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As both sides of politics tussle over the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement, the father of diplomatic relations with Beijing laments our current lack of vision when dealing with Asia. By Hamish McDonald.

Q&A with Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first China ambassador

Stephen FitzGerald with Lao Su, Gay FitzGerald and Lao at a farewell picnic at the Ming Tombs in 1976.
Credit: Warren Duncan

China historian Stephen FitzGerald guided Gough Whitlam’s overtures to China and became our first ambassador to the People’s Republic, later advising federal and state governments on immigration and Asian studies. His new book, Comrade Ambassador, is a candid inside account of Whitlam’s politically risky, sometimes comic, expedition behind the Bamboo Curtain in 1971. The visit took place while the Vietnam War was raging, and the delegation mystified its hosts with rhyming slang. The Australian embassy in Beijing opened as Mao Zedong’s rule came to its turbulent end and Australia headed for Whitlam’s dismissal, but FitzGerald found leaders on both sides still ready to engage in a constructive relationship. Then came John Howard and a setback from which he thinks Australia is still struggling to recover.

Hamish McDonald You went to Beijing as ambassador aged 33. How did you connect with such a gerontocracy as late-Mao China?

Stephen FitzGerald Did I feel overawed? I didn’t. I was buoyed along by the extraordinary mood that came with the election of that [Whitlam] government after 23 years. It wasn’t just a change of government, it was a change of direction. No one in Beijing made anything of my age.

HM Whitlam’s removal didn’t dissipate that mood. You write that Fraser picked up on the China connection very quickly.

SF Many people see Fraser as a late convert to a very small-l liberal, even leftist, position. But to my surprise − Mungo MacCallum had pointed out Fraser’s favourite writer of fiction was Ayn Rand − he had these views when he came to Beijing in 1976. By the end of that visit not only had he adopted Whitlam’s China policy, he had adopted Whitlam’s foreign policy as a whole, though seeking closer relations with the Americans to get them to focus on what he saw as the main threat – Soviet expansionism in our region. This continued strongly through to the middle of the 1990s.

HM In 1987 you’re in a committee advising on immigration policy, and there are already signs of strain.

SF Our committee found immigration policy had become captive of migrant lobbies. We wanted to shift the focus onto the economic, though not getting rid of family reunions. Howard then called for a reduction in the number of immigrants from Asia, echoing the earlier debate started by [Geoffrey] Blainey.

HM You identify a big setback to that bipartisan policy of closeness to Asia happening with Howard?

SF He was quite explicit about it. He went to Indonesia in the year after the election and in three speeches said 16 times: We are not part of Asia. He didn’t want anything to do with Labor’s foreign policy. Downer on the other hand wanted continuity: he kept trying to get Australian into groupings forming up in the region. You had also the Pauline Hanson episode. My book argues foreign policy has to be grounded in a wide understanding of it in the electorate. What Howard did was slowly change the way people were thinking about Asia, to discourage the debate about our identity. He boasted we had ended that “seemingly perpetual seminar” about identity: everyone knows what our identity is and always will be. That’s nothing short of irresponsible in a country that is multiethnic, multicultural, with immigration from all kinds of different backgrounds, and you want to have a harmonious mixing of all those people. Of course, he didn’t stop the economic relations with Asia, all that transactional stuff.

HM One result of Howard’s Asia scepticism and the power of the ethnic lobbies has been a drastic decline in Asian language studies. How do we get it back – by compulsory inclusion in the core curriculum?

SF You won’t get compulsion back. We have lost the culture of language learning in the Australian classroom. We tried pushing a bit of money at it but it requires a huge amount of money, to train all those teachers properly and then put them into the classroom. The [Gillard government’s] Asian century white paper was a delusion: no government was going to invest the funds to make it happen. The best idea I’ve seen came from [strategic analyst] Hugh White: pay young people at the end of their schooling to spend a year in an Asian country.

HM China is now run by the children of the leaders you dealt with as ambassador in the 1970s, the so-called Second Generation Red. How do you read them?

SF Chinese materialism has come to the fore since the Mao period − China is the only major civilisation that has never invented a transcendent God − and this has lifted 400 million people out of poverty. But it’s also responsible for the enormous corruption that is China today. I would hesitate myself to go into business in China. You either don’t play the corruption game, in which case you get nowhere, or you’re sucked into it, which is wrong ethically and also often personally extremely dangerous. Another thing is the new nationalism, the re-emergence of this idea of China as exceptional. Canberra responds by saying “Okay, we’ll stick to America: that solves all our problems.” But it doesn’t. As [former Singaporean foreign minister] George Yeo says, it’s a challenge for us to practise statecraft. That’s much harder than signing up to the reinvigorated military alliance and going along with US analyses. We’ve squandered the opportunity Gillard created with the strategic partnership. That opened the door to something and we didn’t walk through that door. A meeting with Xi Jinping on the wings of the Boao Forum or APEC doesn’t do it. The exemplar in my view is Angela Merkel. She works at that relationship with China.

HM But we are closer than Germany, and China is pressuring our friends in the middle, in South-East Asia and Japan, to emphasise Chinese ascendancy.

SF Australia should make common cause with the South-East Asians and get back to being very close to them as we were up to 1996. Not to gang up on China but to engage China and enhance the kind of impact we might have. It’s critical we all work hard to tie China into multilateral regional arrangements. I simply can’t understand our hesitation at China’s initiative for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. An even more glaring example is this Trans-Pacific Partnership. Why would you have a multilateral trading arrangement, involving a dozen countries in the region, which excludes China?

HM Our leaders are mostly not “Asia literate”. But one who was managed to cause offence: Kevin Rudd with his 2008 speech about being a zhengyou (true friend) who can make criticism?

SF It was a good speech but the timing, venue and the tactical thing was not right. Throwing brickbats at the Chinese about human rights might have a feel-good element, but it’s not as effective as diplomacy and the quiet kind of conversation that Angela Merkel has. I was even more surprised about the Copenhagen [climate-change] episode [when Rudd complained about being “ratfucked” by China’s stand]. I would have thought that Kevin, even if you didn’t go to Beijing, would have been on the phone to get some compromise going. But no.

HM What about the current government, cosying up to Japan, America, India, yet beating Labor  about the head about being racist over the China–Australia FTA?

SF What did Laurie Oakes write in 2010 about the two leaders then? Political pygmies with small ideas about the country and afraid to lead. That’s been the case for a very long time. We don’t have a leadership of ideas. That’s because we don’t have leaders with ideas or if they do, they’re hiding them very successfully. On the FTA, people need a context. What is the long term about China and where does that FTA sit in all of that?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Chinese whispers". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.