Balibo Five case a bipartisan albatross. Death penalty in Asia. By Hamish McDonald.

Whitlam’s China coup incomparable

Then opposition leader Gough Whitlam, with an unnamed Chinese official, on his groundbreaking visit to China in 1971.
Then opposition leader Gough Whitlam, with an unnamed Chinese official, on his groundbreaking visit to China in 1971.
Credit: National Archives of Australia

“Alors, la Chine,” as the French semiotician Roland Barthes famously got onto the subject. “Then, there’s China.” Amid the reminiscences of Gough Whitlam this week came reminders that he scored his greatest diplomatic achievement before he became prime minister.

This was his visit to Beijing in mid-1971 as opposition leader, accompanied by a press party willing to pounce on any gaffe on his part or ambush by his hosts. Then prime minister Billy McMahon was cackling with delight at the prospect of the Labor Party being shown cosying up to communism at the same time Australian troops were battling its tentacles in Vietnam.

Instead, Whitlam showed himself a masterly interlocutor with the Machiavelli of Maoist China, Zhou Enlai, deftly avoiding attempts to corner him into questioning of Australia’s alliance with the United States or its closeness to Japan. Then as Whitlam left for Japan to talk to Kakuei Tanaka, came Washington’s announcement that its secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had also been to Beijing to prepare a visit by President Richard Nixon.

As Stephen Fitzgerald, the ANU historian who accompanied Whitlam and later became our first ambassador to the People’s Republic, wrote in 2012: “There is nothing in Australian foreign policy history to compare with that China visit. It was not the changing of a policy by a government, a cabinet sitting together to deliberate, the sending of an official delegate, the cabling of instructions to an ambassador to get in touch with a Chinese counterpart in a third country. It was a personal commitment to the fray, from opposition not from government, an expedition of great bravado and exposure but great political judgement and luck. It was a journey to the unknown because no one knew what would come of it or who Whitlam would meet. It was personal diplomacy of great political sensitivity.”

Fitzgerald’s essay “The Coup that Laid the Fear of China” is accessible on the website of the Whitlam Institute and well worth reading.

1 . Balibo Five case a bipartisan albatross

Meanwhile, it was indecent for the Australian Federal Police to announce it had dropped its investigation of the Balibo Five killings on the day of Whitlam’s death, and the day after Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s rather lacklustre visit to Jakarta for Joko Widodo’s inauguration as Indonesia’s president.

It had been clear for years that the referral of two persons – former lieutenant-general Yunus Yosfiah and former sergeant-major Cristoforus da Silva – from the NSW Coroner’s Court for war crimes prosecution was as welcome in Canberra as a pork chop at a bar mitzvah. Over the seven years since, the AFP had been clearly waiting for potential witnesses to die off or lose their marbles. A successful prosecution might have been a long shot, even if Jakarta showed any willingness to extradite Yosfiah and da Silva, but why not keep it on the books at least as a warning and show of concern?

Though the timing looks suspicious, the AFP had actually told an ABC reporter about its decision the day before Whitlam died. Even so, it focused attention on Whitlam’s foreign policy albatross, his encouragement of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. Oddly paired with former Labor politician Laurie Brereton, your columnist became a regular target of Whitlam’s rage in his later years for exposing, from the torrent of leaks as the Suharto regime fell apart, the “green light” given at the May 1974 talks in Townsville.

Whitlam averted his eyes, for the rest of his life, from the suffering that followed. Yet, faced with this other external ambush in the collapse of the Portuguese empire, would any other prime minister, any other Australian government, have acted much differently? The Coalition’s foreign policy spokesman, Andrew Peacock, also gave a green light in a secret meeting in Bali in September 1975. In Canberra, the late Bill Pritchett was the only senior defence or foreign affairs official warning that the ill-trained, poorly led Indonesian army would be biting off more than it could chew in Timor. As late as the famous “Howard letter” to Suharto’s successor in December 1998, Canberra was desperately trying to keep East Timor as part of Indonesia.

In the broader picture, the embrace of Suharto, as unfortunate as it now looks, was comparable to Whitlam’s engagement with the China of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In Fitzgerald’s words, an effort to break Australia out of the mindset that Asia was a region of “poverty, instability, revolution – and inferiority”. The short Whitlam era was the point where we started to lose that fearfulness.

2 . Death penalty still popular in Asia

Whitlam was gracious about the new nation of Timor-Leste that eventually emerged in 2002, and always noted that its first act was banning capital punishment.

After persisting with the methods of its colonial masters − the firing squad, the garrotte, the electric chair − the Philippines also abandoned executions in 2006.

Elsewhere in Asia, while some countries have maintained long moratoriums on executions and under Chinese control Hong Kong has not reinstated the death penalty abolished by the British in 1965, no government has dared to buck public opinion and follow suit, assuming that they wanted to do so. The popular clamour, if anything, is for an extension of capital punishment to more crimes, such as sexual assault.

Japan is a particularly egregious case. Public baying for blood has been worsened by a new law allowing bereaved families the right to quiz the accused about the victim’s last moments. The result has been more pressure on judges to apply the death penalty, sometimes with petitions signed by tens of thousands. Now there is a move to make the extreme punishment also apply to killing in the process of sexual assault.

This in a country perhaps the safest from crime, but where the lack of safeguards for the accused results in many wrong convictions. The latest to be overturned is that of Iwao Hakamada, sentenced to death in 1966 for murder, who spent 45 years on death row with the possibility of execution at any time, before a court found this year that the evidence was probably fabricated by police. Prosecutors are appealing against the order for a retrial. Though Hakamada is immobile and demented, and was quite possibly framed, they still want to hang him.

At a forum held by Reprieve Australia in Melbourne this month, we heard ample evidence that capital punishment has little correlation to the incidence of the crimes it is supposed to deter. Drug seizures are soaring in Singapore for example. Perhaps this is getting through, along with the sometimes pitiful background of those sent to the gallows or firing squad. In 2012, Singapore modified its laws to give judges some discretion about the death penalty in drug cases. Steady advocacy, based on criminology rather than moralising, may open this little window further.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 25, 2014 as "Whitlam’s China coup incomparable".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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