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Until handsome becomes cool again



Prime Minister Albanese’s recent high-level meetings covered multiple time zones and various climatic conditions, both diplomatic and otherwise. In both Washington, DC, and in Beijing, Albanese was given the red carpet treatment by Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. His trip to the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ Meeting in the Cook Islands was much more collegial and a reminder that while it is good to dine five star, its also worthwhile spending some time at the neighbours.

There was a US State Dinner in the Rose Garden and then a private Oval Office meeting. In China Albanese spoke at the Shanghai Trade Expo and later, in Beijing, had a private meeting with Xi and then a formal affair in the Great Hall of the People. Both Presidents spent as much time talking through Albanese as they did to him, as each sought to assert themself as Australia’s best friend. By all accounts Albanese did well, although it was not without some deft footwork on his own part, even before his Cook Islands mini jig. 

In Washington, for instance, at the end of a welcome speech that traversed such topics as the Middle East, Ukraine and AUKUS, Biden pointedly referenced recent collisions between Filipino and Chinese vessels and stated, twice: ‘the United States’ defense agreement to the Philippines is ironclad. Any attack on Filipino aircraft, vessels, or armed forces will invoke our Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines.’ Two sentences later, he then invited Prime Minister Albanese to respond. It is a stretch to say that this Rose Garden press conference was Albanese channelling Love Actually’s Prime Minister David but thankfully, before the next stop in Shanghai, Albanese did carefully differentiate Australia’s place in the relationships, plural. 

He did not expressly agree with Biden’s bellicosity but uttered his careful dictum that in terms of relating with China Australia would ‘co-operate where we can, and disagree where we must.’ It wasn’t a spit in the Presidential chowder but nor was it the expected supine moment. Biden clearly heard the nuance because he later quoted Ronald Reagan’s stance towards the former USSR when commenting on how Australia and Albanese should re-engage with China: ‘trust but verify’, he said, which of course doesn't sound like much trust at all. 

Leaving the US relatively unscathed was a win for Albanese but the other legs still remained. The China visit was all the more significant given that for the previous seven years, no Australian Prime Minister had visited China, our largest two-way trading partner. Even the lowliest government minister could not speak with their Chinese counterpart.

Depending on one’s view, Australia’s isolation was either a successful standing up to China’s economic coercion or it was an own-goal which had placed our relationship in the deep freeze and in so doing, had badly damaged export sectors as diverse as barley, red meat and wine. Regardless of how the near-decade of prior government policy towards China is characterised, it is fair to say that the best thing going for Albanese on this visit was that he was not Scott Morrison. 


‘Handsome boy’ is a twee literal translation of a widely used Chinese phrase describing a man as ‘cool’ or even quite simply ‘that bloke whose name we do not know but who seems ok’, a kind of benign ‘hey you’.


This natural advantage was one that the Chinese side emphasised, using diplomatic language that referenced friendship and not wolf-warrior belligerence. They have also rather pointedly agreed to a resumption of annual leader talks between Australia and China. In turn, Albanese likewise again showed a deft touch, picking up an Australian lobster at the Trade Expo (a product still under heavy Chinese tariffs) and talking up the quality of Australia’s wine when dining with President Xi. He also managed to avoid answering Australian journalists’ questions about trust and sidestepped appearing to look like a Chinese pawn.

One of the weirder moments on the China trip was also the most instructive. 

Premier Li Qiang called Albanese ‘a handsome boy’, citing Chinese WeChat reactions to footage of Albanese’s visit, which in turn provoked much punditry from Australia’s journalists, with one even claiming this phrase would be weaponised during later parliamentary question times. This shows that after the years of isolation, all levels of the Australia-China relationship are going to have to work to get back up to speed, not just politicians but also especially journalists. This must start again with the basics of language.

‘Handsome boy’ is a twee literal translation of a widely used Chinese phrase describing a man as ‘cool’ or even quite simply ‘that bloke whose name we do not know but who seems ok’, a kind of benign ‘hey you’. When senior commentators over-analyse the use of this Chinese phrase it is clear that the Australia China relationship still has a way to go before ‘its all about the vibe’ again.




Dr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is Director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd.

Main image: Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping held talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, 2022.(Twitter: Anthony Albanese)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Australia, auspol



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Existing comments

Before being elected the present government’s leader, Anthony Albanese, underwent a makeover. New glasses, a streamlined silhouette and a more nuanced parlance. Albanese of the Left had moved to the centre and this resulted in a sweeping election victory. Our PM has become adept at dealing with the highest levels of diplomacy. Restoring our relationship with China has started however caution is still required around the Chinese WeChat scenario.

Pam | 13 November 2023  

Anglo culture is really US culture. The US, like a sun, exerts a gravitational force on smaller Anglo societies such as the UK, Canada, Australia and NZ, which, like planets, orbit, unwilling to be absorbed and unable to go their own way. The mechanism by which the smaller Anglo cultures are captured is, as the word Anglo suggests, English. European liberal democracies which subscribe to a different language are less susceptible to capture because Americans, in general, like Australians, are illiterate in every language but their own tongue.

The dominance of English as the universal language of doing business, a kind of cultural reserve currency, makes the Anglo societies transparent to every media and social media user of a different language who has to understand English while making those others opaque to the citizens, opinion-setters and policymakers of the Anglo sphere who cannot understand media and social media denominated in another language.

I don't know who the next sources of being troublesome will be but Australian kids, especially those who will become opinion-setters and policymakers, should be learning now to become proficient in Arabic, Mandarin and Russian because those cultures show no signs of becoming truly liberal democratic and are likely to remain a bother a century from now. And, just to get a sense of what prickly or otherwise independently-minded allies of obscure (to us) language think, Western European languages. What do successful polities such as Germans and Scandinavians think?

Hebrew is the language of the tail which wags the dog of the Sun of the Anglosphere. How does the tail do it?

Colloquial Australian access to what people are thinking in other languages may help the nation to avoid the complacency which leads to a vulnerability to being bullied.

Common media and social media use of an adopted national Aboriginal dialect might help to make us opaque to foreign manipulation.

s martin | 14 November 2023  

High time that we introduced Chinese language as a compulsory subject in the first year of secondary schooling. Indonesian and Hindi should be in there too as options. European kids, even the English, learn at least one other European language, most East Asian and South Asian kids learn several languages including English, US kids learn Spanish. Along with the language will come some appreciation of the culture.

Ginger Meggs | 15 November 2023  

It is quite a step up from being a factional leader in the Labor caucus to being a Prime Minister, with all that entails. Perhaps more than a new wardrobe is needed. Under Albanese the current federal government has achieved very little, as far as I can see. Regarding China, I am very much reminded of the Edward Lear limerick of the Lady of Riga who went for a ride on the Tiger. We shall see. If Albo is not up to the Big Game, I hope he is replaced by someone who is ASAP.

Edward Fido | 15 November 2023  

Might I suggest, Ginger, (not entirely with tongue in cheek} that before we introduce Chinese, Indonesian and Hindi as compulsory languages in high school it might be a good idea to introduce the proper grammatical usage and expression of English.

John Frawley | 16 November 2023  

Well, yes John, I understand from where you come, and I do cringe, with you probably, at the quality of expression in some of our mainstream media (let alone some of our politicians), but the real issue is the ability to communicate, and by that I mean a two-way understanding of the exchange.
I once worked for the Australian subsidiary of a British company and I distinctly remember being present at a conference in Hong Kong where my English colleagues were making a presentation about their various geographical market segments. After referring to the UK, CWE (continental Western Europe), the US and Canada, they then lumped China into what they called ROW (rest of the world) while seemingly oblivious to the widely displayed Chinese characters ?? (zhongguó) meaning Middle Kingdom and how their mostly Chinese speaking audience might react. That British company has long since gone the way of many Anglo-centric organisations that underestimated those whom they considered 'lesser breeds without the law'.
It's relatively easy to communicate with someone with whom one shares a common background (two engineers, for example, can exchange an enormous amount of information with a few grunts!) but without that shared background the opportunity for confusion and misunderstanding are 'awesome', as my grandchildren might say.

Ginger Meggs | 16 November 2023  

A good but somewhat superficial look at our PM in both USA & China. PM Albo has sided fairly transparently under AUKUS with USA president Biden, as an unthinking satellite nation to USA & as an offshore US base for early defence & attack by nations such as China. Then, there is the complete media & leaders' silence on the PM's full agreement with Biden's support on the Israeli killing of Palestinians in Gaza.
No mention of the PM even uttering the words 'Ceasefire' in Gaza right now.
Who feels happy or even any increased safety with an ally like USA - definitely not thinking Australians, only welded-on Labor & Coalition voters.
John Cronin, Toowoomba Qld

John Cronin | 17 November 2023  

Beijing arbitrarily imposed trade sanctions on $20bn worth of Australian products at the height of the diplomatic feud in 2020, including tariffs of between 107% and 212% on Australian wine. (Guardian).
Crayfish, coal, beef, lobster, cotton, wood, nickel and copper concentrates tariffs remain in place.
The deep freeze may be slowly melting but given the continued posturing in the SCS and the recent naval incident in Japan which injured our clearance divers, there's a long way to go.
Rather than being a fluid alliance I'd say it is an uneasy one fraught with tension in the aftermath of their wolf warrior diplomacy.
Post COVID, China has also torn up the 1985 Sino Australian treaty on Australia's Antarctic territory and Convoys of Russian and Chinese trawlers now regularly fish the Southern oceans for Krill and sea bass in open defiance of any international quotas.

Francis Armstrong | 05 December 2023  

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