Australian journalist Brett Bayly recounts his first trip to China as a correspondent during Australia’s first prime ministerial visit to the country in 1973.
I was very young when I found myself on a plane with Gough Whitlam flying to that great mysterious land called China.
Having just turned 29, perhaps I was too young to appreciate the history-making events I was about to witness. After all, I had been a political journalist in Canberra only 12 months during which time I had seen Australia politics turned on its head with the election of the first Labor Government in Australia in 23 years.
Within weeks of arriving in Canberra I had seen conservative Prime Minister Billy McMahon swept from power, ending the longest unbroken run in government in Australian history. In his place as Australia’s 21st Prime Minister stood a towering man by the name of Edward Gough Whitlam who, within weeks of his election set out to change the face of Australia, including the ordering of negotiations to establish full relations with the People’s Republic of China.
And so what did I know? To me this was just one big adventure at the start of 11 years of being in the front row in the theatre which Australian politics was about to become.
I wrote for my Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser at the time that Mr Whitlam, who was then Leader of the Australian Opposition, told the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in July 1971: “If my party wins the elections you will be able to see the first visit by an Australian Prime to the Chinese People’s Republic and its sole capital, Peking.”
Premier Zhou replied: “We will welcome it. All things develop from small beginnings.”
As our chartered Qantas plane touched down in Beijing on Wednesday, October 31, 1973, we were greeted by a tumultuous reception by thousands of people, including 7000 school children, chanting words of welcome and waving Chinese and Australian flags and colorful flowers. Mr Whitlam with Premier Zhou Enlai at his side and wife Margaret and Australia’s first Ambassador to the People’s Republic, Stephen Fitzgerald, closely behind applauded and smiled broadly at the spectacle.
We of the media were following some distance behind and I remember thinking this was all very unreal. This enthusiastic rent-a-crowd probably had never heard of Australia let alone the fact that the country had a new imposing figure called Gough Whitlam as its prime minister. But here he was at a time when leaders of Western countries dared not set foot on Chinese soil.
The drive into the city was also welcoming with people lining the boulevard as we drove past the Forbidden City.
Several days later Prime Minister Whitlam had completed his only media conference in Beijing and was on his way to an unscheduled lunch of Peking duck with Premier Zhou Enlai.
Eleven hours of detailed discussions with the Chinese Premier and a 90-minute chat with Chairman Mao Zedong had given Mr Whitlam a feeling of elation which he had not felt for years, not even on December 2 the previous year when his party came to power after 23 years in the political wilderness.
I wrote at the time: “His five-day visit to Peking had been triumphant. His reception by the Chinese Government had exceeded his expectations.
As he left the Minzu Hotel where he had met the international Press corps for the mile walk to the Great Hall of the People, a red and white banner hanging from the top of the 10-storey building fluttered above him. It read: “Warm welcome to Distinguished Guests from Australia.”
As Mr Whitlam kept his Chinese friends almost at a running pace along the broad footpath, he smiled again as he noticed other banners stretched across the boulevard which read in both Chinese and English “Warm send off to Australian Prime Minister Whitlam.”
Mr Whitlam said at his press conference: “A generation of lost contact has successfully been brought to an end. The lost generation is now buried.”
The visit was not without its funnier moments. The Australian media contingent travelling
with Mr Whitlam had just arrived and was settling in at the Minzu Hotel. It was a big adventure being in the capital of “Red China”, even for the old hands at the political reporting game. We were in a mysterious country largely ignored by the West and certainly by successive conservative governments in Australia.
*Pictured right: Australian journalists celebrating Margaret Whitlam’s birthday and the success of Australia’s first prime ministerial visit to China in Beijing, November 1973. (Reproduced courtesy Brett Bayly)
But our hosts had been briefed about the ways of the Australian media, including the tendency to enjoy drinking beer. And so when we checked into our rooms we noticed containers much like washing tubs at the top of the stairs leading to our rooms. They were filled with beer. Although the weather outside, being early November, was cold the old
hotel was over heated and the beer was too warm to drink.
What were we to do without offending our hosts? Some of us gathered in one of our rooms and, in somewhat raised voices, heaped praise on our hosts and gave first impressions of this a great land of China. Then one of us said something like, “But it is a pity the beer is too warm to drink.”
We waited and some time later ventured out to the top of the stairs – and there was the beer all packed in ice and cooling rapidly. What a great country!
I also remember the party atmosphere that prevailed on our short visit, both informal and formal.
The informality took place with gusto when we celebrated Margaret Whitlam’s birthday in a restaurant that had been emptied of all Chinese officials. It was a private party also celebrating Gough’s meeting with the great Chairman. It was Tom Burns, who was the Labor Party National President at the time, who led the singing while standing on a chair.
The Maotai was abundant and the “Ganbeis” frequent.
The more formal tone saw the People’s Liberation Army band excel itself in playing Mr Whitlam’s choice of a national anthem “Advance Australia Fair”, twice at the airport and twice at official banquets. Its playing of “Click go the Shears,” “The Road to Gundagai,” “Botany Bay” and “Waltzing Matilda” brought cheers from the feasting masses and toasts from Mr Whitlam.
In June 1976, another Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, visited the People’s Republic of China in what was billed as a promotion of relations that made the policy forged by Gough Whitlam a bipartisan one. I travelled with Mr Fraser, but that is another story.
And only recently did another Labor Prime Minister travel to China and attract praise from her friends and critics alike. At a time when praise was rare for Julia Gillard, with an election looming in September, it was being heaped upon her from all sides for signing an agreement providing for annual meetings between Australian and Chinese leaders.
Chinese President Xi Jinping predicted a “new level” in economic and strategic ties, words that would have made Gough Whitlam smile broadly when he reflected that ‘the lost generation‘ he had set out to bury all those years ago had indeed stayed buried. ■
*Brett Bayly was a journalist for 23 years, working in Australia, Canada and Singapore. He was a political journalist in Canberra from 1972 to 1983 before joining the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a public affairs officer and being posted to Vienna and Washington DC. He now lives in Vienna.