China discourse beyond pandas and dragons



The long weeks of the election campaign contained many surprises, culminating in a 'miracle'; to China-watchers, however, the relative lack of focus on Australia-China relations was simply business as usual.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (bottom) delivers a speech during the opening of the Two Sessions of the 13th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on 5 March 5 2019. (Photo by Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images)While it is true that China issues appeared on occasion, as for instance within the fierce fight for the Melbourne seat of Chisholm that featured duelling WeChat accounts and deliberately misleading Chinese-language signage (in the electoral commission's colours), these were mostly localised battles. There was not a nuanced national discussion about how either party intended to manage what has rapidly become our most important, enriching and yet perilous relationship.

This is not to say that Keating's security musings or Morrison's awkward labelling of Americans as friends and Chinese as customers were not China focused — or un-noticed in Beijing — but it was almost as though there was a Basil Fawlty agreement between the parties not to mention China. This would go some way to explaining the intensity of Penny Wong's ire when in public debate Simon Birmingham attempted to differentiate Coalition and Labor policy regarding China.

It is very instructive that during the campaign, apart from an article that appeared in Eureka Street in the lead-up to one of the most important dates in the China calendar (the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, which this year was the centennial), it seems not a single other mainstream paper or magazine covered that historically freighted event. The 4 May date is that significant and influential within the Chinese body politic that the equivalence would be not discussing Gallipoli or the centenary of Federation. This glaring omission illustrates something of the manner in which China (its history and culture) are viewed within Australia at large.

That is, China is largely viewed as a 'market' or quite frankly an 'other' to think about and discuss in simplistic binary terms, if at all: friend or foe, customer or market manipulator, student and tourist or human rights abuser. It is easy for local individuals or institutions then to be seen as falling on one side or the other of this consequential positive-negative divide. Thus Bob Carr's institute was deemed to be a panda hugger while Clive Hamilton's position on Chinese influence was considered to be dragon slaying. Knowledgeable discussion is a distant third.

This is even though there exists a serious consideration of China and Chinese realities in Australia, as has been for a long time. Most of the major and smaller universities have Chinese studies centres and China-focused academics who are world class and in some instances world famous. One of the professional networking bodies, the Chinese Studies Association of Australia, constantly promotes public talks that take place at member institutions, covering topics as diverse as economic policy through to the gendered dimensions of female Chinese students' experiences in Australia.

Yet the richness of this conversation and the hard won discoveries of the academics often fail to reach the platforms of our mainstream media outlets or the advisers to political representatives. Again, there are certainly genuine experts within these roles engaged in daily Sisyphean toils — Frances Adamson, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is one who springs to mind — but the problem is that our bullet-point sound-bite culture fosters little more than a dumbing down of the complex issues under consideration.


"When China is considered either a massive customer or a hardcore abuser of people's freedoms, there is little room in-between."


Understanding China takes hard work, and discussing China and Australia-China relations is harder still. With a continued widespread lack of engagement in language and culture studies the future does not bode well, at least in terms of creating a deeper, more nuanced discourse. If all utterances are only ever translated then our businesses, our mining companies, our sporting teams, our government departments and representatives are missing so much depth and knowledge.

Last year in New South Wales, 224 students from a non-Chinese background undertook HSC Mandarin studies, compared to 1116 studying French (also from a non-French language background). We definitely need French speakers in Australia, especially to engage with our African Indian Ocean rim partners and certain Pacific neighbours (as well as France and Francophone culture), but surely not at the level of five times more students studying French than Mandarin. Particularly when Chinese (which here means Mandarin and Cantonese) represents the most spoken language in the Australian home, after English.

There are many reasons why this is so, but in the end the two main ones are: studying any language and especially Mandarin is hard. One also has a greater chance of achieving a higher mark at the end of high school if one does not take Mandarin, but takes an easier subject like economics, geography, media studies and so on. The system is skewed for high achievers if they take easier, less academically challenging subjects. Mandarin is often dropped as soon as possible. 

The dangerous result is a simplistic national understanding of China and a subsequently limited capacity to engage in genuinely deeper discourse that would allow the raising of human rights issues or a cogent explanation of why companies like Huawei are under scrutiny.

At the moment, when China is considered either a massive customer or a hardcore abuser of people's freedoms, there is little room in-between. As a way of proving this thesis, consider mainstream media's representation of 4 June and the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Is it sophisticated coverage or simplistic dragon slaying? And rest assured, China is watching.



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. His company also leads people on immersions through China.

Main image: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (bottom) delivers a speech during the opening of the Two Sessions of the 13th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on 5 March 5 2019. (Photo by Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Election 2019



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Existing comments

Here's an interesting thought: smart parents who would like their children to learn Chinese might consider hosting an international student. In return for free board and lodging, the student could tutor the children. If the idea catches on and enough families did it, it would go a long way to saving some international students from the humiliations they face when trying to rent in our caring country and give the children a wonderful insight into another culture.
Tom Brennan | 23 May 2019

OK Dr Clark, you have classified me as a superficial un-nuanced Australian nong with a simplistic Australian understanding of China, plus a limited capacity to engage in a genuinely deeper discourse about China. I suspect you will further assess me as circumscribed by a shallow binary: resistance to Bob Carr’s acquiescent views, acceptance of the perspective in Clive Hamilton’s excellent book ‘Silent Invasion.’ So you make a decisive diagnosis. But what now? What are you recommending? What are three actions you wish Little Vegemites like me to take? What do you want us to know that we do not? If Carr and Hamilton are dud tutors, who? I am a fifth-generation Australian who is increasingly anxious about the loss of our Australian culture and identity. My resistance to Beijing’s many tentacles into the fabric of Australia is rising. Indeed I am moved to want to join some form of Australian resistance to the CCP. What do you prescribe to enrich the perspectives of such a narrow jingoistic Australian as me, so I can discourse at the wiser deeper level you prescribe?
Barry | 25 May 2019


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