Douglas Copland: between Chiang and Mao


Fig. 1. The cover of Marjorie Harper’s biography of Douglas Copland.

The following is a review of Marjorie Harper’s Douglas Copland: Scholar, Economist, Diplomat, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2013. Copland (1894-1971), a noted New Zealand-born economist, served as Australia’s senior diplomat to the Republic of China at a crucial moment in modern China’s history. Appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University (ANU), he also played a key role in the establishment of Chinese Studies (and more broadly Asian Studies) and Chinese history at the university. He also revived the George E. Morrison Lecture series and gave it a permanent home at the ANU.

William Sima is a postgraduate tutor of Chinese history and language at the ANU’s College of Asia & the Pacific, and a research assistant with the Australian Centre on China in the World. He is currently undertaking research for a short history of Douglas Copland, C.P. Fitzgerald and the early years of Chinese Studies at the ANU.—The Editors


Each time when I had tea or dinner with Mr and Mrs Douglas Copland, our good friends from Australia, I had the feeling of returning to my old school days once again, for it was like being in the home of a former teacher where the atmosphere was pleasant and congenial. … Both the Minister and his wife were affable and sincere, without the hypocritical politeness that I had so often seen as the only social amenity of many of the other diplomats. … The Australian Minister was very pleased that we addressed him as Professor Copland, rather than his official title. Indeed, he was better known for being a scholar than a diplomat. He was an educator and an outstanding economist in his own country. – Inyeening Shen 沈應懿凝, wife of Mayor Shen Yi 沈怡 and ‘first lady’ of Nanking, 1946-1948.[1]

Twilight in Nanking

From the moment Nanking became the capital of the Republic of China in 1927, it occupied an uneasy and, in the formula of a recent study of the city, ‘contested’ position in the minds of the Chinese people.[2] It was a modern model capital in a new age of planned capitals, and many decried the city’s grand architectural designs as jarring with Chinese tradition – not to mention ostentatious for a nation beset by widespread poverty and political instability. Many also came to associate Nanking with the corruption and excess of the Kuomintang and its dictatorial ‘Generalissimo’ Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石, whose dubious claim to the ideological inheritance of the departed President Sun Yat-sen 孫中山 was a primary legitimising factor in the controversial move of the capital from Peking/Beijing (renamed by the KMT as Beiping), to this upstart southern backwater in the first place.

In June 1946, the eminent left-wing intellectual Guo Moruo 郭沫若 visited Nanking to attend the hapless ‘Political Consultative Conference’, resumed in the midst of an uncertain ceasefire under US mediation in the form of the George Marshall Mission. The hope of the Mission was to bring a lasting armistice and political unity between the warring Nationalists and Communists. Guo’s first impressions were of ‘a crude, shambolic rough-draft’ 一篇粗雜的草稿 of a city, replete with gargantuan faux-palatial’ 宮殿式 structures dotted awkwardly across a still largely rural landscape; a city built by a government of ‘men who so love to wax lyrical about decorum and yet care only to gamble with civil war, and in so doing, prevent this crude, shambolic rough draft from ever assuming any semblance of decorum.’ Generously unsubtle in his use of metaphor (he called Zhou Enlai’s 周恩來 Communist legation at No. 30 Meiyuan New Village 梅園新村 an ‘oasis’ amid ugly housing and pot-holed streets), Guo described his departure from Nanking in a manner that recalls the Marxist adage ‘Revolutions are the locomotives of history’:

Slowly, as our train began to slither along its rails, it seemed to be ruthlessly casting aside and leaving everything behind us on either side of the tracks. I suppose as much can be said for the future of China – farewell, Nanking![3]


History would soon validate Guo’s forecast: Nanking bid farewell to the mantle of the nation’s capital in April 1949, as Communist forces pushed across the Yangtze and took the city virtually without a fight. Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, and Australian diplomatic representation on the Mainland – which had begun in 1941 with Minister Sir Frederic Eggleston’s appointment to wartime Chungking, continued under Professor Douglas Copland from 1946 in Chungking and Nanking, and Ambassador Keith Officer from November 1948 – said farewell to Nanking forever. Officer left the country in late October 1949 while the Australian government stalled over whether to recognise the new People’s Republic.[4] A quarter of a century would pass before Stephen FitzGerald became the first Australian Ambassador to Beijing in 1973.

Marjorie Harper’s recently published biography, Douglas Copland: Scholar, Economist Diplomat, details the long and illustrious career of one of Australia’s most renowned economists and public servants, beginning with his birth and early education in New Zealand and ending with his retirement, in 1966, from the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), which he founded six years earlier.

Four chapters in the middle of this story – ‘Australian Minister to China’, ‘Exploring new options’, ‘Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University’ and ‘Political involvement while Vice-Chancellor’ – are particularly pertinent for those interested in the history of the Australia-China relationship and the development of Chinese Studies in Australia. These chapters bring out in particular the correlation between the ‘scholar, economist and diplomat’ of the book’s subtitle. Harper’s Copland emerges as a progressive, outgoing and internationally-minded public figure, as well as being a firm believer in education and academic institution-building during the dynamic and transformative post-war period.

Potential Friends

‘As Minister to China’, Harper writes, ‘Copland became one of a small group of high-profile public figures who, since 1940, had become the nation’s first diplomats.’ An ABC radio broadcast on the eve of his appointment shows that it was not one he viewed lightly:

China is the centre of the most heavily populated areas of the world, areas of great potential economic and political development, areas which are in the process of changing their relationships with the Western powers. Such changes will inevitably be of profound significance for Australia.

Arriving first in Chungking in March 1946, Copland settled in Nanking in June – the time when Guo Moruo was visiting the city – as other diplomatic missions, and indeed the organs of the Kuomintang administration itself, were moving back to the pre-war capital. Copland became well-known about town; he ‘entertained regularly … with large cocktail parties of a hundred or more guests’, while being at the same time ‘tireless in his endeavours to understand and interpret political, military and economic development.’ Describing the general situation of the Australian presence in Nanking, the author cites C.P. Fitzgerald:

Chinese regarded Australia as in a different category from the leading nations of the West, the United States, Great Britain and France. Germany was not yet reconstituted as an independent nation, and Japan was the ex-enemy. The Soviet Union was certainly important, but in Nationalist Chinese circles, dangerous, and the friend of the enemy. Australia – even more than Canada – was seen as a liberated country, which had shaken off colonial bonds. It was therefore treated with sympathy as a potential friend, and as Sir Douglas Copland developed his policy approach, a useful intermediary between the Chinese government and the embassies of the major Western powers. The Communists also saw Australia in this light.[5]

The former Australian Embassy at 32 (formerly 26) Yihe Road, Nanjing. The building is one of many protected sites within the ‘Yihe Road Republican Architecture Complex’ 颐和路民国建筑群. Photograph: William Sima

Fig. 2 The former Australian Embassy at 32 (previously 26) Yihe Road, Nanjing, now a private residence. The building is one of many protected sites within the ‘Yihe Road Republican Architecture Complex’ 颐和路民国建筑群. Photograph: William Sima

Harper gives a detailed and engaging account of this milieu, weaving together anecdotes of legation life with diplomatic affairs, gleaned from a wide range of private correspondences and official despatches. While duly ‘correct and friendly with the personnel of the Nationalist Government’, Copland soon became frustrated with its ‘despotism, inefficiencies, corruption, brutality and high reliance on foreign aid.’ Also circumspect of the Communists – their ‘harshness in restricting freedom of speech and their policy of executing landlords and redistributing their land’ – Copland was nonetheless ‘impressed’ in his dealings with Zhou Enlai and he ‘admired’ Song Qingling 宋慶齡; he was ‘prepared to commit himself more strongly than other members of the diplomatic community’ to the prospect of Communist victory in the civil war and, when addressing businessmen at the Shanghai Club in June 1946, was ‘greeted with disbelief’ when he suggested they should start thinking more seriously about engaging with the Communists.

Copland was frustrated with the contradictions of American policy, which involved both aid for the Nationalists and (ostensibly) sincerity in its efforts to achieve lasting peace between the Nationalists and Communists: ‘His [Marshall’s] role as mediator was being undermined by the fact that the Americans were supplying the Nationalists with great quantities of military help, although that was not their stated policy.’ When Dr John Leighton Stuart, perceived as being more willing to accommodate the views of the Communists, was appointed American Ambassador to Nanking in July 1946,

Copland’s despatches to the Department of External Affairs highlighted Stuart’s dilemma as a mediator, with the caustic remark that ‘the Americans wanted to believe Chiang Kai-shek because they wanted a China that would develop under their tutelage, give them markets and scope for investment, and prove to the world that the American way of life could spread beyond the thin line of islands of the North Pacific. And as usual they were in a hurry.’

In October that year, Copland was summoned to New York to support the Australian Ambassador Norman Makin at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Harper highlights this time as a critical turning point in his career:

The break from China gave Copland time to reflect on whether he would extend his initial term of appointment to the Chinese Government, subject always to [his wife] Ruth’s agreement. … He was developing broader perspectives – the complexity of Chinese problems highlighted the relative simplicity of life in Australia, with its small population and its British-based institutions.

While his first year in China ‘had been of absorbing interest’, ‘the advantages of remaining at Nanking could be subject to diminishing returns’ as a protracted civil war seemed likely. Copland was concerned about becoming isolated: ‘Perhaps his work in New York would bring him back into the mainstream of Australian policy-making and provide new opportunities for future diplomatic work.’

After a time serving on two UN working committees Copland left New York in December 1946, spending thirteen weeks in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra before returning to China. While in Canberra he raised a number of issues with the Department of External Affairs: it was ‘a personal disappointment and an affront to the Chinese Government’ that the status of the Australian legation had not yet been raised to that of an embassy; the legation was under-funded, understaffed and faced constant difficulties with accommodation and rent; and the White Australia Policy had constantly stalled efforts, going back to 1943, to sign a ‘Treaty of Friendship’ with China. ‘While still in Australia’, writes Harper, ‘Copland received a cable from [Chargé d’Affaires] Patrick Shaw informing him that in Nanking there was a “hardening” view among officials that “Australia has adopted a deliberately slighting attitude to China”, a view strengthened by these decisions and the fact of his long absence.’

From Nanking to Canberra

In September 1947, Copland received a letter from Frederic Eggleston, a member of the new Interim Council of the Australian National University (ANU): ‘I hope you do not leave the service at the end of the year unless you have something more worth your while and valuable to the public of Australia. … Would you like to be Vice-Chancellor of the Australian University at Canberra? I have no authority in the matter, but I would know what to do.’ ‘Eggleston’, Harper writes, ‘was particularly anxious to see that the ANU, through its Research School of Pacific Studies, would help train diplomatic cadets and would deal widely with the problems Australia would face in Asia.’ And she goes on to show that Eggleston – as one of Copland’s ‘supporters’ during his often difficult dealings with the Interim Council – was also a central figure in the push for Asian Studies at ANU.

On Australia Day 1948, and later in March on the eve of his departure from China, ‘Copland’s farewell addresses were tactful and sympathetic, and he took care to state that he “was not deserting the world of China”. He was returning to Canberra to be founding Vice-Chancellor of the new Australian National University, where one of the special fields of study was to be Pacific Studies. He intended to invite Chinese scholars to Canberra.’ Copland remarked in his address that ‘It is with mixed feelings that my wife and I leave Nanking. My stay has been all too short, but I can say that I have been vitally interested in China since I came here a little over two years ago. … In many ways China had so much to offer me that was new, complex and at times disturbing.’

The post of Vice-Chancellor at the newly established university entailed a wide variety of tasks. These ranged from financing new roads and buildings; publicity for the new (and not uncontroversial) institution and attracting staff both from within Australia and overseas; and crucial decision-making concerning the departmental structure of the new Schools. It was ‘abundantly clear’, Harper writes, ‘that the Vice-Chancellor would be expected to pursue many objectives simultaneously if the enterprise were to succeed. Success in one direction would be critically dependent on the progress in others; success in one direction would be magnified in the whole; so too would any failure.’ Regarding efforts to establish a focus on East Asia within the Research School of Pacific Studies, Harper highlights C.P. Fitzgerald’s appointment in 1949 as a crucial step:

… C.P. Fitzgerald, whom Copland had known so well in China, was made Reader in Far Eastern History. As Fitzgerald had no university degree he was invited to spend two months lecturing in Canberra, then appointed Visiting Reader in Oriental Studies and finally as Reader in Far Eastern History. This appointment was a step towards Eggleston’s desire to broaden the focus of the Research School of Pacific Studies from anthropology to the history and problems of the Asian region.

Finally, Harper describes the more overtly ‘political’ aspects of Douglas Copland’s time as Vice-Chancellor at the ANU. Initial consideration for his appointment to this role had proceeded with ‘concern that, having been an economic adviser to governments, [Copland] might become involved in politics’; it ‘rested on his work as an applied economist and an authority on Pacific affairs, and had been semi-political in character.’ The author shows that among all the aspects of Copland’s ‘political involvement while Vice-Chancellor’, he – along with Frederic Eggleston and C.P. Fitzgerald – were particularly outspoken on the breaking issue of diplomatic recognition of China:

In 1948, as a recently returned diplomat, Copland considered it improper to comment publicly on Labor’s foreign policy. However, he contributed an article to Pacific Affairs in which he strongly criticised American support for the Nationalists in China, and also revived the George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology under the auspices of the ANU. … In his lecture Copland chose to describe the Chinese economy and the resulting social structure as ‘the most enduring in history’ irrespective of any prevailing political regime.[6]

The political regime did change a year after his Morrison lecture; in November 1949 Copland was ‘unswervingly in favour of recognition’ at a Department of External Affairs conference in Canberra, at which a recently-returned Keith Officer was also present. In February 1951, shortly after China sent forces to Korea, Copland courted a ‘public rebuke’ from Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs, when he suggested at a public lecture that

Australians ‘should do a little soul-searching … We still have a great deal to learn about our Eastern neighbours as well as our conduct of foreign policy and are inclined to view external problems through local prisms. China was a classic example of this. It had been a mistake not to have recognised China.’

(Spender told the press that Copland’s ‘remarks on China were loose and ill-founded – they seriously over-simplified the problem and they failed to take into account Governmental statements as to the Australian attitude to recognition’; Copland ‘retorted that he “had more expert knowledge of China than Spender would probably ever have”.’) Later that year, C.P. Fitzgerald presented the thirteenth George Ernest Morrison Lecture,

in which he concluded that because the Communist regime commanded the sympathy of the peasantry and of the scholar class, the Communist revolution could not be undone. He reiterated his arguments in his book Revolution in China, which he dedicated to Copland. He agreed with Eggleston and Copland that Australia should recognise the new People’s Republic of China.

Douglas Copland went to Ottawa in 1953 as Australian High Commissioner to Canada; ‘His only regret’, Harper writes, ‘was in leaving the vibrant community of scholars.’

It will always be timely to reflect upon these interesting times; next year will also mark 120 years since Douglas Copland’s birth, and sixty since Charles Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed Foundation Professor of Far Eastern History at the Research School of Pacific Studies. Marjorie Harper’s Douglas Copland: Scholar, Economist, Diplomat provides valuable insights into this time, a moment in the Australia-China story which today seems so distant and yet still has so much to tell us.

Copland Building, ANU campus. Photograph: William Sima

The Copland Building, part of the ANU College of Business and Economics Precinct. Photograph: William Sima




[1] Jane Shen Schopf, ed., My Years in Nanking: Reminiscences of Inyeening Shen, Bloomington (Indiana): iUniverse Inc., 2009, p.90, with minor modification.

[2] See Charles Musgrove, China’s Contested Capital: Architecture, Ritual and Response in Nanjing, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013.

[3] Guo Moruo, Nanjing yinxiang 南京印象, Shanghai: Qunyi chubanshe 群益出版社, 1946, pp.16-17, 109. My thanks to Geremie Barmé for alerting me to the image of the revolutionary locomotive.

[4] See Alan Fewster, Trusty and Well Beloved: a Life of Keith Officer, Australia’s First Diplomat, Carlton, Victoria: Miyegunyah Press, 2009, pp.348-351.

[5] C.P. Fitzgerald, Why China? Recollections of China 1923-1950, Melbourne University Press, 1985, p.211.

[6] See ‘The George E. Morrison Lectures in Ethnology’ page at China Institute, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific: