Judi Moylan: China Story Yearbook 2013

The Honorable Judi Moylan is a widely respected former politician serving as a member of the House of Representatives of the Australian Parliament for twenty years, from 1993 until August 2013. During that time her roles have included her work as Minister for Family Services and as Minister for the Status of Women, as well as Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, Permanent Delegate to the International Parliamentary Union, and Chair of the Australia-China Parliamentary Friendship group. Judi has led a number of high-level delegations to China, and maintains a keen interest in the Australia-China relationship. She launched the 2013 China Story Yearbook, produced by the Australian Centre on China in the World, at The Australian National University on 31 October 2013.—The Editors


The Honorable Judi Moylan speaking at the launch of the 2013 China Story yearbook.

The Honorable Judi Moylan speaking at the launch of the 2013 China Story yearbook.

Nimen hao!

What a pleasure it is for me to join you for the launch of this latest offering from the Australian Centre on China in the World. For anyone engaged in diplomacy, defence, academic studies or government; or simply ‘engaged’ the acquisition of the second China Story Yearbook must surely be rated as a compulsory self indulgence.

Civilising China provides a searching analysis of contemporary issues, currently exercising the new generation of Chinese leaders. Professor Barmé has invited me to present a few personal recollections as a former parliamentarian and a China novitiate of the past twenty years. I am grateful and delighted to comply.

My engagement with China began in the early 1980s when restricted entry was permitted to visit Guangdong Province – for a day. It was there that Deng Xiaoping, the great enabler began actively prising open the portals of modernisation. The reforms were not without their critics. Deng answered them saying: ‘I do not mind what colour the cat is – black or white – as long at it catches the mice’. Undoubtedly economic reform has been the catalyst for China’s twenty-first century civilising agenda.

It was to be another decade, before I returned to China. This time as a Member of Parliament participating in the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, in Beijing. My daughter Jennifer who was studying Chinese language at the time joined me on that visit to practice her newly acquired skills and to indulge her love of photography. While I wrestled with meaning and syntax in the conference rooms, my daughter was out talking to people and photographing wonderful scenes of Chinese people at work and at play. Life in Beijing seemed simpler then. The wide boulevards teeming with people on bicycles precariously laden with cargo, including uncovered carcasses destined for the markets, young girls perched prettily, and older men and women in the ubiquitous Mao suits and black slippers.

My daughter and I developed a parallel fascination with China and all things Chinese.

She completed a degree in Chinese studies at Hangzhou University. Meanwhile, I returned a year or two later as Leader of the Australia Political Exchange Council’s Young Political Leaders Delegation. At the invitation of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, young Australian and Chinese leaders joined in debate on East Versus West Perspectives on Human Rights.

China’s version of human rights varied markedly from our western construct. Food and shelter for the people defined China’s approach – it was the beginning, the middle and the end of the political narrative as far as they were concerned. How could it be otherwise, when in the great famine lasting from 1958–1961, an estimated 36 million  people had perished?

In any event, I found myself locked in a sharp  learning curve when I was called upon to deliver a speech in the city of Chengdu on The Universality of Human Rights and Cultural Diversity. The curve grew sharper when back in Beijing I debated East Versus West Approaches to Human Rights, with one of China’s leading scholars on a China TV program called Dialogue. This hard-hitting political show was moderated by famous media personality, Mr Yang Rui. In recent history he had set Twitter a-twittering over a posting on Sina Weibo in which he referred to a female foreign journalist as a pofu [泼妇].

Pofu can mean ‘bitch’ or ‘shrew’.

I confronted him with all the braggadocio of a latter day Morrison of Peking. Perhaps it worked. In any case I have no recollection of Mr Yang being anything other than a charming host and not at all averse to my theme of the ‘civilising influence of rights and responsibilities’Or perhaps I was the pofu that got away!

Subsequently, I was elected by my Parliamentary colleagues to chair the Australia/China Parliamentary Friendship Group. For the six years of my chairmanship, I maintained a close association with successive Ambassadors at the Chinese Embassy.

It was a pivotal time in Australia’s relations with China and I threw myself into the role of building friendships with great enthusiasm. Over the ensuing years, I led many delegations to a plethora of destinations ranging from the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai to the far-flung outposts of Tibet and Xinjiang.

As I read ever more deeply and irresistibly into Civilising China, recollections come flooding back of changes, good and less good, that I witnessed over those years.

In the boulevards of Beijing motorized vehicles had become de rigueur, in Wangfujing (formerly Morrison Street) Gucci, Chanel and Louis Vuitton took the place of state-owned Friendship Stores and Starbucks opened in the China World Shopping Mall. Up and down the ancient landscape massive building projects erupted including whole new cities linked together by impossibly heroic feats of road building. China’s telecommunications network in the 1990s seemed to have stolen a long march on us. We are still catching up!

In a rush to participate in trade with China, human rights became little more than a second order issue. Still, human rights remained one of the many topics raised by our delegations. In addition, we promoted Australia’s credentials as a reliable supplier for the first liquefied gas terminal in Guangdong and even mooted the importation of breeding cows to Meishan to facilitate its transition from subsistence farming.

High-level meetings punctuated our visits. In a meeting with Premier Zhu Rongji we came to appreciate the challenges he faced transforming China’s State Owned Enterprises. Zhu was credited with opening the way for China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation. Following President Hu Jintao’s historic address to the Australian Parliament in 2003 – the first Asian leader to do so – there was a distinct warming of relations. This was reflected in an invitation to a delegation I led later that year, to spend an hour with the President in Beijing.

President Hu was keen to explore how Australia managed the growing gaps between the fortunes of the rich and poor and how Australia might assist China to develop a cleaner energy future. Australia was poised to make a significant contribution to China’s cleaner energy future as a supplier of natural gas. The exuberance with which Australia has forged its commercial participation in the Asian century is only too evident.

A truncated version of Sino-Australian interaction in recent times, must include at least the following:

  • A bi-lateral agreement that saw Australia become one of the first western countries to negotiate Approved Destination Status resulting in over 600,00 Chinese tourists visiting Australia
  • The commencement of negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement to remove trade barriers and encourage foreign direct investment
  • A celebration of forty years since the resumption of diplomatic relations.

It remains a work in progress.

During this period, trade growth grew dramatically from $13 million in 1973 to over $13 billion in 2011 and direct investment by China in 2012 surpassed $16 billion. The strongest performing sectors have been natural resources, tourism and education. It is not widely appreciated that there are now dozens of Australian Studies departments in Universities throughout China.

The Australia/China Parliamentary Friendship Group has historically played a significant role in forging intergovernmental relationships over my twenty years in Parliament. Personally, I had embarked upon a cultural journey that left me captive emotionally to a civilisation of unbelievable range. Despite the so-called decline of classical Confucianism early in the last century, I found myself at the beginning overwhelmed by the extravagance and formality of ceremonial hospitality that attended my visits as an Australian Parliamentarian.

Especially at the Chinese banquet table, where a leisured and ancient formality presided that surely equalled the mores of nineteenth century Europe, even at its Hapsburg extremities. Etiquette known as li [礼] survives in the collective memory.

Civilising China documents how the new leadership has recently put a stop to lavish banquets limiting dining to four courses – plus soup [四菜一汤]. Ah but what soup it is! It is not surprising that civilised behaviour twenty centuries and more after the death of Confucius, should surface as a topic of passionate concern in the post-revolutionary peoples republic.

Professor Barmé and his co-authors have captured the intense introspection attending this process with masterful insight and the necessary degree of irony. Of course some of the irony must be directed at ourselves. That struck me when emerging from my taxi at the Airport. I remembered his commentary on the prevailing discussion concerning such anti-social lapses as public spitting. Glancing ruefully about me at the carpet of cigarette butts that constitutes the average forecourt of our public spaces, I could not help reflecting that a good dosage of Chinese mea culpa would do us no harm. Pity the poor Chinese for a lost opportunity. With their extravagant gift for poetry, they might have done so much with Erasmus’s great sixteenth-century guide to good behaviour – De civilitate.

Instead, it fell to the English who a century later could only manage the following doggerel to paraphrase the Erastian masterpiece.

If spitting chance to move thee so thou canst not it forebear,

Remember do it modestly consider who is there!

Nor imitate with Socrates to wipe thy sniveled nose upon thy cap as he would do – nor yet upon thy clothes!

Socrates was born, full ten years after the death of the great Confucius who, in a different conjunction of time and space, might have cured him of his unseemly expectorations.

The China Story Yearbook’s opening chapter reminds us that dynastic China was one of the world’s greatest ancient civilisations, with deeply embedded cultural norms and unique forms of social organisationThe China Story Yearbook proceeds to make its case for Sino-scholarship with a joyous indifference to caution, custom, or even Canberra.

One is also bound to draw attention to the typesetting, design and remarkable illustrations of Markuz Wernli, who makes the book a joy to read in either the printed or electronic format.

Amongst its bountiful pages Civilising China provides an invaluable insight into the great and rapid changes taking place in China today. One of those is the emergence of social media and China’s attempt to build the ‘Great Firewall’. In the context of a one-party state it will test the resolve of China’s leaders as they seek to control a generation of ‘netizens’ determined to bring openness and accountability to government administration – that of course is not just a challenge for China. Assange and Manning and their future cohorts in martyrdom are the harbingers of a universal malaise. Amidst this, the world’s democracies continue dancing to the music of time, uncertain of the choreography, still less of the plot.

May I congratulation you Professor Barmé and your co-authors. The second China Story Yearbook: Civilising China is a remarkable achievement brimming with intellectual fervour. You have done this institution and your country proud. Thank you!