December 2017 – January 2018

Essays

Linda Jaivin

The new era

Poster in Beijing of President Xi Jinping; the slogan reads “Chinese Dream, People’s Dream”. © Greg Baker / AFP / Getty Images

Ready or not, China is here

“I have a question.” A girl sitting at the back of the classroom raised her hand. When I lecture at mainland Chinese universities in film and television subtitling, discussions tend to be lively, with students asking about everything from problems of cultural specificity to the challenges of rhyming text. But this was a new one: “Another teacher told us that we shouldn’t translate the word zhuanzheng into English as ‘dictatorship’ because, while we don’t see dictatorship as a negative thing, foreigners do, and it will give them a bad impression of China. The teacher told us to choose a neutral word like ‘government’ instead. What do you think?” The room went very quiet.

Earlier in 2015, China’s minister for education, Yuan Guiren, had forbidden the promotion of “Western values” in university classrooms across China. As the official media helpfully explained, these include a “universalist” view of human rights and “narrow” Western definitions of constitutional democracy. Also not allowed were any remarks that could be construed as “slandering the leadership of the Communist Party” or “smearing socialism”. The “New Era” of Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), elevated to Mao-like status by the 19th Party Congress this past October, is one of increasing authoritarian control.

It is a fact that the PRC is a one-party state led by the CCP: it is a Party-led state, a Party-state. The PRC’s constitution explicitly defines its form of government as renmin minzhu zhuanzheng, or People’s Democratic Dictatorship (an updated version of what was previously known as “the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”). In this usage, “People” (renmin) indicates the great majority of citizens who are deemed to be patriotic and good and therefore whose interests are represented by the vanguard of the proletariat, namely the Party. The Party, in turn, exercises righteous dictatorship over the treacherous and bad minority in the name of the People – hence “Democratic” – over the Enemies of the People. You use different phrases for “people” in talking about, say, “all the people in the room”. But zhuanzheng is dictatorship is zhuanzheng.

I chose my words carefully. “It’s not my purpose here to comment on politics or promote ‘Western values’.” Some students smiled encouragement. “But the accurate translation of zhuanzheng into English is ‘dictatorship’, and not ‘government’. Translation is a pact of trust – in this case, between you the subtitler and the filmmakers on the one hand and between you and foreign audiences on the other. Purposeful mistranslation is a breach of trust. Some people will notice, and, with the internet, they will make sure everyone else notices as well. It could kill your career. So, from a professional standpoint, I’d say that translating ‘dictatorship’ as ‘government’ isn’t great advice. But I also know that here in China you may have obligations beyond the professional. So all I can say is that it’s a decision you need to make for yourself.” A moment passed, the girl thanked me, and the discussion moved on to a particularly vexed line from Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster.

The 1.4 billion citizens of the PRC, whether they are among the nearly 89.5 million members of the Party or not, live their lives in high awareness of and constant negotiation with the demands and expectations of the Party-state. These can be general or detailed. They may be passed down in official documents, taught in classrooms, dictated in workplaces, expressed through media including television and film, trumpeted from billboards or proclaimed from printed notices on community noticeboards. They can touch on any aspect of life and thought, from adherence to the principles of Xi Jinping’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” to mandating how often people need to visit their elderly parents. A friend recently sent me a photograph of buildings in Haikou, the capital of Hainan province, lit up with the Chinese characters for “Keep the faith and bear the mission in mind” – the first half of the new slogan that finishes “Exert yourself to the utmost to travel the road of the new Long March of the New Era”.

To justify its right to make these demands, the Party frequently reminds China’s citizens that only it was able to end, with the founding of the PRC in 1949, the “century of humiliation” by Western and Japanese imperialist powers that began with the exploitative Opium Wars. The Party, officially self-described as Great, Glorious and Correct, is the People’s champion and saviour. Publications, museum exhibitions, blockbuster films and even children’s songs reinforce the message. What’s more, the Party that liberated the People in the past is also the only one that can shepherd them into the future – and it’s a shining one. “Two centuries after the Opium Wars, which plunged the ‘Middle Kingdom’ into a period of hurt and shame,” the official news agency Xinhua recently proclaimed, “China is set to regain its might and re-ascend to the top of the world.”

One of the earliest slogans of the post-Mao reform years that began with Deng Xiaoping’s ascension to power in 1978 was “Look to the future.” The CCP began scrubbing its history of the awkward bits: the horror of the anti-rightist campaign that condemned hundreds of thousands to labour camps, the three-year famine that killed tens of millions, and the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began with an orgy of violence and ended with China’s society in trauma and its cultural heritage in tatters. As a result, the nearly 53% of the Chinese population (731 million people) that was born after 1976 know little of these things or even about the events of 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army crushed the massive student-led, pro-democracy protests in Beijing and elsewhere with extreme violence. They are a fortunate generation that has grown up amid a constant rise in living standards, social freedoms and economic opportunity.

Since the start of the economic reforms, in which the Party began fixing the problems created by its own command economy, China has experienced a phenomenal transformation. There are many ways to measure this. Here’s one: in 1981, 88.3% of the population survived on less than US$2 a day; today that figure has dropped to 5.8%. China today is the world’s largest trading nation. Its economy is a unique mix of market mechanisms and state oversight – its Five Year Plans are an update on the old Soviet model – and has grown to become the second largest in the world. It helps to power a number of others, including Australia’s: one out of every three export dollars we earn, including from education and tourism services, comes from China. Despite considerable structural and other problems, the Chinese economy is still growing.

But the CCP’s very success poses an existential conundrum: does 21st-century China, with its dynamic and increasingly market-driven economy, and a middle class that numbers in the hundreds of millions, still require those 20th-century artefacts, a revolutionary communist party and a People’s Democratic Dictatorship, to guide them? The tight grip on public discourse and history and the incessant fanning of a nationalism built on grievance are among the ways the Party strives to reinforce its right to rule.

Disobedience to the Party or any questioning of its legitimacy is framed as traitorous, tantamount to wishing upon the nation a return to foreign subjugation and weakness. To defy the Party is to risk one’s reputation, career, freedom and possibly even one’s life, as shown by the death in custody this year of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. The rewards for compliance, on the other hand, be it proactive or simply acquiescent, are many, and come in both material and spiritual form. They include a share in the “China Dream” of national prosperity and strength, a civilised and harmonious society, and a clean and healthy environment.

Australia has begun to realise that this bargain applies to it as well.

As the PRC grows richer and stronger, the Party increasingly places demands and expectations on the citizens and governments of other countries. What it asks of Australia, in the broadest terms, is to not interfere in China’s internal affairs and to welcome the rise of the PRC as a strong and prosperous nation, equal to others and entitled to its place in institutions of global governance and its role in international affairs. If we do this, Chinese economic statecraft will ensure that we profit, literally and otherwise, from China’s rise; we too can have a share of the China Dream. If we don’t, we won’t. But it doesn’t stop there. As Xi Jinping declared to the Party Congress, “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”


There are many aspects of China’s rise to a global power that are of benefit to the world. It is strongly committed to combating climate change within the context of international accords and is introducing an emissions trading scheme at home. (What impact this has on Australia’s economy depends on whether this government can shake its addiction to fossil fuels.) The PRC provides more troops on average to United Nations Peacekeeping than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council and contributes more funding to it than any country but the United States. It participates in international anti-piracy patrols and is a major foreign-aid donor, spending US$354.3 billion on mainly infrastructure and other economic development projects across 140 countries. The sum is almost three times, in current dollar value, what the US gave postwar Europe through the Marshall Plan. A significant portion of this goes through the Belt and Road Initiative that is building roads, ports and other infrastructure to create “new Silk Roads” linking China to Central Asia, South-East Asia, Europe and Africa. Joint policing operations between China and Australia, meanwhile, have prevented 7.5 tonnes of illicit substances, including methamphetamine, travelling from illegal Chinese labs to Australian streets in the last two years alone. Of course, all these actions benefit China as well – but no country acts without regard to its own interests. Welcoming China’s good global citizenship is the easy part of the bargain.

The principle of non-interference in “internal affairs” is solid: no country wants anyone messing with its sovereignty. It’s just that the PRC’s definition of “internal affairs” encompasses everything to do with Taiwan and Hong Kong, everyone’s dealings with the Dalai Lama, China’s program of island-building in contested regions of the South China Sea, and even the detention of Chinese citizens or former citizens who are permanent residents or passport-holders from other countries – the week-long detention and interrogation of University of Technology Sydney professor Feng Chongyi in March this year, for example. As for the treatment of rights activists like Liu Xiaobo, forget it. None of our business. The Australian recently revealed that Xi Jinping seems to have decisively rebuffed the Turnbull government’s efforts to restart the bilateral Human Rights Dialogue that was initiated in 1997 as an annual event but has been on hold for more than three years.


The Party-state strictly regulates domestic public discourse, but what happens when perceived transgressions occur abroad? Does the CCP expect to be able to police these as well? And is the CCP entitled to use any means at its disposal to try to influence how well its interests are being served overseas? These are not theoretical questions for Australia.

Last year, Labor senator Sam Dastyari publicly stated that Australia had no right to interfere with China’s activities in the South China Sea, contradicting his own party’s platform that Australia should be able to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the disputed area. It turned out that he had recently received financial help from donors with official PRC connections. In June this year, a substantial joint investigation by Four Corners and Fairfax Media, ‘Power and Influence: The Hard Edge of China’s Soft Power’, alleged that Dastyari’s statement had come a day after the Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo threatened to withdraw a $400,000 donation to the Labor Party. (Huang, who in 2016 told the Australian Financial Review that “to me, politics is just like sport”, said he “took strong objection” to any suggestion in Power and Influence’ that he expected foreign policy outcomes in exchange for political donations.)

The investigation claimed influence peddling, espionage, and attempts to control and monitor public discourse in the media and on campuses by people acting on behalf of China’s Party-state threaten Australia’s security, sovereignty and the integrity of its political system. The revelations spurred the government to pledge stricter regulation of political donations, and in November Attorney-General George Brandis announced a “foreign influence transparency scheme”, promising to introduce legislation by the end of the year that “comprehensively revises our espionage, sabotage, treason and secrecy offences” and will criminalise “certain acts of covert foreign interference”.

The Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, accused those behind ‘Power and Influence’ of intending to stir a “China panic”. The jingoistic mainland journal the Global Times had responded sardonically to previous allegations of espionage: “China spying on Australia? Why? Tell us, Australia, who do you think you are? What have you got in Australia that is remotely worth spying on, apart from the Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, clean air and killer ultra-violet sunshine?” It published a stream of articles in response to Power and Influence’ written in various registers of dudgeon. Yet over the same general period, it also published reports on such topics as the excellence of Australian universities and the aforementioned joint policing operation, noting that Australia was the only country in the world working together with China on fighting crime. The Party-state, in other words, was not happy with Australia, and it wanted to let the world know it, but neither was it planning to blow up a relationship that, for the greater part of its 45-year history, has on the whole served both countries well.


Former New South Wales premier and former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr is the director of the Australia–China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney. ACRI was established in 2014, its work based on “a positive and optimistic view of Australia–China relations”. Significant financial backing for ACRI came from Huang Xiangmo, who was the institute’s initial chairman. He stepped down following the Dastyari scandal.

In September, writing in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (which was acquired by the Hangzhou-based Alibaba Group last year), Carr dismissed the findings of ‘Power and Influence’: “After the expenditure of a great quantity of words, the revelations were thin. The only example of Chinese espionage was a single Australian public servant who might have kept official papers in his home and had a Chinese wife.”

Carr neglected to mention that the public servant, Roger Uren, had previously worked at the Office of National Assessments, which briefs the prime minister on intelligence matters. According to Fairfax, those papers were allegedly “highly classified” and they detailed “what Western intelligence agencies knew of their Chinese counterparts”. As for the “Chinese wife”, Carr was surely aware that Sheri Yan, a prominent consultant and fixer, is currently in a US prison after pleading guilty to bribing a UN official; ASIO reportedly suspected her of links to PRC intelligence, although Uren has described this as “pure fantasy”. (I’ve met both Yan and her husband on numerous occasions over the years, and while I was told that Yan “knew everyone and could get anything done in China”, I had no idea she got that much done.)

For all the “headlines about Chinese cash buying influence in Australian politics”, Carr continued, “only two donations were uncovered and one was from a businessman who had been an Australian citizen for 20 years”. The businessman Carr referred to is the billionaire Dr Chau Chak Wing, who is alleged to have wired Yan the $200,000 she used for the bribe.

No one is suggesting that Chau, a prominent philanthropist, knew the money would be used for illegal purposes. But Carr’s “nothing to see here” manner of refuting the investigation’s allegations only serves to add to the sense that there’s some kind of smokescreen going up. It certainly raises the question of whether institutions such as ACRI, not to mention the PRC-funded Confucius Institutes (once described by a member of the CCP’s Politburo as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”), have a place in Australia’s publicly funded universities.


Huang Xiangmo chairs the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China. He has denied that the organisation has links to the Chinese government. There are, however, similar councils around the world headed by “Red Capitalists” and reporting directly to the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The New Zealand Sinologist and Wilson Centre Global Fellow Anne-Marie Brady has written about the New Zealand one in ‘Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping’, a paper she gave in the aftermath of ‘Power and Influence’.

Gerry Groot of the University of Adelaide is an expert on the UFWD. In the 2014 China Story Yearbook Shared Destiny (which I co-edited), he described the UFWD’s function as reaching out to “key non-party groups within and outside China in order to achieve important political goals” and wrote that it “monitors sensitive constituencies and selects representatives from them who they can then incorporate into the political system”. Mao had called United Front work one of the fabao (magic weapons) that helped take the Party to power in 1949. Xi has called it a fabao as well – but this time the implication is to help it stay in power.

In China, the UFWD works to cultivate the support and cooperation of non-Party elements including religious and ethnic minorities, intellectuals, “new capitalists” and their children. Abroad, as Groot has written, it seeks, particularly through Chinese-language media, “to cultivate sympathy for the Party’s policies and enhance its legitimacy in constituencies that have already obtained foreign citizenship or intend to do so”. In 2015, Xi Jinping declared that “the new focus of United Front work is on students studying overseas”.

More than 131,000 students from the PRC are enrolled in Australian universities. That’s one in five of all mainland students studying abroad.

Many make valuable contributions to academic life, and their tuition fees help keep tertiary education here afloat in the face of continued government funding cuts – as does Chinese investment in research (even if some of this, such as military technology research done in collaboration with People’s Liberation Army scholars, is highly – and properly – controversial).

In August a lecturer at the University of Newcastle was discussing the results of a survey by Transparency International when some of his Chinese students – who made up one third of the class – erupted. The survey scored countries according to perceptions about transparency on the one hand and corruption on the other, with a score of 100 indicating very clean politics. The column headed “countries” listed Taiwan (61) and Hong Kong (74) separately from China (36). The scores weren’t the problem. It was the separate listing of Hong Kong and Taiwan. The students, who recorded the exchange and posted it online, ordered the lecturer to show “respect”.

Lecturers across the country have expressed concern about what has been called the “bullying” of both staff and other Chinese students by the soi-disant guardians of China’s national interest. The incident at the University of Newcastle was the fourth such occurrence on Australian university campuses this year, with one resulting in a lecturer’s suspension. In another case, Chinese students complained that a lecturer at the University of Sydney illustrated a talk about global IT entrepreneurship with a map that didn’t accord with the PRC’s official view of its contested border with India. The Sydney lecturer said he’d been “unaware” of the problem and apologised for “any offence” caused, prompting China’s Global Times to crow: “The China–India border dispute broke out in Australia, and China won!”

That border had been in the news since June, when Chinese and Indian forces began a tense stand-off sparked by China’s army carrying out road works in a disputed area. On 15 August, India’s Independence Day, a group of young Chinese in Sydney drove their expensive “supercars” (Lamborghinis, Maseratis etc.) in a convoy led by a Bentley decorated with the Chinese flag – across several university campuses, through Chinatown, past the Sydney Opera House and the Indian consulate (where no one noticed because it was closed for the holiday). The cars bore slogans including the tagline of a hugely popular new Chinese film, Wolf Warrior 2: “Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is.” If bystanders found the auto parade intimidating, perhaps that was the point.

Non-Chinese nationals could never have got away with similar behaviour in China: harassing teachers or staging ostentatious displays of hyped-up nationalism. In Australia, whatever anyone might have thought of it, the demonstration was perfectly legal. Freedom of speech – on the streets, on campuses, in parliament, in the media, in public and private – is one of the core values of liberal democracy. This is true despite the fact that we don’t have a bill of rights and even if we are still arguing over freedom’s parameters. Given that speech expressing political views contrary to and even contemptuous of those of our own government is allowed in Australia, it would be absurd and presumptuous to think that views contrary to those of the Chinese government should not be. China is not exceptional here.


You won’t find such contrary views in most Chinese-language media in Australia, however. Official explanation: patriotism, or, what’s there to be critical about? Unofficial explanation: the carrots of financial backing including advertising revenue, the constant wooing of reporters, and a wealth of free-to-use content from China (including editorial that papers may be paid to publish), and the sticks of loss of all the above.

The Chinese-language China Daily is a state-run English-language newspaper that answers to the CCP. In 2016, with China’s propaganda chief and Politburo member Liu Qibao present to witness the ceremony, China Daily signed a deal with Fairfax papers to distribute China Watch, a supplement sprinkling hard nuggets of Party line through a fairy floss of panda news, upbeat economic stories and features like ‘Why I Moved to Beijing for a Comfortable Life’.

Here’s a fun translation fact: official Chinese media translated the word xuanchuan, which can mean propaganda, promotion or publicity, as “propaganda” for the first 40 years or so of the PRC – as in “Ministry of Propaganda”. By the ’90s, however, the CCP had come to realise that “propaganda” had a certain “dictatorship”-like odour in the West, and changed the official English name of its Propaganda Department to “Publicity Department”.

China Watch appears in the Washington Post and London’s Daily Telegraph. None of the issues discussed above is unique to Australia. Diplomats, security analysts and academics around the world are today urgently consulting how to best safeguard academic freedoms, political integrity, and national and information security in the face of a newly assertive and internationally active PRC. But Australia’s intense economic entanglement and geographic proximity lend the problem both intensity and urgency.

At the same time, as Labor senator and shadow minister for foreign affairs Penny Wong has cautioned, discussion about China is “vulnerable … to infection with undertones of race and alienation”. Racially based scare-mongering poses a threat to social cohesion in a country such as Australia, which has more than one million residents and citizens who identify as ethnic Chinese. Mandarin is the second most commonly spoken language here after English. It’s complicated, though. If nearly half of Australia’s ethnic Chinese population were born in the PRC, a number of those either came in the wake of the 1989 events or stayed because of them. There are also third, fourth, fifth and even sixth generation immigrants, many of whom speak no Chinese. Others have come from Singapore, Taiwan or Hong Kong. In other words, while the activists on campuses and elsewhere might claim to speak on behalf of all Chinese, they can’t and they don’t. Here, the People are just people.

Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and former Australian ambassador to the PRC, delivered the Confucius Institute Annual Lecture in Adelaide in October. She spoke with warm enthusiasm about Australian–Chinese relations and China’s phenomenal rise from poverty to prosperity. But she had a special message for the “international students” in the audience: “[T]here will be times when you encounter things which to you are unusual, unsettling or perhaps seem plain wrong … let me encourage you not to silently withdraw, or blindly condemn, but to respectfully engage.” She reminded them, “The silencing of anyone in our society – from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront to our values.” She also restated former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s famous assertion that Australia could be a zhengyou, a friend who tells the truth no matter how unpleasant. “In China, the thinking is that proper friends will not say things that offend,” Adamson said, “whereas in Australia, a willingness to be frank is proof of a genuine friendship.”


Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University (ANU), and author of the latest Quarterly Essay, ‘Without America: Australia in the New Asia’, told me that “Lucky countries don’t really need a foreign policy, because the world works well for them. They just have to decide what they think about others’ problems.” Australia has been like that, he said. “But it becomes serious when the world stops working so well for you. Then you need a real foreign policy, because you need to influence your international environment in order to promote your security and prosperity.”

Our immediate international environment is the Asia-Pacific. China is part of that. So, for better or worse, is the US. As Obama’s “pivot” to Asia devolves into a Trumpian tailspin, Australia needs to figure out where its own interests lie. “I don’t think close reliance on the US is bad in itself,” White said, “but it’s past the point where it’s plain that the US is no longer dependable. We’re deeply pretending that Trump makes no difference” – and this, he said, “is taking denial to stratospheric heights”.

We live in interesting times, which, incidentally, is not an ancient Chinese curse any more than fortune cookies are a traditional Chinese dessert. I asked Stephen FitzGerald, a China scholar and our first ambassador to the PRC, how he thought Australia ought to respond to the problems raised by ‘Power and Influence’, as well as other recent events. “My answer is that you’ve got to get so close to the Chinese that you’re able to have a row, a real ding-dong row, but the nature of your relationship is that it can withstand having a row.” That requires knowing what it’s worth having a row about, and the best way to conduct it, he said – which might not be in public. But that, in turn, requires a sophisticated understanding of China: China literacy.

Australia has had 40 years of increasingly close contact and association with the PRC – and an even longer tradition of Chinese studies. Geremie Barmé, the founding director of ANU’s Centre of China in the World, was the principal author of New Sinology: a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to the study of China grounded in intellectual and cultural involvement with the Chinese world as well as linguistic and historical fluency. Add to the resources of the academy those of our large immigrant Chinese population, and there’s no reason why Australia shouldn’t be the most China-literate country in the non-Chinese world.

China specialists Linda Jakobson and Bates Gill, co-authors of China Matters: Getting It Right for Australia, say it’s not so. They write:

In spite of China’s importance, many Australians do not have a nuanced understanding of the reasons for this or fully appreciate the risks and opportunities involved in relations with China. Upon moving to this country several years ago we were both struck by a sense that Australians do not entirely grasp how vast China’s impact will be on Australia’s future. We were also taken aback by Australia’s lack of homegrown China expertise, especially in Chinese politics, foreign affairs and security policy.

Not everyone agrees with that dire assessment, particularly with regard to the last bit. But it’s true that when universities cut programs in classical Chinese, historical studies and other subjects in which bureaucratically minded vice-chancellors cannot see immediate practical benefits, they are ensuring that when it comes to dealing with China, we will become progressively less capable – even as we need to be smarter and more informed than ever.

In the 1980s, there was a big push for more teaching of Chinese and other Asian languages, but that has petered out, for interconnected reasons of funding and will. In 2015, only 0.1% of Year 12 students finished with Chinese language part of their graduation. Many of these were native speakers. The Labor Party has pledged to change this. We’ll see.

But without China literacy, we will always be in the position of knowing only a translated China, a China explained, and increasingly by partisan explainers. Without China literacy, we cannot hope to understand why the Party’s line about the “hundred years of humiliation” strikes such a resonant and deep chord with the Chinese people. Without China literacy, we cannot hope to understand the nuance of arguments, complaints or even compliments – what does it mean to be called a “good friend of China”, for example? There are less utilitarian (and arguably even greater) benefits as well, of course. In response to Edward Said’s contention that the notion of a culture that is “other” leads to self-satisfaction, condescension or even hostility, the late Sinologist and ANU professor Pierre Ryckmans asked:

Why could it not equally end in admiration, wonderment, increased self-knowledge, relativisation and readjustment of one’s own values, awareness of the limits of one’s own civilisation? Actually, most of the time, all of these seem to be the natural outcome of our study of China (and it is also the reason why Chinese should be taught in Western countries as a fundamental discipline of the humanities at the secondary-school level …)

That’s an entirely different way of looking at “influence”.

Andrea Myles is the founder of the China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP), which she describes as a “multi-sector innovation platform” that is “non-political, non-religious, completely agnostic in every sense”. Its core program puts together 100 young people for 100 days. Half the cohort are from Australia, half from China, half are women, half are men, and all are between 18 and 40. They start out with five days in Beijing, visiting science parks, hearing talks by CEOs at the headquarters of internet giants like Alibaba, dropping in on co-working spaces and “having a blast” socialising. They’re divided into teams of four, each as diverse as the whole. Not all speak Chinese, but some do. For the next 90 days they meet online, creating start-ups, working on projects that relate to UN sustainability development goals, working in the overlap between “Australia’s national interest and China’s five-year plan”. They finish up with five days in Sydney.

CAMP is in its third year. It has produced start-ups that have stuck, and its mini think tanks work on questions posed by clients as diverse as Swisse, Shanghai University and the ABC. Myles hopes that 100,000 people will have gone through the program by 2025. She recently posted online a conversation she had with Jack Ma, one of China’s richest men and the founder of Alibaba.

Ma, incidentally, has a deep connection with Australia. As a boy, he’d randomly approached a foreign boy in his hometown of Hangzhou to practise English. He became friends with the boy’s family, who were from Newcastle. They encouraged him to go to university and brought him to Australia for a visit in 1985, when he was 21. Ma recently donated $26 million to the University of Newcastle in their honour to fund scholarships, including those for Indigenous and financially disadvantaged Australian students. Not all donations are suspect. It’s more than possible to celebrate the positive aspects of Chinese influence without underplaying the negative ones – we don’t need to divide into dragon slayers or panda huggers.


In his memoir Comrade Ambassador, Stephen FitzGerald describes attending, as an adviser, the historic meeting in Beijing in 1971 between Gough Whitlam, then the leader of the Opposition, and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. The two countries had not had diplomatic relations since the communist revolution in 1949. The PRC was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, the Cold War was raging, and Australia was fighting in Vietnam alongside the Americans against the Viet Cong. Unhappy about Australia’s alliance with the US, the PRC had recently cancelled wheat imports from Australia that had been worth some $100 million over ten years.

Zhou welcomed Whitlam’s desire for formal ties. But he criticised Australia for joining the US in Vietnam and expressed concern about resurgent militarism in Japan, another country with which Australia was friendly. “Even amid a certain amount of agreement on the United States”, FitzGerald writes, Whitlam was “intent on maintaining the very real distinction between his view and China’s”.

In the end, without either side compromising their views or principles, the two men laid the groundwork for the re-establishment of bilateral relations, which happened in 1972, soon after Whitlam became prime minister. China immediately resumed importing Australian wheat. Agreeing to disagree, you could say, has been one of the bricks in the foundation of this terribly important and, despite everything, enduring relationship – along with knowing where to draw the line.

Linda Jaivin

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’.

December 2017 – January 2018

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