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Australia and China through the ages

  • 10 September 2020
There is a grim-humoured joke in Sinology circles that the person who goes to China for a week usually writes a best-selling tell-all book and the person who goes for a month might write an article that, if they’re the rare mix of humble, astute and lucky, might contain some interesting observations. The real scholar of China will struggle to write anything at all.

This is because the China story, described this week by the ABC’s Director of News Gavin Morris as ‘the story of our times’, defies simplistic renderings, however much a significant part of Australian-based commentary masquerades as such. The rapid revolutions of the modern media cycle do not permit much nuance or lengthy historically informed pieces.

Thus it is in the Australia-China discourse we get effectively those who are either 'China hawks' (or 'dragon-slayers'), like the self-proclaimed wolverines pack led by government parliamentarians Andrew Hastie, Tim Smith and James Patterson while others like Andrew Twiggy Forrest are more conciliatory for seemingly transactional reasons and thereby constitute 'panda huggers'.

It is so very vital that Australians learn about China from individuals who seek to tread a more nuanced and informed middle line, with on the ground experience and linguistic and cultural expertise. This is why this week’s rapid and dramatic evacuation from China of the two last officially accredited journalists from Australian news agencies is a further body blow to the Australia-China relationship, and affects our capacity to understand how each other’s country and culture operates.

There are of course still highly informed Australians living and working in China beyond the confines of our efficient and professional diplomatic corps, as for instance the former ABC correspondent and Club Secretary of the Beijing Bombers Aussie Rules Club Stephen McDonell (now BBC China correspondent), but the retreat of Australian news agencies means that for the first time in almost five decades the Australian fourth estate is not officially represented or reporting from China.

At such a momentous juncture in the Australia-China relationship it is worthwhile casting an eye over the evolutionary history of the modern Australia-China relationship, which began even before our own Federation. One of the earliest on-the-ground correspondents was the enigmatic Dr George Ernest Morrison (after whom the prestigious Australian National University’s Morrison Lecture series is named) who was The Times correspondent in Beijing from 1897 to 1912 and then was a political adviser to the new Chinese state,