June 2006

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Gough Whitlam & Zhou Enlai

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Early in 1971, the Australian Wheat Board was worried that politics were getting in the way of business. To the Coalition government in Canberra, Red China was a downward-thrusting threat to be contained and isolated. To the AWB, it was a market at risk.

Enter Gough Whitlam, leader of an ALP that hadn’t seen power for twenty years. Staking his electoral chances on his supreme self-assurance, he sent a message to the Chinese premier. Could they, he wondered, meet to discuss “matters of mutual concern”?

Zhou was a busy man. CEO of a nation mired in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he was hatching a scheme of world-changing audacity. Come in July, he cabled.

They met at midnight in the Great Hall of the People. To Whitlam’s astonishment, the Australian press contingent was also invited. Teacups and tins of Panda cigarettes on low tables between them, the erudite Sydney barrister and the suave communist bureaucrat toured the international horizon, touching on the Vietnam War, wheat contracts and Canberra’s recent statement that recognition of China was a long way off. Zhou’s diplomatic experience was daunting, but the would-be Australian PM acquitted himself well.

As the meeting ended, Zhou dispensed with his interpreter. In perfect English, the elegant 73-year-old remarked on Whitlam’s comparative youth. Whitlam replied that he was about to turn 55, the age at which Zhou represented China at the Geneva Conference. Zhou recalled the occasion. Dulles, the US secretary of state, had refused to shake his hand.

Two days later, in Shanghai, Zhou sent Whitlam a birthday cake. In the interim, Zhou had met secretly with Henry Kissinger, shaking hands on a deal that ended China’s diplomatic and commercial isolation by the US. By the time Whitlam returned to Australia, the Labor leader’s high-risk gamble seemed like an act of sublime prescience.

Eighteen months later he went back to China as Australia’s prime minister. This time, there were bands and banquets and fulsome toasts. He was even presented to the emperor, the increasingly doddery Mao.

By then, Zhou had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, the Gang of Four was gunning for him and China seemed doomed to economic stagnation. He died in 1976, just a few months before the Great Helmsman. Whitlam, meanwhile, had succumbed to a different kind of death, relegated to the sidelines of history.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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