Rowan Callick reflects on the significance of the early Australian trade missions to China after the two countries signed a joint communiqué in Paris on December 21, 1972.
On December 21, 1972, Australia’s ambassador to France Alan Renouf, and the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, Huang Chen, met in the music room of Canberra’s official residence, on Rue Lacaze.
In a ceremony that took 25 minutes, the two signed a joint communiqué on behalf of their countries, through which their countries agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations.
It said that “the two governments have agreed to exchange ambassadors as soon as the administrative formalities and the practical arrangements have been completed, and to provide each other with all the necessary assistance for the establishment and performance of the functions of diplomatic missions in their respective capitals on the basis of equality and mutual benefit and in accordance with international law.”
The ambassadors had earlier held nine hours of talks to finalise the text.
The chief sticking point was the reference to Taiwan, where Australia had been sending ambassadors since 1966, at first under Prime Minister Harold Holt.
Canada, under Pierre Trudeau, had been the first of the Western allies – apart from Britain, which had recognised the PRC very early – to shift its recognition to Beijing, in 1970, under a formula that said: “The Chinese Government reaffirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the PRC. The Canadian Government takes note of this position of the Chinese Government. The Canadian Government recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China.”
Australia had at first sought to have similar phrasing adopted, through which it “noted” the PRC’s claim to Taiwan. But this time, Beijing was not willing to concede, and so Canberra accepted wording that said: “The Australian Government recognises the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, Acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the PRC, and has decided to remove its official representation from Taiwan before January 25, 1973.”
Thus Canada “noted” what Australia, later, “acknowledged.”
Renouf – who went on to become head of the foreign affairs department shortly after – said about the signing: “There was a large amount of good humour, and the atmosphere was good. Although there was some hard talking on various points, both governments were determined to resolve the question as quickly as possible, and decided to match each other’s speed.”
The Chinese ambassador, he said, spoke “frankly and openly. It was almost like negotiating with the Americans – frank, tough and hard.”
Gough Whitlam had visited China as opposition leader in the middle of 1971, leading an Australian Labor Party delegation, at a time when Liberal party Prime Minister Bill McMahon had said the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing was “a long way off.”
The visit followed an historic telegram to China’s longstanding Premier Zhou Enlai saying the ALP was “anxious to send a delegation to PRC to discuss the terms on which your government is interested in having diplomatic and trade relations with Australia.”
During the resulting ground-breaking visit, the Australian delegation was suddenly told that Zhou – then 73 and one of Mao Zedong’s few remaining trusted comrades as the Cultural Revolution continued to cause convulsions – would meet them in the Great Hall of the People, after 9pm one night. Zhou greeted the Australians individually in English. The nine journalists were invited to stay for the “private” meeting, which lasted 105 minutes.
Zhou included a wry reference to then US President Richard Nixon visiting China, which Whitlam and the other Australians took as a joke by the dry-witted Premier. But it wasn’t. Two days later, Zhou was talking in the same venue to Nixon’s security adviser Henry Kissinger, planning the president’s visit the following year.
Labor won the election on December 2, 1972. Just three days later, Whitlam announced that he had instructed Renouf to open negotiations with his Chinese counterpart. This was his top foreign affairs priority.
Renouf was told by Huang Chen that Whitlam had made a good impression on his visit. He said: “The high regard that Premier Zhou had for Mr Whitlam was obviously a factor which enabled the negotiations to push ahead rapidly to a successful conclusion.”
Penny Wesley, the Governor of Queensland, told a gathering in Brisbane to celebrate the 40th anniversary, that she had witnessed the “historic negotiations” as a young diplomat in Paris at the time.
Veteran business leader Sir Andrew Grimwade told an Australia China Business Council dinner in Melbourne, that he had written to Prime Minister McMahon in April 1972 urging him to form diplomatic relations with China. But the response came only in “verbose letters” and “pure Sir Humphrey speak.”
Very soon after Whitlam announced on becoming PM that he would recognise China, a senior member of his staff visited Sir Andrew to discuss a list of people who might join Australia’s first trade mission to the PRC.
The delegation was led by BHP chairman Sir Ian McLennan, and also included Ken Myer, Sir Norman Coles, Howard Michell from Adelaide, the Reserve Bank’s Harry Knight, Jim Kibel, and as political leader the trade minister Jim Cairns, “who much to the surprise of some, was quite outstanding.”
They crossed the border from Hong Kong at Lowu Bridge on May 13, 1973. “As we waited for the train, I remember Ken Myer sitting on the floor of the platform with earphones brushing up on his Mandarin. I had memorised some characters – a skill that came in useful when we had to choose between male and female when visiting a loo without English sub-titles.”
They then flew to Beijing from Guangzhou, where on arrival Sir Norman was mistaken for the first US ambassador, who was a passenger on the same flight, and whom he resembled physically. Thus the Australians shook at least 50 pairs of hands walking down a red carpet “until our secret was discovered,” said Sir Andrew.
The first Australian ambassador, Stephen Fitzgerald, met them and welcomed them to his humble then-embassy – Room 464 at the Beijing Hotel.
“We travelled over 4,000 miles inside China from the south to Shenyang and Anshan in Liaoning, where we were the first white foreign devils they had seen since the 1930s” said Sir Andrew.
“The mission’s highlight was its meeting with Premier Zhou. He spoke five or six languages fluently. At one stage he courteously interrupted his interpret to infer a slightly different shade of meaning: ‘I am not anticipating Qantas flying to Beijing, I am looking forward to it’. I felt he was running the place in 1973.”
Sir Andrew finished his speech with an appropriate limerick:
There once was a mission to China,
Which Gough Whitlam thought far from minor.
With an Aussie Ni hao,
He did praise Chairman Mao.
Could you think of anything finer?
Founding and early members of the ACBC in Victoria began meeting again in the lead-up to the 40th anniversary, to review those historic days. They include James Kibel, Tony Kosky, Chris Wang, John Crone, Donald Edwards, Robin Chambers, Bill O’Shea, Michael Pointer, Jim Short, Barry White and Gim-wah Yeo.
The major corporations represented in the first trade mission in 1973 formed the Australia China Business Cooperation Committee (ACBCC).
Then, catering more to the small-to-medium business sector, the Australia China Chamber of Commerce and Industry was formed in Sydney in 1977 by a group of business men and women, with Mike Samuel – who was already operating in China – and Darcy Carter playing prominent roles. Pointer and Yeo attended a meeting there, and were asked to help establish a Victorian branch – which they did. The ACCCI organised a trade mission that visited Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou in 1978, when they were guests at a Great Hall of the People dinner hosted by party chief Hua Guofeng to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the PRC.
After they returned, they established the Victorian ACCCI branch at a meeting which attracted more than 100 people. Soon, Brisbane followed, then South Australia and Tasmania. Eventually this chamber and the ACBCC merged to form today’s peak body, the Australia China Business Council.
Kosky said that his family had been trading animal skins with China since the 1930s, and that when he started entering the country, a friend advised him that he should take with him, to appear supportive, one of Mao’s Little Red Books.
He did so, and he noticed that it said that trade between countries should be equal. He explained that he had done his buying, but could not get a sales contract. “They gave me one the next day.”
He said that as Australians began to do business with China, “we were greeted with such care, but our Chinese colleagues were often just left to their own devices when they made return visits to Australia.”
Michael Pointer said that “we were all commissioned by ASIO to report back to them when we returned from China” – although they could not see that what they reported might have any value.
Their Chinese business partners explained that they too had to report back to their Public security office, on Australia and on Australian businesspeople.
Chris Wang, whose father David had started the massive family company in Melbourne decades earlier, said that “it was difficult for overseas Chinese when we started to go back after 1972. We had to stay in third class hotels” – arranged by the authorities, when almost every facet of life was state-run. The firm’s Aussie managers were booked in first class, and tried to find ways to upgrade their boss to better accommodation.
These early years of China’s opening were the peak period for banqueting – with plentiful maotai toasts – where the parameters of most deals were agreed, before the details would be finalised in more formal meetings in offices the following morning.
Forty years on, the pioneers are proud of the building blocks they helped put in place that have now eventually grown into Australia’s biggest trading partnership by far. But it’s the personal relationships they remember most clearly, and treasure. ■
*Rowan Callick is the Asia Pacific Editor for The Australian newspaper.
**Picture top right reproduced courtesy of the National Archives of Australia; A6180, 11348420, Gough Whitlam’s trip to China, 1973.