“I love you, love you, like a mouse loves rice.” The lyrics to this Chinese pop song are as cute as the choir of primary school students who sang them in flawless Mandarin to kick off the prime minister’s gala celebration of 40 years of Australian–Chinese diplomatic relations. Perhaps the lyrics could have been revised for the occasion from “rice” to “rice bowl” – a Chinese-language metaphor for livelihood. Or even an “iron rice bowl”, which signifies a guaranteed income. As it was, Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest were dining elsewhere that evening. There were, however, dozens of other business leaders as well as His and Her Excellencies and Honours, politicians and diplomats at the 40-odd tables in parliament’s Great Hall, along with cultural dignitaries such as Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand, prominent Chinese-Australians like neurosurgeon Charlie Teo, and a trove of China scholars and old China hands.
After noticing that the printed seating plan rendered newsreader Lee Lin Chin as Lin Chin, Ms Lee (it’s Chin, Ms Lee Lin), I realised that even the Chinese ambassador to Australia had been misfiled under his given name of Yuming and not his surname, Chen. I marvelled too at the English-language welcome sign that unscrolled from the mouth of a Lion Dance lion: it was written in an approximation of the Fu Manchu typeface.
My dining companions included a former foreign affairs assistant secretary (who recently advised Tourism Australia that, among other things, it should shift the focus in marketing Australia to Chinese tourists to ‘themes’ – less Opera House, more fishing); former senator Chris Schacht; Professor David Kemp of Charles Sturt University, who promotes sustainable husbandry in places like Inner Mongolia; Connie Jape, the director of a Darwin furniture superstore; a banker of 30 years’ experience in China; and a producer on SBS Radio’s Mandarin Program. We spoke of the rising wealth in China. Schacht related how he’d once seen a young woman in a Shanghai clothing shop buy not one but two full-length mink coats, each of which had a price tag exceeding $20,000. Jape spoke of a Chinese market for luxury Australian-made beds. (Allyn Beard, who supplies mattresses to Jape’s stores, later told me that there are Chinese customers who pay upwards of $50,000 for just a mattress and base.)
In 1972, when Gough Whitlam established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong’s anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had four years left to run. It was inconceivable that China would not only become our single largest trading partner but a market for deluxe angling holidays and opulent beds. In her speech at that night’s dinner, Julia Gillard praised Whitlam’s “great act of daring”. We were fighting communism in Vietnam at the time. Public opinion was against reaching out to China.
One of the members of that historic delegation and Australia’s first ambassador to China, Stephen FitzGerald, believes the kind of “leadership of ideas” that there was under Whitlam is sorely needed today. The Australian Centre on China in the World recently published a lecture by FitzGerald on ‘Australia and China at 40’. It begins: “Sometimes over the last 40 years I have thought we were getting it right with China. This is not one of those times.” While paying tribute to the productive, positive aspects of the relationship – growing trade and investment, cultural ties, academic exchanges – FitzGerald laments the absence of “deeper, broader, longer-term” thinking on the part of the Australian government. He says of its recent ‘Asian Century’ White Paper that “almost all of it could have been written a dozen years ago and indeed most of it was in one form or another”.
FitzGerald was seated at the head table with the prime minister and other guests of honour. Chief among these was Chinese State Councillor Liu Yandong, the highest-ranking woman in China’s party-state hierarchy; foreign minister Bob Carr; China’s alphabetically mislaid ambassador to Australia, Chen Yuming; and the Australian ambassador to China, Frances Adamson. FitzGerald told me Adamson had complimented him on his lecture. If the prime minister had read it, she didn’t mention it.
The sight of the unmistakeable white pompadour of former prime minister Bob Hawke at the head table brought back memories of the only other time I’d dined in Parliament House. It was late 1988. The occasion was a state banquet in honour of the visiting Chinese premier Li Peng. Thanks to an old friend in Protocol, my then husband, China scholar Geremie Barmé, and I had landed seats at the top two tables as spare translators. I was at Table Two with Gough and Margaret Whitlam. Barmé was at Table One, seated between Hawke and Li Peng. Hawke, through my husband, asked Li to pass on his best wishes to his “mates”, former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Li, who was not personally or politically ‘mates’ with either, stared at his hands and gracelessly picked at his fingernails.
Li batted away Hawke’s attempts at small talk with one-word replies until Hawke gave up and chatted with Barmé instead. Discreetly gesturing with his thumb in the direction of the Chinese premier, Hawke said he’d heard that “this bloke” was locked in a power struggle with Zhao Ziyang. Barmé confirmed this. Hawke asked him who he thought would win. Barmé’s eyes flicked in Li’s direction. “Aw, shit,” Hawke replied.
Months later, I was in China when the death of Hu Yaobang inspired non-violent student protests against corruption and for democracy, which snowballed into a mass movement. On the night of 3 June, Li Peng’s government sent in the People’s Liberation Army to retake the streets and Tiananmen Square from the peaceful protesters. There are no reliable figures for the number of dead and wounded in the massacre of 3–4 June 1989; Amnesty International’s estimate was a thousand people killed. Zhao Ziyang lived out the rest of his days under house arrest.
I returned to Australia days after the massacre on the evacuation flight from Beijing. I made my second visit to parliament’s Great Hall to sit on stage with Barmé, FitzGerald and others at a commemorative ceremony organised by FitzGerald’s office. It was at that ceremony that Hawke embraced a Chinese student, cried and offered residency to all Chinese students then in Australia. Some of those students now play major roles in Australian–Chinese trade and commerce. More than two decades on, here we were in the Great Hall again. The “deeper, broader, long-term” thinking would have to wait. On the night, we raised our glasses and listened to the kids of Canberra’s Mawson Primary sing another Chinese song: “Where are my friends? They’re here! They’re here!”
Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.
“I love you, love you, like a mouse loves rice.” The lyrics to this Chinese pop song are as cute as the choir of primary school students who sang them in flawless Mandarin to kick off the prime minister’s gala celebration of 40 years of Australian–Chinese diplomatic relations. Perhaps the lyrics could have been revised for the occasion from “rice” to “rice bowl” – a Chinese-language metaphor for livelihood. Or even an “iron rice bowl”, which signifies a guaranteed income. As it was, Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest were dining elsewhere that evening. There were, however, dozens of other business leaders as well as His and Her Excellencies and Honours, politicians and diplomats at the 40-odd tables in parliament’s Great Hall, along with cultural dignitaries such as Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand, prominent Chinese-Australians like neurosurgeon Charlie Teo, and...