Words from Ambassador Prickly Heat Powder 痱子粉大使致辞

On 16 February 2012, Dr Stephen FitzGerald’s Australia and China at Forty: A Stretch of the Imagination, an oration written for the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) to mark the fourth decade since the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Australia and the People’s Republic of China, was launched at The Australian National University in Canberra. The bilingual text, already available online in English and Chinese, is now published as a book, designed by CIW’s Markuz Wernli. Steve FitzGerald wrote the following remarks for the launch. The book will have its launch in China at Capital M in Beijing on 8 March 2013.—Geremie R. Barmé, Founding Director, CIW



There have been countless memorable moments in these forty years since we had diplomatic relations, and one was the visit to China of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1976. Not because of the confidential transcript of the first day’s talks misdirected to the media centre and splattered all over the pages of the world’s press. Nor because at Tian Chi lake in the Celestial Mountains in Xinjiang Foreign Trade Minister Li Qiang took Fraser round the back of a shed where I came upon them swigging whiskey from the minister’s hip flask. Not even because at the whole-roast-sheep banquet back in Urumchi, while the Gang of Four still rode high back in the East, with our hosts we danced, uninhibited, in Turkic caps, to the siren sensuousness of Turkic strings and flutes and drums (I have the photo), and the Australian press party, invited to sing an Australian song, sang a well-known advertising jingle, “I Love Aeroplane Jelly”.

No, it was because Fraser and Andrew Peacock, and the Chinese government led at that time by Hua Guofeng – the first high-level meeting since the defeat of the Whitlam government half a year earlier – came together with some wariness, and went away with the strongest affirmation of the relationship, as well as much common ground on certain international issues. The Fraser visit sealed the Australian bipartisanship that was to be the mainstay of a stable, managed interaction with this great giant of a country. It held firm for the next two decades and with some wobbliness for the subsequent one and a half. Nor, on the Chinese side, had the passing of Zhou Enlai in 1976 meant the passing of his policy, and that, too, has held firm over these three and a half decades, also with the occasional wobble.  Oh and yes, of course, that visit was memorable for those other things. When I saw Malcolm Fraser last year for the first time in many years, he said: ‘It was fun!’ I think overall we’ve enjoyed the relationship, we and the Chinese. There’s been a lot of fun.

Stephen FitzGerald joins President Jiang Zemin to sing ‘Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman’ 大海航行靠舵手, Sydney, September 1999. Courtesy of Stephen FitzGerald

There’s a photo in the booklet launched today that I think captures Australia and China in a moment of fun. At a heavily-populated banquet given by the Chinese community for President Jiang Zemin in Sydney in 1999, an official in his party whom I’d known for many years sought to stir the possum, coming through the throng across to my table and saying I must publicly sing ‘Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman’, he having known me to do so on bibulous but very private occasions in the past. As we know, the quote from which this song draws its words, has a grim history with a grim fate, and I demurred, saying it had too many political possibilities in such a public and formal place. My friend continued on his mischievous way, and next thing I hear a PA announcement that I will sing with Jiang Zemin. So he and I did, rousingly, with theatrical facial expression and gesture. It was a fun joke, a political joke, for performers and listeners, each to their own irony. Oh I know, Jiang Zemin was much given to bursting into song, and I’m not saying our relationship is unique. But allow that it has this facility, and this potential in a human sense. I fell in love with Chinese people, and their language and their food and culture, before I had much sense of China as, well, ‘China’, in the abstracted sense in which it floats in the discourse of politics: ‘China thinks…’,  ‘China accepts…’, ‘China wants…’; or ‘the Chinese think’. It’s the relationship with the unabstracted which has borne us successfully so far, and it’s that which must bear us through the next forty years, not a calculation of profit and loss.

I’ve written in this paper that the effectiveness and durability and national interest of Australia’s China policy since Whitlam laid it down have derived not from China policy as such, but from an independence in foreign policy in general. Increasingly since the mid-90s that independence has been eaten away, substantially in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, to a point where now, as power shifts on our doorstep signal the end of the era of Vasco da Gama (thank you Coral Bell), Australia has quite compromised its independence by deciding to play militarily on one side in a game whose rules are not agreed and whose outcome cannot be known. The lovable Sabam Siagian, former Indonesian ambassador in Canberra and great friend of Australia, wrote in the Jakarta Post recently, and bluntly, he being Batak, that Australia now appears to see China as its ATM, and the US as its Security Guard.

Thinking about the next forty years, the biggest challenge for a country in our position, managing its relations with this mega power, is not only that we must look to our independence from great powers and the rivalries and contests which serve their national interests but not ours, but that we have to know China a great deal better than we do or we won’t even manage independence. With the excessive focus on the material and the instrumental, we haven’t been doing all that well in this regard. But the decision by Kevin Rudd, at the urging of Geremie Barmé, to fund a China centre with a national mandate, and give it enough money to have depth and breadth and longevity, stands as a watershed in this regard, and one of the most significant decisions of the Rudd prime ministership.

The CIW is still developing, but a research centre which engages with contemporary political and intellectual China as well as challenges in the bilateral relationship, while being grounded in deep historical research, responds to a deep Australian national need. We should look to this Centre to generate, assist or inspire, on a national basis, across our major cities, our capacity for a deeper and more mature knowledge of China and approach to the management of our relations with it. Not least in the study of history and the Chinese world of ideas.

You have to hope also that there will be some relatively comparable effort on the Chinese side; relatively, because the need, from there, cannot be seen as similarly pressing. And while that is primarily up to Chinese not to us, it is good that the new chair in Australian Studies at Peking University, to be filled by Deakin’s Professor David Walker, has a mandate to explore collaboration with and possibly support for the thirty or so centres and programs of Australian Studies around China.

Geremie describes the approach of the CIW as a radical departure from traditional Sinology. There is one other aspect of the national challenge on China, related to what the CIW does but not directly its responsibility, that also needs radical re-thinking. The CIW’s capacity to understand and interpret the Chinese world entails a high capacity in the Chinese language, as its website ‘The China Story’ makes seriously, insightfully and sometimes whimsically and humorously – and occasionally tartly – plain. But Australia has largely lost what culture of second language learning it once had, to our national detriment on many fronts and not just China. The Asian Century paper declares that every Australian student must have access to high quality Asian language teaching as a core requirement in schools, but I’m afraid this is a delusion. As one committed to this cause over half a century, its history makes it plain that for various intractable impediments in the Australian education system including, but much more than, money, it hasn’t worked, and for these same impediments it’s not going to work now.

We have to look to other solutions and I think we should get behind Hugh White’s suggestion that we should instead fund some 10,000 Australians a year, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven, to spend one or two years in an Asian country studying the language, which he estimates would cost between $250 and $375 million a year. He argues that ‘with those kinds of numbers, Australia really would start to gain the depth and breadth of Asian literacy we are going to need. And for many Australians, Asia will become part of their life.’ And ‘the whole point would be that people with all kinds of backgrounds and career trajectories would add fluency in an Asian language and familiarity with an Asian country to their qualifications. Not just arts graduates but engineers, doctors, accountants and IT specialists.’ And not just, I would add, the thousands of native-speakers of Chinese who populate many of the Chinese language courses in our universities. It’s great that they’re here and that they have this capacity, but to say that’s all we need, is a kind of client mentality or 洋奴思想, a bit like saying all we need is Americans and the insight of American television to manage our relations with America, or, for Britain, only Brits, the BBC and Stephen Fry.

What Hugh has put forward is a serious suggestion, and I think overall less costly and more productive than the struggle in schools, and we should try to make it happen. Perhaps, even, the CIW could prompt a discussion about how to develop and workshop and advocate it. Few things could do more for the Chinese language capacity of Australians, for our serious study of the Chinese world, or for the resilience of our bilateral relations.

Thank you Geremie for publishing this paper and the translation, thanks also to Sang Ye for his part in it, and to Markuz Wernli, for the design and production. My thanks also to Richard Rigby, associate director of CIW and the executive director of ANU’s China Institute, for officiating at the launch. I’m very happy to be associated with the CIW in this way and I strongly support the work you are doing.

I should have remembered earlier another piece of whimsy from Australia-China relations. Some time after I left the embassy in Beijing, I learnt that Ministry of Foreign Trade officials, even in the non-fun days of late Cultural Revolution, Gang of Four early 1970s, used to have a bit of fun with my Chinese name, chosen by one of my first Chinese teachers – 费思棻, fei to approximate the first syllable of FitzGerald, and sifen a stab at sounding something like Stephen. Now, you know what Chinese is like, probably the world’s greatest for punning with exact and near homonyms. So in the Ministry of Foreign Trade they used to refer to me among themselves not as 费思棻 but 痱子粉, Prickly Heat Powder, or 痱子粉大使 – Ambassador Prickly Heat Powder. I like the idea of them having a laugh at this in those dim and shadowy corridors of the 1970s. Perhaps we should have put that soubriquet in brackets on the title page.