Welcome, Comrade Ambassador!

Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s China Envoy, the memoir of Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, was launched at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) by the Centre’s new director, Benjamin Penny, on 18 September 2015.

The launch featured a musical prologue (Ben, aware that Steve, a JS Bach aficionado, had been unable to travel to Leipzig for the Bach-Archiv festival, arranged a short performance by Tahni Chan of the ANU School of Music to introduce the evening) and two speeches: one by Michael Wesley, a former colleague of Steve’s and one of Australia’s leading international relations scholars (Michael’s most recent book, Restless Continent: Wealth, rivalry and Asia’s new geopolitics, was launched in Canberra earlier in the week), and the other by Geremie R Barmé, Founding Director of CIW, who first met Steve as an exchange student in Beijing in October 1974.

The following is the text of Geremie’s speech. — The Editors



Spring at the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU


Living Beyond the Past

Geremie R Barmé
18 September 2015


Ladies and Gentlemen:

I too acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet. And I also acknowledge and celebrate our custodianship of this place; I do so in particular since this year, 2015, marks a decade since the animating forces that led to the creation of the Australian Centre on China in the World took more concrete form.

But before I say more about that, I must also acknowledge, with ill-concealed, no, absolutely raw and unconcealed delight and celebration that this week marks the return of our home, Australia, to the twenty-first century. We rejoin a time-line that promises a future rather than an endless loop of backward looking boredom. This week dawned, albeit in a melée of political desperation, ego and crude calculation that followed in the wake of two benighted years of national stewardship under that shameful recidivist, the former prime minister (and never has this combination of words been so pleasing to the ear), Anthony John ‘Tony’ Abbott. This knuckle-dragger was a man who tried to remake the country to suit his miniature vision, to imprison us in a fearful world in which we denied ourselves, our region and our future. It is this narrowness of the Australian mind of the 1950s and 1960s about which, and against which, Stephen FitzGerald writes with such passion in his memoir Comrade Ambassador. It is also the insular world of ‘Asia scepticism’ about which Steve speaks in terms of derision, despair and disbelief. It is a world against which he has rebelled, and led others to rebel for over half a century.

The appearance of Comrade Ambassador is timely in another way, for it is high time we reflected on nearly twenty years of Australia’s craven Asia boom and the desperate long years of lip-service and combined Liberal-Labor Asia neglect. Many passages in Comrade Ambassador — this engaging, funny and in turns uplifting and down-casting — deal with a China that has struggled long and hard with ideological blindness, spent painful years fitfully cauterising swathes of the Maoist canker and embarked with immense difficulty on renewing that nation’s body politic and the Chinese economy.

Steve’s memoir gives us pause, for our part we must now wonder if either of our political parties could manage a similar Herculean task to that of the Chinese since the 1970s, a task which we too must surely face in Australia if not now then in the not-too-distant future. Can the ruling Liberals now realise that the Howard-era formula of radical and soulless neoliberalism married to xenophobia and cultural nationalism has or should really have a limited appeal today. Can they face the fact that this country may have actually grown out of them, or at least far beyond their faux Tea Party rump? That there is ‘another Australia’, one about which over these long months of national prime ministerial embarrassment they have shown themselves to be ignorant of and blind to? And, as for the parliamentary Labor Party, can they dig deep and find for themselves a soul, a voice and a vision? Or are they the party of hidden shallows? Okay, Big Daddy Xi, that is the Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping, in China clutches onto the flotsam and jetsam of Maoism; what’s our excuse here in Australia for cleaving to political bankruptcy?

We are standing in a place [the Auditorium of the Australian Centre on China in the World] that in terms of its immediate past began its gestation a decade ago, in 2005. It was in that year that I was awarded an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship (I would note with a touch of glee that this honour was bestowed upon me in the same round of awards as that of our new vice-chancellor, the astronomer Brian Schmidt). But, I only had the courage to apply for that major fellowship [one that supported an independent research agenda and provided jobs for other researchers] at the urging and with the encouragement of a dear and treasured friend: the anthropologist Mandy Thomas. Mandy, who is a Vietnam specialist, had worked in the Research Council and she was at the time the pro-vice chancellor in charge of research at this university. Tonight is the first time that I’ve been able to acknowledge Mandy’s support here in this building, one that in part exists because of her crucial encouragement. It’s that support that emboldened me also to establish the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly and to write, in May 2005, the manifesto that launched that publication: ‘On New Sinology‘. That essay would form the rationale and intellectual underpinning of this Centre. (This is something I note in the editorial introduction to the selected passages from Steve’s memoir Comrade Ambassador that we published in The China Story Journal today.)

I’d also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that we are only some metres away from the old Faculty of Asian Studies building where from 1972 to 1974 I was taught Chinese (along with history, Chinese and Indian, Sanskrit, Prakrit, calligraphy, poetry, Maoism, a smattering of Tibetan, and so many other things). And I further acknowledge a previous ANU student of Chinese studies, a man who had left the university a few years earlier and who was, during my undergraduate studies, working in Beijing: Stephen FitzGerald.

Steve’s studies here were not undertaken in such a grand building as the Faculty of Asian Studies (long ago occupied by the university’s law faculty). In Comrade Ambassador he recalls that he had:

… a gentle and civilised entrée to it [that is, 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.

It was that department and its teachers, my own beloved tutor Vieta Dyer (Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff) — and she is here tonight — who taught Steve in the late 1950s, and worked tirelessly (and sometimes pitilessly) to ensure I acquired her crisp Northern Chinese accent and unfailing correct tones. (When she was visiting the Centre the other day to see our exhibition China & ANU, she reminded me that she still hasn’t quite forgiven me for spending a few years in Shenyang in the 1970s and, for a time, polluting my pellucid Beijing accent so painstakingly acquired from her with a North-eastern drawl, one that still freights itself into my speech when I’m A) tired or, B) drunk, oh, and speaking Chinese. Steve would think my accent was cute, and I remember him taking the piss out of me when we were all camped out around the Embassy pool following the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, when for a time Beijing became a tent city.)

But when I was an undergraduate here, where was Steve? We’d seen him in the news, appointed as ambassador to the mysterious city of Beijing — the Pyongyang of its day — and, more so, that he was there to act as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. Writing in the well-worn and formulaic prose of the Court of King James in the Letter of Recall in 1976, the British monarch, our Queen, would describe Dr Stephen Arthur FitzGerald as her ‘Trusty and Well-beloved’ acting in the character of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Australia. He was residing in Beijing on behalf of Her Royal Highness Elizabeth Regina, Queen of Australia and her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth.

As a callow youth I did not yet realise that Steve would join my other ANU mentors and, like key figures in my intellectual and China life, including Pierre Ryckmans (known to many of you as Simon Leys, the one-year anniversary whose passing in August 2014 we marked here in the Centre only last month), Liu Ts’un-yan, Lo Hui-min and Wang Gungwu, be someone who influenced the ideas that led to the creation of this Centre and therefore helped provide the hall in which we are this evening.

It’s forty-one years ago, give or take two weeks, since the second group of Australian exchange students sent to study in the People’s Republic of China following the normalisation of bilateral relations in late 1972 walked into the office of the Australian Ambassador. Steve, wearing the de rigueur light coloured — was it baby blue, beige or coffee-coloured, Steve? — Safari Suit (the Aussie equivalent of the Mao jacket), his black locks a near leonine mane, and with a manner that was immediately affable and intimate. The five of us sat around and he perched himself on his office desk and introduced us to our new lives, and to the aspirations of a young embassy and an Australia seriously intent on its involvement with China.

Steve, and the staff of the embassy in the 1970s, some of whom are here tonight, embodied something that profoundly influenced us: serious engagement with the place they were in; an excitement about their adventure, about really embarking on a new stage in Australia’s understanding of China, a country this nation has grappled with since the nineteenth century; a raffish sense of humour; self-deprecating appreciation of the absurdity of Maoist China and, a readiness to listen to us! It was amazing: I was only twenty and had all the self-important arrogance of a youth who had but a smattering of knowledge. Over the years that I was a student in China (first in Beijing, then Shanghai, followed by gulag Shenyang), embassy staff, and I think in particular of Steve, Murray McClean, Jocelyn Chey, Ross Maddock, David Ambrose and Reg Little, were never condescending, always interested (okay, they were also collecting intelligence from kids like me who were having a different and direct China experience in universities) and light of touch in their support for and interest in us.

They would offer us meals and advice, social relief from the relentless boredom of regimented student life, escape from the droning politics of dying Maoism and its ridiculous mass campaigns (which fascinated me). Later, when I lived in the provinces, they would be a lifeline of sanity and succour. Jocelyn in particular would make it possible for me to visit Beijing, each trip involving a convoluted bureaucratic rigmarole that Jocelyn would sweep aside in her best ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ tones telling the Chinese educational authorities that ‘Mr Barmé’s presence is required in Beijing’.

Of course, Steve and students of China like myself work on a country and civilisation that in so many ways and in many areas has stolen a march on humanity. And China, the longest surviving bureaucratic state in world history, has much to teach us.

It must have been some time in late 1976, about a year before I took early graduation from my dungeon university in Shenyang, northeast China, that Steve invited a group of as to a meal at Tongheju 同和居 at Xidan. This ‘Residence of Community and Harmony’, was one of the more venerable and, for the time, tony establishments in still-revolutionary Beijing. The restaurant had been around since the 1820s but, like everything in China’s Maozeit it was less than even a pale shadow of its former self. For someone like me suffering from anaemia as a result of a poor diet, Tongheju in what seemed like a cosmopolitan city, Beijing, was nothing less than dining paradise.

We finished off our meal with my then favourite dessert, ‘San Buzhan’ 三不沾 (the Three Not Stickies): an imperial era confection made out of egg yolk, mung bean powder and sugar. Globulous on the plate and Day-Glo yellow, San Buzhan got its name from the fact that it didn’t stick to the plate, didn’t stick to your chopsticks and didn’t choke you 不沾盘,不沾匙,不沾牙. Usually the best I could hope for in Shenyang was 油炒面 — flour and sugar fried in lard. For some reason, or maybe it’s just a trick of memory, it may well have been the comic delight of this dish that led Steve to take us on a walk south from Xidan and along Chang’an Avenue towards Tiananmen and the heart of Beijing. Together with us he pondered China’s unfolding fate. For years he had been dealing on a daily basis with the bureaucratic obfuscations, writhen rhetoric and byzantine infighting of Maoist bureaucrats. He speculated as to whether the top-heavy machinery of Communist cadres would simply sink the ship of state, or if another fate awaited the country.

Little did I then know that only months earlier he and his embassy colleagues had speculated at length on in a series of extraordinary despatches to Canberra on what post-Maoist China would look like. The content of these despatches features in Comrade Ambassador and, with Steve’s kind permission, I have published passages from them online today. The despatches were basically upbeat, they foretold tectonic shifts in China’s political and economic life; they predicted growth that over the following decades would also transform Australia and its Asian fate; they also appealed to the power that be in Canberra to make a disproportionate effort in dealing with the often arcane and always obdurate world of Chinese bureaucracy.

In the first of the despatches, titled ‘Political Relations with China: Are they too hard?’, Steve and his colleagues wrote:

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. …

As he also recalls,

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’.

None of this, however, prevented Steve’s ruminations on Chang’an Avenue that night. I was twenty-three and soon to start a fledgling career as an editor and translator in Hong Kong, observing at one remove what would be the momentous developments that soon unfold with the advent of what is still called China’s new era of the Open Door and Reform.

Steve would soon return to Canberra from China and, in Comrade Ambassador he records the disheartening encounter here at ANU that he would have with what I dub the Bureaucrocene. In my spoof of the fashionable concept of the Anthropocene — that is the new world-changing age or human-induced all encompassing transformation — the Bureaucrocene or the age of the bureaucrat regnant is our current epoch, one in which intellectual biodiversity is diminishing and university ecosystems around the globe become more similar to one another, thereby shaping human existence itself.

Back at ANU in the late 1970s, Steve found himself both acting head of the Department of Far Eastern History and the head the Contemporary China Centre. He soon realised, and I quote:

The ANU’s changed… . It’s more bureaucratised, and top-heavy. … Academic matters have to be talked upwards through multiple layers of committees. … You have to spend a lot of time negotiating with business managers. … I attend meetings. Sometimes I find myself running, literally, down the corridors in the Coombs building to get to the next.

He admires the faculty of Wang Gungwu, by then head of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, who features in the exhibition in our gallery, China & ANU — Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars, to be both an academic manager and a productive academic. He decides to leave the academy and launches a third career in business consultancy, as well as becoming a major public policy advocate for language learning and Australia’s Asian awareness.

It has been a life-long quest for Steve, it is the story told in Comrade Ambassador, and it is an account both uplifting and sobering, one that with unstinting enthusiasm I recommend to you all tonight.

Thank you.


For related material in The China Story Journal, see an excerpt from Comrade Ambassador; Stephen FitzGerald’s 2012 speech Australia and China at Forty: Stretch of the Imagination; and, ‘Seventy Years On & Australia’s Unfinished Twentieth Century’.