Shared Values: a Sino-Australian conundrum

The following speech was written as a keynote address for the annual meeting of The Oriental Society of Australia in December 2006, a year before the ouster of the John Howard-led Liberal Coalition Federal Goverment in Canberra. In it I refer to comments that I made nearly a decade earlier, in 1997, at the invitation of Stephen FitzGerald, during what some regard as the ‘salad days’ of the Howard era. Recently, in October 2015, I returned to some of these topics, albeit tangentially, in ‘Welcome, Comrade Ambassador’, remarks written to celebrate the launch of former ambassador to the People’s Republic of China Stephen FitzGerald’s latest book at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW). Both speeches also relate to various essays on New Sinology and The China Story Project, in particular the 2012 speech ‘Telling Chinese Stories‘. An extension of this discussion will be made in the Fifth Annual CIW Oration on 26 October titled ‘New Sinology and the Xi Jinping Era‘.

My thanks to Will Zou 邹述丞 for making a digital version of the speech as it appeared in The Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, vol.38 (2006): 60-67. I have made some minor emendations. — Geremie R Barmé


Last year [2005], when I established the China Heritage Project at the Australian National University, I launched, with my colleague Dr Bruce Doar, an e-journal which later published under the title China Heritage Quarterly. Around the time of the launch of the e-journal I wrote a statement of intent regarding our particular endeavour and my general view of my field of intellectual pursuit. I called that statement ‘New Sinology‘. It is an essay that has elicited some commentary, as well as some misinterpretations. However, I would like to open my remarks today by reiterating some of the remarks that I made in that essay in the context of this conference and celebration of The Oriental Society of Australia.

As I said in my essay:

The concept behind this rather nebulous expression ‘New Sinology’ is a simple one, and one that to many colleagues who are engaged with things Chinese will not appear to be particularly ‘new’ … . I speak of ‘New Sinology’ as being descriptive of a ‘robust engagement with contemporary China’ and indeed with the Sinophone world in all of its complexity, be it local, regional or global. It affirms a conversation and intermingling that also emphasises strong scholastic underpinnings in both the classical and modern Chinese language and studies, at the same time as encouraging an ecumenical attitude in relation to a rich variety of approaches and disciplines, whether they be mainly empirical or more theoretically inflected. In seeking to emphasize innovation within Sinology by recourse to the word ‘new ‘, it is nonetheless evident that I continue to affirm the distinctiveness of Sinology as a mode of intellectual inquiry … .

My approach — again, one that I would aver many scholars (academics and students) pursue — is one that recognises an academic and human relationship with a vital and voluble Sinophone world that is not just about the People’s Republic, or Taiwan, or Chinese diasporas. It bespeaks an involvement that is part of the intellectual, academic, cultural and personal conversations in which many of us are engaged, not merely as Australians, but as individuals, regardless of our background, individuals who are energetically and often boisterously interconnected with one of the great, complex and lively geo-cultural spheres of the world … .

From another perspective, it is obvious that the buzzwords that attract attention in Australia are ‘national security’ and ‘economic benefit’; and applications to national funding bodies are invariably couched in terms of scholars providing a ‘better understanding of our region’. It is while acknowledging all of these concerns (both real and spurious) that I talk with some certainty of the value and benefit of a broader intellectual and cultural engagement, one that rests upon a bedrock of intellectual community, academic value and, most crucially, shared humanity …, something that I believe was at the heart of so much of the extraordinary work done by Sinologists in the past … .

That preliminary articulation is one that has begged for elucidation and extension. As I expand my argument in what I call ‘More New Sinology’, I am mindful of the major debates surrounding Chinese thought and historiography over the last decade, as well as of the particular predicament of engaged and thoughtful individuals based in Australia.

As I was preparing for this occasion I reread Stephen FitzGerald’s 1997 book Is Australia an Asian Country? It is a volume produced at the beginning of a long, and dolorous, decade of Liberal Coalition rule in this country. Steve’s is a work that expressed an early exasperation with the unfolding national order. In it he also spoke of his hope of the innate good sense of citizens of this country and the wise counsel of its public figures to engage further with the world in which we live in an active, unabashed and yet canny fashion. In particular it gave voice to the author’s question ‘Can Australia survive in an East Asian future?’

Around this time, Steve invited me to speak at the Asia Australia Institute of the University of New South Wales, of which he was head. We were in a public forum at the State Library to discuss Australia’s relationship with Asia. Already outraged by the political turn in this country, and the evident redirection of national energies towards our alliance with the global unipower, I too posed the question of whether Australia was an Asian country. Long given to delivering my views in an ironical tone, I remarked that yes indeed we were an Asian country and that, undetected by most, we also had something of a composite Asian leader in the body of what my friends call the Prime Miniature, John Howard.

I recall I said something to the effect that Howard had the bushy eyebrows of the Chinese Premier Li Peng, the weasel ways of the former Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro, the fingerwagging hauteur of Malaysia’s Mahatir Mohamed, as well as the bent for cronyism of the former Indonesian President Suharto. In political style, I opined, we were more Asian than most of us would care to admit.

John Howard and Hu Jintao in harmony. Image:

John Howard and Hu Jintao in harmony. Image:

Some years later, in November 2002, I was invited to another event organised by the Asia Australia Institute at the State Library. That gathering too was convened by the head of the Institute, Stephen FitzGerald. It was held to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Australia and China. I called my speech ‘Over 30 Years of China and Australia — Some Thoughts on a Glum Convergence’. In my remarks I observed:

Once, many students of China shared a sense of fascinated engagement with a country that was vastly different from our own, one whose values and institutions were not only at variance, but markedly inferior to those of our own shores. Anyone who is seriously engaged with both China and Australia knows that such certitudes are now little more than an unsettling memory.

Here our media enjoys a narrowness of bandwidth that is unique in my lifetime. Our independent and public sources of debate and speech are more constricted and threatened than ever before. And when it is in doubt a grey bureaucracy run by lacklustre ideocrats falls back on national crisis, the sense of embattlement and the fear of faceless foreign terror to stir up a populist response and convince all that their mandate represents the true and abiding interests of the people’s will. Of course, I’m talking about the federal government, generally aided and abetted by the supine members of what can only laughingly be dubbed an ‘opposition’.

One recalls the outpouring of national grief at the time of the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989 and the generous response to those becalmed in Australia. Remember the human rights delegations of the early 1990s when Australia had the temerity to monitor the human rights situation in China? And, and … But that was all long before the revival of race-based politics; it was also before we saw the efflorescence of opinion-poll driven demagoguery; and before we realized how the decay of civic values and vision happens: not in a wild flurry of calamitous agitation, but gradually, with insouciance, and even with a measure of self-deceptive willingness … .

The certitudes of those early years of contact with China have been confounded by history; the values that so many of my generation, at least publicly, held dear and to be self-evident are now under attack or being rejected at every turn. While economics and trade provides a veneer of unity, the underlying world views and aspirations of countries in our region are not simple, stagnant or obvious.

I have suggested that there has been a glum convergence over the recent decade or so, one that parodies the ‘harmonic convergence’ that you may recall was touted in 1987. Remember, that was when an alignment of stars promised a coming together of the people of the world in a mood of sharing, equality and a tremulous group hug. Given the new-agey overtones and bleeding-heart simplicity of it all, many derided that meeting of global minds as more of a ‘moronic convergence’.

I am an historian, and much of my time is devoted to tying to work out what happened, as well as the multivalent directions and interpretations of the past. As for the future, many have foundered while speculating on ‘that which has not yet come’, or weilai 未來. In many ways, for Australia I hope that our past will tell us more about the way ahead than our present.

For China, capitalism and the fickle rule of the market is a contemporary reality and a seemingly unavoidable future. It was a future that, in the heyday of Maoist socialism, everyone thought had been resolutely relegated to the past. Now what was once the past — the future was the promise of a utopian communist world — has become the vision for everyone’s future.

Meanwhile, I hope that in our own future we will not be subjected to the endless repetition of the tired rationalizations of the present. I hope for a future that moves us beyond our present predicament, one in which we may gain a measure of our seemingly irredeemable past, a past in which vision and humanity, as well as a certain cultural humility, made a better future seem both desirable and possible.

We are in an era in which the governments or cultural authorities (appointed or self-appointed) are engaged in defining or articulating cultural boundaries. This search for national selfhood may be relatively benign in the eyes of some, but attempts to codify and delimit the national essence of a territory, a people or a linguistic realm, is fraught not only with difficulties but also dangers. For to define what culture is, to define the essence of what is a constant flux, a co-creation of numerous individuals, groups or collectives is a perilous and deadening activity.

In the case of China it is now twenty years since the government first mooted its own codification of the new cultural essence of the nation — the guocui 国粹 to use an old term imported from Japan. In a central government document on what was called Spiritual Civilisation, the Communist Party attempted to articulate what it was to be Chinese under party rule. Since then, during the era of Jiang Zemin, new elements to this construction were put forward, and more recently Hu Jintao and his fellows have propounded ideas about constructing an ‘harmonious society’.

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities promote Chinese values internationally through language institutes. Depicted in the seemingly benign language of the British Council, Alliance Française or the Goethe Institute, China’s Confucius Institutes export a vision of Chineseness along with the dominant version of Standard Chinese 普通话, the Beijing dialect-inflected national language.

The Chinese authorities would direct and delineate the range of cultural expressions, and the histories, to which they are heir for their own political purposes. Harmonious society is also a construct that has been essayed in a reaction to the social disconnection, income disparities, political unrest and governmental abuse that, while present in the past, has been radically exacerbated by the policies of the past fifteen years.

The ‘harmonious society’ has also its own protocols. This year [2006], one rich in commemorative significance as I have commented earlier, Hu Jintao launched the ‘Eight Worthies and Eight Shames’ or Eight Does and Don’ts (八荣八耻, a shorthand for 八个光荣,八个耻辱) policy, a values statement that articulates in the epigrammatic shorthand favoured by propagandists what it is to be a good citizen, indeed what it is to be worthy of one’s Chineseness. The list has been extolled by commentators who have in its wake produced volumes of explication that place the policy at the centre of Chinese identity. They claim that the values incorporated in the Two Eights are in fact a modern articulation of the basic elements of Chinese civilisation, developed and decocted over more than two millennia.

The Associated Press translation of the ‘Eight Does and Eight Don’ts’ is:

Love, do not harm the motherland.

Serve, don’t disserve the people.

Uphold science; don’t be ignorant and unenlightened.

Work hard; don’t be lazy and hate work.

Be united and help each other; don’t gain benefits at the expense of others.

Be honest and trustworthy, not profit-mongering at the expense of your values.

Be disciplined and law-abiding instead of chaotic and law less.

Know plain living and hard struggle; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

The Eight Do's and Eight Don'ts: a song. Lyrics by Wang Guangming

The ‘Eight Does and Eight Don’ts Song of Righteousness’. Lyrics by Wang Mingguang.

For our part, in the Antipodes of Asia, we have a government, in particular a prime minister, who has given voice to his own set of ‘Australian values’. The then Minister of Education Dr Brendan Nelson with John Howard’s support managed to preempt and outdo the Chinese with a list of nine ‘Values for Australian Schooling’. The list was subsequently made into a poster and distributed to all schools. These values, too, were appropriately anodyne …

Care and Compassion
Care for self and others

Doing Your Best
Seek to accomplish something worthy and admirable, try hard, pursue excellence

Fair Go
Pursue and protect the common good where all people are treated fairly for a just society

Enjoy all the rights and privileges of Australian citizenship free from unnecessary interference or control, and stand up for the rights of others

Honesty and Trustworthiness
Be honest, sincere and seek the truth

Act in accordance with principles of moral and ethical conduct, ensure consistency between words and deeds

Treat others with consideration and regard, respect another person’s point of view

Be accountable for one’s own actions, resolve differences in constructive, non-violent and peaceful ways, contribute to society and to civic life, take care of the environment

Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion
Be aware of others and their cultures, accept diversity within a democratic society, being included and including others.

The list ends rather mysteriously with a few words from that famous ‘man/woman author’ (Alan Ramsey’s words) the nineteenth-century novelist George Eliot, penname of Mary Ann Evans: ‘Character is destiny’ (Eliot was, in fact, quoting Novalis, and she thought it a ‘questionable aphorism). A relief image on the poster is Gallipoli’s Simpson and his donkey. The political columnist Alan Ramsey writing for The Sydney Morning Herald in late October this year said upon reading the list of Aussie values, ‘Excuse the maniacal laughter, given what this Government has come to stand for after a decade’s debauched political and policy behaviour.’

Values for Australian Schooling, with Simpson's Donkey, official poster.

Values for Australian Schooling, with Simpson’s Donkey, official poster.

China and Australia are by no means alone in this recent obsession for codifying what it is to be but ourselves. Many other politics faced with real and perceived threats in this age of heightened nation-statism are doing the same. What is particular is not the actual content of the values, but the political will to undermine the civic and the civil, to cavil and create what political power-holders regard as being acceptable norms and standards for the society in consultation with themselves. This is a process that has unfolded at the other end of economic reforms that have seen the rapid privatisation, or one could argue re-privatisation, of social life and community.

In Is Australia an Asian Country? Steve FitzGerald saw too the looming dangers of values discussions. He wrote:

The mythologizing of the history and culture and values of Asian societies is not … confined to Confucianists. It is more widespread. It is ahistorical. And it contains some dangers, because there arc some signs that the emerging Asian ‘Asia’ could go the way the West did and make such myths about itself that it comes to believe it is the ultimate and only repository of virtue and good behaviour. In some quarters this already had the flavour of political orthodoxy. But a united Asian region driven by such political orthodoxy is a united region to be feared, and for Australia it is critically important that we work for the maintenance of regional pluralism as the guarantee of heterodoxy and independence.

Discussing the importance of Asia, and in his view particularly North-East Asia — that is Korea, Japan and China — in the future of Australia, Steve was painfully aware of the negative impact that the ‘race’ debate set off by the incendiary parliamentary maiden speech made by the Queensland MP Pauline Hanson had upon the image of Australia and on the debate about culture and engagement with Asia in this society.

He enjoined all of us not only to think about the values that Australia as a society holds dear, but also to consider and debate what kind of compromises this country is willing to make in dealing with the polities and economies of our region. (How could he have guessed what compromises would be made to maintain the lockstep alliance with the United States of America?)

It was only in late November this year that John Howard, speaking at an Asialink Conversations Forum in Ho Chi Minh City, stated that ‘Australia is a nation that, for many years now and for an indefinite period into the future, will always see its immediate interests and concerns as being tied up with the Asian-Pacific region.’ He went on to observe that Chinese is now the most widely spoken non-English language in Australia, a fact that he said, and I quote, is

just an illustration of the way in which we are naturally and comfortable and permanently part of this region and see our future in it. But I think we have done it in a way that has not altered our own sense of who we are, and our particular characteristics, and what we bring to our region and what we bring to the world.

However, as I have intimated in the above, this long decade of Coalition rule has itself altered our own sense of who we are, our particular characteristics, and just what as a culture and a society we bring to the engagement with our part of the world.

Asia literacy through educational programs, the support of language teaching and increased awareness of where we sit on the map and how that engages with our sense of being, the possibilities of what we can become and what we can offer, have languished under John Howard’s stewardship.

Instead of having consensus-building discussion about our values, our institutions and our limitations, we have seen governments, national and state, that have narrowed the scope of national life on every front. Public education has been crippled just as a nation that could be clever has let itself be cretinised.



[1] Stephen FitzGerald, Is Australia an Asian Country? Can Australia Survive in an East Asian Future, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997, p.145.