Remarks by Nicholas Whitlam at the roundtable discussion organised by the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reform and opening up China; Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney, 20 December 2018


There is no point in ignoring the fact: in recent years the relationship between Australia and China has been subject to decay, neglect – and attack.  I deeply regret this.

 In 1973, Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, was given these riding instructions by his PM: “we seek a relationship with China based on friendship, cooperation and mutual trust, comparable with that which we have, or seek, with other major powers”

There were times since when we were on the way to achieving this goal.  But not now.  Not in 2018.

Today we are rightly celebrating many of the advances China has made in the forty years since Deng Xiaoping’s revolutionary free market initiatives that began in 1978.  For Australia the reforms resulted in experiences that are part of our everyday life:  unprecedented growth in trade between our two countries – growth that no one could have anticipated - and, in the education sphere, we have now what is, in effect, a permanent population of Chinese students. Every day visiting Chinese students rub shoulders with their Australian peers – and many of these Australians are ethnically Chinese.  We have engaged with China in a dramatic, if incomplete, way.

By coincidence, my own journey with China started that same year.  1978.  I was working in Hong Kong with Paribas – Banque de Paris et des Pays-bas: we had raised the first Eurodollar loan in which the Bank of China had ever participated, but I had yet to “cross the border” into China proper.  My wife and I and four friends took the old Kowloon to Canton railway from the Kowloon railway station next to the Star Ferry.  At Lo Wu we decanted, carried our bags across the old two-track bridge that braced the Sham Chun River and, after passing the inspection of customs and immigration – and the steely gaze of the toughest and fittest looking PLA cadres you can imagine – we took our seats in the historic train carriages, antimacassars and all, that conveyed us from Shenzhen to Guangzhou. In those days, 1978,  Shenzhen was literally a fishing village.

Over the next two weeks or so - in May 1978 - we “did” Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and Guilin, and we were treated royally.  As a son of the man who established our relationship with modern China, we were enjoying the fruits of the Chinese proverb: “When you draw water from the well, you must not forget those who dug the well.”

There was no advertising save the giant blown–up visages of Chairman Mao and the now-forgotten Huang Guofung. In Shanghai I discovered the Australian connections of the Kwok family at the Wing On department store, Ying Piu at Sincere and Choy Hing at the Sun Company; we went to the Red House and enjoyed their famously decadent orange soufflé.  Everyone, male and female alike, wore Mao jackets in green or grey.

I’ve been back many times. My particular interest right now is in the creation of a new infrastructure fund, expected to total $20 billion in private money, largely drawn from outside China; it will invest in China, particularly in the new city of Xiong’an, and – outside China - on investments consistent with the Belt & Road Initiative.

My father always said that Australia should not be asked to choose between China and the US.  I’m not sure that still holds.  We do not always share common values – with China, or the US. We do not share the widespread opposition to universal health care in the United States, nor their gun culture, nor indeed their money politics.  And we do not believe in a one Party state, and we value media free from government interference. 

But we do share common interests.  And it is these that we must seek out.  There is plenty of time.  (As Zhou Enlai is alleged to have responded when asked about the significance of the French Revolution; “It is too early to say.”)

 We can say “No”.  We can advise and warn.  No one respects a pussy cat.  Just as few respect a bully.  We are a middle-sized educated society and China respects that.  We will disagree with China from time to time - just as we ought to disagree with the US when we do in fact disagree with that nation. Today our relationship with the US is sycophantic; it was not always so.  Even in the Menzies era.

To understand each other better – and to influence each other - we need to engage better: more visits, both ways, speaking the language, learning about one another’s culture and history.  No one could pretend that our relationship with China is as deep and broadly-based as that we have with the US or Britain.  But, in due course, it must be.  To repeat the instructions given to Stephen FitzGerald more than forty years ago:

“we seek a relationship with China based on friendship, cooperation and mutual trust, comparable with that which we have, or seek, with other major powers.”

That is still our challenge.