03 July 2012


I have contributed another paper to the Lowy Institute's blog, the Lowy Interpreter, regarding Australia-China relations.

It is not a simple matter to derive opinion from personal history on an issue, at least when one had a role in matters within the public service, in advice to different governments and when one retains obligations to sustain the privacy of advice in some respects. My reflections on the policy process within government in this article do not extend to more recently than 1985 and speak of one Cabinet submission and decision, from 1980, which is now in the public domain.

I was conscious in writing this commentary also that I reveal something of what happened in my head and my actions and recommendations, advising on sensitive policy. This is important, I think, to provide a better view of the incremental nature of policy development and the role of officials in the process. I am especially conscious that when in 1980 I was developing a Cabinet submission about Australia-China relations, the relationship had gone out on a very narrow limb, with the traditional base of the relationship in Australia, within the Labor Party, then in opposition (I had just returned from advising Deputy Labor leader Lionel Bowen MP on foreign policy for two years), not entirely impressed by China's attack on Viet Nam in 1979 and the fierce suppression of public opinion at the 'Democracy Wall' which had preceded that in Beijing. There was great uncertainty about the political leadership in China, the legacy of Mao, and the role of Deng Xiaoping, described by me in an analytical paper with the Cabinet submission as the second most divisive leader in modern Chinese history (after Mao). Li Xiannaian came to Australia as "the most senior leader you will be seeing for a while" [Chinese officials] because the Premier Hua Guofeng was about to get rolled.

Eventually Deng gave power to Zhao Ziyang as Premier and
Hu Yaobang as communist Party General Secretary
(centre of photo, April 1985, in what at an earlier time
was Mao's bedroom in Zhongnanhai,
meeting before Hu visited Australia)
but Deng later tore down Hu Yaobang
 because of his liberal political views;
Hu's subsequent death in 1989 precipitated
the events in Tiananmen Square. Zhao Ziyang had replaced Hu
 as General Secretary
but also fell because of his liberal views
during Tiananmen, see secret diary.
Hu Qili, also in that photo, right,
 then head of the party secretariat,
was shifted to powerlessness (where he remains, smiling)
for opposing martial law in 1989.
On 1 May 1985 Hu Qili had made a major speech
calling on people to break through outdated Marxist viewpoints
 conflicting with present day reality and
build up a new theory justifying reforms.
This gives me hindsight into Hu's droll remark to me
in August 1985, as regards progress in
setting up a major party conference:
"I suppose you could say we are
making as much progress as possible
 under the leadership of the Standing Committee
of the Political Bureau of
the Central Committee of
the Communist Party of China."
In the same conversation
I (boldly I thought) spoke of
China having a new young leader
and how we were watching his performance
comparing with the new young leader
of the Soviet union, Gorbachev.
Accepting the comparison with a smile Hu Qili said
 (with great historical irony):
 "Yes it is also very important that Gorbachev succeed
 with his reforms,  but there is a difference.
I have the support of senior leaders
for what I am doing,
but I don't know if Gorbachev
has support from his senior leaders."
To understand the ideas of the times, note
the two Hu's 1986 advocacy of
 'generosity, tolerance and relaxation':
"An object [referring to policy and doctrine]
made of steel breaks easily,
and is unable to withstand a clash.
 In social life, however, clashes can occur
 at any time, and in any sphere." [op cit. p 366]
It would be good to think that
secret debates in China now encompass
this end of the spectrum.
A senior Chinese official said to me in 1985 in Beijing: "Please understand, the worst time for us was not during the Cultural Revolution, it was later, after the death of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong [in 1976]. We had been through a very bad time, we had begun to emerge from it, here we were facing the possibility of it all happening again." The situation was still far from certain in 1980... and speculations about uncertainty in Chinese leadership now in 2012 comes from the same cloth.

When you have to provide advice, walking through a bunch of such sensitivities (not uncommon), you have to be selective in building argument (as anyone is, ever?). Malcolm Fraser, as prime minister, had followed what continued until quite recently to be a penchant from the time of establishment of relations with China in 1972, of prime ministers wanting control of the China relationship. His commitment to it as with the others, was one of fascination, recognition of China's importance, but with this added burden (or that was my word for it) of the anti-Soviet element drowning others. I really had no certainty where the balance of China's strategy would shift, on what odd perch our strategic bonding might be left. The key then was to do things to ensure we were valued by whoever was in charge in China, to do so by supporting 'modernisation' policies.. aware that if modernisation policies were to succeed in China, Chinese leaders needed supportive friends, aware that if the balance chucked out the modernising reformers in China, we were in trouble, the world was in trouble, China was in trouble.

So... no telling the government its approach to China was too narrow: you reassure the government that its emphasis on the relationship is good, and say this is how to do it better. And to get good, broad advice to government, you have to get other departments in support. The Trade Department snarled. There was an old soreheadedness from when Foreign Affairs in the Whitlam days (when the Department had gone mad with its own self-importance, demonstrating that Diplomacy, not just War, of which Clausewitz wrote, could drive out policy to pursue its own ends) had set up an Inter-Departmental Committee on Japan. The IDCJ spent its days fighting over command and was destroyed by the incoming Fraser Government after 1975, yanking Japan right out of the department to a Japan Secretariat.

So I had to convince Trade to go along with an 'interdepartmental working group' on China, which they endorsed with their own minister co-signing the Cabinet Submission. In the event with my Trade Department counterpart sitting with me in the interdepartmental working group when it got going, we were able to round up the potentially feral activities on China in various departments and get the whole relationship into some kind of synergy. Five years later, mind you, John Menadue, then Secretary of the Trade Department, looked hard at me, over his desk, when I was back from Beijing for official business and said: "You have to understand, there are people in my department who hate what you are doing and there are people in Foreign Affairs who hate what you are doing [in trying to coordinate the China relationship]. I am supporting you but it's not simple."

This detail is not intended as self-promotion but to provide an historical depth to discussion of the issues involved in building a stronger relationship with China... and to invite others also to wonder what mental paths are followed these days by China policy advisors.

Also in my very long photo caption, to give some sense of the way Chinese can think big. As I wrote on 22 May in this blog:
I am very conscious of the way the best Chinese leaders constantly search for new ways of thinking about issues and resolving them - much more than 'the west' does, where freedom to think in new ways is so limited in government, academia and elsewhere. This Chinese freedom seems not understood, not brought into the equation by western political, academic and media observers.