Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Australia and China through the ages



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.

Plaque at first Australian embassy in China (Supplied)

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, including helping to prepare its submissions to the Paris Peace Conference after World War One.


'It is this history of almost 50 years of informed commentary that has now been placed into a form of deep freeze.' 


Later noted correspondents included George Johnstone, better known for his My Brother Jack trilogy, although in 1941 he became Australia’s first credited war correspondent during World War Two and filed many reports from China’s southwest. The often-horrific sights he saw during the years of the Second Sino-Japanese War led to two China-based works, the novel The Far Road (1960) and Journey through Tomorrow (1947) a series of reflections based on his dispatches from India, China, Tibet, Burma and Japan.

The 1940s were also the first years that Australia opened its own legation in China, founding the first post in 1941 in the inland city of Chongqing. The first ambassador was not Stephen FitzGerald, as is often assumed, but rather Frederic Eggleston who held the position from 1941 until 1946, during the war years. The legation was subsequently moved to Nanjing in 1946 where it remained until 1949. Australia’s diplomatic representative was withdrawn from China after the victory of the Communist Party’s Red Army over the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, and the post was effectively left vacant, although the Republic of China maintained its own embassy in Australia until 1972.

For the next 17 years Australia did not have an official relationship with either the newly established People’s Republic or the exiled republican government in Taiwan. This changed in 1966 when the Holt government established an embassy in Taipei, which remained opened until the early 1970s, although Prime Minister Gough Whitlam transferred formal recognition of the government of China from Taipei’s Nationalist to the Communists in Beijing in 1972. The new Australian embassy was then opened in Beijing in 1973 with Stephen FitzGerald appointed ambassador.

Since then some of the Australia’s most well known China commentators have worked as journalists, academics, business representatives, cultural counsellors and diplomats, and often several of these positions over these years. Such a roll call would include everyone from Jocelyn Chey to Ross Garnaut, Carrillo Gantner to Kevin Rudd and Geoff Raby, to name only a few of the older eminences.

It is this history of almost 50 years of informed commentary that has now been placed into a form of deep freeze. The evacuations this week will obviously not prevent continued discussion about China’s realities by Australian-based experts and former journalists like the Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor, or the hosts of the excellent Little Red Podcast, Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim, but the lack of in-country reporting adds yet a further challenge to the ongoing management of Australia’s relationship with such an important global power.



Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is the founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a China consulting company, and a Visiting Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

Main image: Plaque at first Australian embassy in China (Supplied)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Australia, auspol



submit a comment

Existing comments

Was George Johnstone our first war correspondent in China? I feel that there were correspondents in Europe and the Middle East before 1941. Frank Legge and Kenneth Slessor are two names which spring to mind.

Lou Carkeet | 10 September 2020  

Lou, it must have been only a matter of days, but the Australian Media Hall of Fame states that Johnstone was indeed the first accredited Australian war correspondent during WW2. It could be a question of semantics of course.

Jeremy Clarke | 11 September 2020  

Jeremy, the current descent into a new ice age in Sino Australian relations has been occasioned by the call for an independent inquiry into the causes and origin of the Covid 19 virus, which the Adelaide-based company Vaxine, which has laboratories at Flinders University claims is a genetically engineered virus. Subsequent to that we had the beef and barley betrayals, as big brother slapped tariffs on our legitimate exports for our impertinence, even to the extent of Cheng calling us "the dog of America". How long the ice age will last is a moot point, but it seems clear big brother's objectives via the belt and road initiative are in jeopardy and only now is the lucky country realizing that self respect and internal sovereignty, must take precedence over our political and education system being suborned a more powerful nation. When does the end justify the means? If Australian redemption involves buy backs of ports and infrastructure then so be it. I'd sooner be a hawk than a panda hugger, just as I'd sooner be an American dog than a Sino bitch. Australians fought alongside the Americans in WW2 to liberate China from Japanese atrocity and oppression- a fact they conveniently overlook. Recently the American fire fighters fought and died alongside our own firefighters during the recent horrific fires that devastated our nation. China did not.

Francis Armstrong | 12 September 2020  

I'm not so sure Francis that liberating China was all that high a priority when 'Australians fought alongside the Americans in WW2'. China had been experiencing 'Japanese atrocity and oppression' since the early 1930s without any significant support from the West. The US and Australia only became involved in a war against Japan after Japan attacked US and British interests. So I'm not sure that there is all that much for China to 'conveniently overlook'.

Ginger Meggs | 13 September 2020  

Napoleon saw China as a sleeping giant and warned of what would happen when she awoke. She has woken and is indeed shaking the world. As a midsized power with a relatively small population placed where we are I think we need to exercise the utmost prudence in dealing with China and put our long term self-interest first. It is unfashionable now to regret the passing of the British Empire, but, for a very long time Britain's Navy kept these shores safe. I would view with alarm any US Foreign Policy which abrogated its responsibility to counter Chinese incursions, military and economic, into our immediate vicinity.

Edward Fido | 14 September 2020  

Ginger, the Allies did liberate China at the end of WW2 and now the USA and China are ideological adversaries. We have to be careful of China's influence on our political system, our Defense capability and in our Universities, just as we have to curtail their acquisitions of our infrastructure. We also have to ask what they are doing building bases in breach of the 1985 treaty in Australia's Antarctic territory? Selling our ports, energy systems, means of production, airports, mines and real estate, hotel chains, has to stop. Short term gain, long term pain. Whilst I admit that China's contribution to the Pacific theatre in WW2 has been overlooked, that doesnt really justify their weaponization of the SCC and the current sabre rattling on the Indian border. And if they are moving into germ warfare, then that's another reason to rethink our balance of trade with them.

Francis Armstrong | 15 September 2020  

Thank you Jeremy for reminding us of prior contacts that have existed between China and Australia in the past. The problem we face at present is that some journalists have decided that China is all bad and that Australia has behaved totally fairly. The fact is that there are faults on both sides in events that have led to the current souring of relations between our two nations. One big factor is that before WW2 Australia's international policies were largely determined by Britain and after that by the US. And both Britain and the US played very harsh colonial policies in China. The British foisted opium on the Chinese during its involvement there. Also the US and Britain considered the People's Republic of China to be an enemy immediately after the 1949 success of the Chinese revolution. Since then Australian governments have been in lock step with US governments on international policies starting with the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the US atomic tests in Micronesia, the Suharto dictatorship etc. Some of the US policies regarding the rise of China's power in our region have angered China's leaders and our leaders could have been more conciliatory rather than rubber stamping US policies. This is especially so when it is realised that China happens to be the largest nation in the region and our largest trading partner as well. Surely it would be far more sensible if Australia became an independent and non-aligned nation that sought to develop positive relations with all nations - rather than just doggedly following US policies to the letter. At times, our leaders will disapprove of China's violations of human rights as they should. Hopefully, they will also speak out against the violations of human rights committed by the US and some of its allies eg Indonesia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Brazil etc. And we should remember that many of Australia's international policies have been shameful as well.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 September 2020