for making the effort. To live within the orbit of Chinese influence requires a cultural leap on our part, to enable us both to live with and benefit from a predominant China and to protect our national interests and identity. We have to know China so well we’ll be able to discern when apparent benign Chinese influence might conceal intentions ultimately harmful to Australia. This also requires a long-term view of political developments across the region and a leap in our capacity to know our other Asian neighbours. The fundamental task now in our political relations is to institute a massive broadening in our approach, including in our own education, from primary school on, so we can develop an Australian community culturally adjusted to the fact of this China and a bureaucracy that can more adequately manage our adjustment.

Will the Chinese meet us half or even part way? That’s the challenge Fraser and Peacock face. I urge them to take the Chinese on, pressure them to engage, to have greater political communication. In the forthcoming visit, ‘There will be an opportunity both to press and provoke, and to begin the process of achieving greater understanding of what the Chinese are about.’ Their language isn’t always easy, but we have to accept it as the expression of thinking of this power that seems set to become dominant in the region, and try to understand it. To simply dismiss it is dangerous.

Convention requires a ministerial response to formal despatches, but the department, which has responsibility for collecting views and drafting the reply, does not acknowledge it. As the title of our despatch implied, it must be ‘too hard’.

On Economics

The despatch on economic relations also says we have to get mentally past what’s happening now and imagine the future, that if the Chinese economy, and China’s trade with Australia, were to expand in the last quarter of the twentieth century in the way the Japanese economy and trade with Australia did in the third, by the year 2000 China would have a dominant role in the expansion of the Australian economy. We write that if we can accept China’s own growth strategy as realistic, this would mean an annual growth in the vicinity of 10 per cent over a period of twenty-five years, leading to a ten-fold increase in GDP in real terms by the close of the century. Our projections assume stability in politics and commitment to economic reform, but most of all that China will rediscover for itself the dynamism we’ve seen in other Asian societies that have their roots in Chinese culture. China will still have to make ideological and institutional adjustments but this is essentially what Chinese politics is about now, and I suspect, however much pain it causes, the answer will be one that takes China away from dogmatic self-reliance and Marxist-Leninist purity towards greater economic flexibility. In so doing, the Chinese will look for inspiration both outwards towards the world for ideas, and inwards, to ideas inherent in traditional Chinese culture and society and qualities inherent in the Chinese people. The result, if successful, could mean a capacity to respond to the requirements of modern economic and technological development that might rival that of Japan.

This despatch is also met with official silence, but the loud guffaws of incredulity in Canberra can almost be heard from Beijing.

On Culture

The despatch on cultural relations brings up the really hard part. China isn’t a habit of mind for Australians, I write. The influence it wielded in its own universe for two thousand years before the Europeans arrived is unknown. The traditional culture and the political and social concepts that influence the China we deal with are uncomprehended. The historical spread of Chinese influence is a process we don’t understand. There’s intrinsic worth in understanding Chinese culture for its own value, but the purpose of this despatch is to suggest there’s a national interest in the promotion of culture, including scholarly and research exchange. Without this, our relations with China will never be more than superficial, and we’ll be damagingly ill equipped to adjust to a China dominant in our region.

My recommendation is not for an instrumentalist add-on but for grounding the whole relationship in cultural understanding and exchange, to enrich our own culture, to comprehend Chinese society and other Asian societies influenced by Chinese culture, and to remove the profound lack of understanding that stands between us and a more fruitful political relationship. I recommend funding for cultural exchanges be separated from Foreign Affairs cultural relations vote, and that we proceed now to establish a government-funded Australia-China foundation. We subtitle the despatch, ‘A case for the disproportionate effort’.

This despatch is the only one that gets an answer. In early June, I receive an intemperate letter from Renouf, which attempts to rebut everything I said, takes a swipe at the Australia Council’s CEO Jean Battersby for allegedly bypassing the department to pursue her own cultural relations policy and ends:

the burden of your argument hinges on the belief that the next 25 years will see the extension of a dominant Chinese power and influence throughout the region. Possibly you will be proved correct but your logic does not persuade me … .

Jocelyn Chey, Cultural Counsellor, Sinologist, intellectual, wit, musical talent, mainstay in scores of lunches and dinners nudging open the cultural and scientific and educational relationship, and main author with me of this despatch, threatens to resign in disgust.

On Sino-Soviet Relations

Our despatch on China-USSR relations, although not written with that intent, also gets up the nose of the department, which believes the split between China and Russia is temporary and that when Mao dies relations will revert to where they were before. They fear Soviet expansion but say it’s too strong for us to oppose, and they see China and the USSR acting in concert against our interests. Their policy is to be even-handed betweeen the two. My judgement is that reconciliation with the Soviet Union is contrary to everything we know of the Chinese view of their history, their attitude to Soviet foreign policy, and their resolute opposition to Moscow’s policy of subordinating the sovereignty of other communist powers to the interests of the Soviet state. Whoever takes over after Mao will have the same opinion. And if we believe what we say about Soviet expansionism, we should oppose it not temporise. …

The department does not acknowledge this despatch.[4]



[1] From Stephen FitzGerald, Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s China Envoy, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2015, p.97.

[2] William Sima, China & ANU — Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars, ANU: Australian Centre on China in the World and ANU Press, 2015, p.42. An exhibition of the same name curated by Olivier Krischer, a CIW Postdoctoral Fellow, was held at the CIW Gallery from 29 May-9 October 2015.

[3] From FitzGerald, Comrade Ambassador, p.24.

[4] This material is quoted from FitzGerald, Comrade Ambassador, pp.138-142.