The Sunset Clause: Australia-China Cultural Exchanges

Jocelyn Chey
University of Sydney

Jocelyn Chey’s career has been in the diplomatic service and in academic life in Australia. From a position as Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney, she moved to Canberra in 1973 when Australia first established diplomatic relations with China. For more than twenty years, she worked on Australia-China relations in the Departments of Trade and Foreign Affairs and was posted three times in China and Hong Kong, concluding with an appointment as Consul-General in Hong Kong (1992-1995). She was the key administrative officer in the Australia-China Council at the time that it was founded in 1979. From 1988-1992 she worked outside the public sector, as Director of the China Branch of the International Wool Secretariat. Now retired from the public service, Jocelyn is a Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and a consultant on Australia-China relations. This biographical note is based on her University of Sydney online curriculum vitae.The Editors


All legislative instruments expire within a stated period unless new legislation is passed to ensure that they remain active, according to the Legislative Instruments Act 2003, and this Act applies to all statutes or laws and to statutory bodies enacted by Parliament. Its ‘sunset’ provisions are designed to ensure that laws and statutory bodies remain relevant and do not simply accumulate and become redundant. It applies to the Australia-China Council (ACC), an advisory body on Australia-China relations that was established by Parliament in 1979, and its enabling legislation will be repealed in October 2017, unless steps are taken to extend its validity.

When I stepped down as the first Executive Director of the ACC in 1985, I proposed a review of whether the Council had achieved the objectives for which it had been established. If it were judged that they had been reached, then ipso facto there would be no need for the Council to continue to exist. In other words, a sunset clause should be added. This proposal was not well received by Councillors at the time. Now twenty-eight years later, I wish to reopen the subject.

The ACC was set up by the Fraser Government as a direct result of the visit to China by then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1976. He was convinced of the importance of developing relations with China and accepted advice from the Embassy in Beijing that more should be done to educate the Australian public and to involve them in exchanges with China. Fraser appointed the historian Geoffrey Blainey as the first Chairman of the Council and members were drawn from a range of interest groups, including education, sport, business as well as government. In order to open up discussion and debate in the community as widely as possible, the Council advertised grants to individuals and groups who were keen to extend relations with China, at the same time as developing projects in areas that members judged to be priorities.

The 1978 Order in Executive Council establishing the ACC set out its objectives:

  • To promote in Australia a greater awareness of China;
  • To promote in China a greater awareness of Australia;
  • To enlarge areas of contact and exchange between Australia and China;
  • To provide a focus for the collection, exchange and dissemination of information; and,
  • To provide a source of advice on ways in which relations may be encouraged, strengthened and developed.

Having been established for five years, the ACC reviewed its operations in 1985 and concluded that it had generally achieved these targets, although unsurprisingly it had been more successful in Australia than in China. It noted that some of its projects had already reached a wide public and could be expected to have long-term effects. In its published review of the years 1979-1985, it is interesting to note some of those projects judged particularly worthwhile at the time.

Radio Australia (RA) had an audience in China estimated then to exceed eight million. The ACC contributed to a competition run through its Chinese and Japanese language broadcasts, where listeners were invited to send examples of their calligraphy on the theme of friendship. Thousands of contributions were received from China, flooding RA’s Beijing letterbox and forcing them to recruit temporary staff to assist in processing the letters. Winners of the competition were invited to Melbourne and an exhibition of some of the entries toured the country. The ACC also assisted in the development of broadcast programmes teaching conversational English.

China’s first English-language newspaper, the China Daily, started in 1982, with considerable assistance from The Age newspaper, and the ACC sponsored China Daily staff for training in Australia between 1980 and 1985, thus establishing a long-term link between media in both countries.

At the time that the ACC was established, Australian sporting teams traditionally looked to Asia and Europe for international competition. In order to encourage sportsmen and women and the public to think of Australia as a regional partner and to develop the sporting public’s consciousness of either country as a sporting opponent, the ACC promoted the China-Australia Ampol Soccer Cup. The first of the Cup series was played in China in November 1984 and televised in Australia by SBS and a second match took place in Australia in 1985.

John Paull, Portion of Untitled painting (acrylic) on the theme of contacts between China and the Western world, 1983, donated to the Australia-China Council. Paull was the Editor of the Australia-China Newsletter published by the Australia-China Council in 1982-1983. The painting was reproduced on the cover of the Council’s Annual Report 1982-1983 from a copy in the possession of the author.

A survey by the ACC commissioned in 1980 found that several thousand Australian school students were studying Chinese but there was no suitable textbook. In order to encourage more schools to introduce Chinese language programs, the Council arranged for the most promising textbook, a Queensland pioneer text titled Hanyu, to be trialled in schools in 1983 and 1984. This text was made generally available around Australia in 1986 and is still widely used.

All these projects are noted in the ACC review, but to my mind there was a more important program that aimed to devolve management of exchanges between Australia and China to levels below state and federal governments. The ACC actively encouraged local governments and professional and community associations to set up ‘sister city’ relations and to establish direct links with counterparts in China. For instance, Wagga Wagga became a sister city of Kunming, due largely to local camellia enthusiasts who had got to know the staff at the Botanic Gardens in Kunming. Again, one of the early Council members, Sir Rod Carnegie, having noted on a visit to China that accounting staff in government and industrial offices had virtually no contact with colleagues outside the country proposed that the Australian Society of Accountants establish a relationship with their counterpart body in China. Both these relationships blossomed in later years.

The Council’s aim had always been based on a belief that ordinary people and community organisations would quickly realise the potential in developing their own relationships with Chinese counterparts and would remain committed to ongoing programs. It did not see that it had a role in managing or funding long-term exchanges. That is why, stepping down as the first Executive Director after five years, I felt that so much progress had already been made that the Council could envisage a time when it could wind itself up, confident that the relationship with China was so well-founded that it would continue of its own accord. I was wrong.

What I did not foresee was that the Australian government, through a series of penny-pinching budget squeezes and application of ‘efficiency dividends’, froze the ACC budget and step by step reduced financial support to cultural and education bodies. The effect of this was to reduce the influence of the ACC at the same time as handicapping local and community organisations that could otherwise have taken over the planning and execution of exchange arrangements with China. Take the issue of teaching Chinese in schools, for example, where the promotion of an Australian language textbook was judged in 1985 to be one of the Council’s successes: in 2012 the government’s White Paper on Australia-Asia relations has noted that student enrolments in Asian languages are actually declining. This is now beyond the power of the ACC to influence and clearly a national language strategy is required with a massive injection of government funding.

The need has never been greater to have more engagement with China at all levels and, to quote the Council’s own statutory objectives ‘a greater awareness of China in Australia and a greater awareness of Australia in China’. If we accept that these objectives are still relevant, the ACC should not only continue in existence after 2017 but be given proper backing so that it can reasonably hope to achieve them.