New Opportunities for Australian Studies in China

Professor David Walker, the inaugural BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University outlines the main themes of the recent Australia’s China / China’s Australia conference in Beijing.

Recently, I convened a conference at Peking University entitled: Australia’s China/China’s Australia: Past, Present and Future. The conference was opened by Her Excellency the Australian Ambassador, Ms Frances Adamson and was attended by well over a hundred participants.

Speakers included the Editor-at-Large of the Australian newspaper, Paul Kelly, Australia’s foremost political commentator, and the renowned ABC broadcaster, Geraldine Doogue. On the Chinese side key participants included Professors Zha Daojiong from Peking University, Jin Canrong from Renmin University, Li Youwen from Beijing Foreign Studies University and Chen Hong from East China Normal University. The conference ranged widely over the relationship between Australia and China and the likely responses to possible threats to security in the region. Hugh White’s recently translated book, The China Choice, was considered in some detail.

A panel discussion also examined ‘regional threats’ which included an analysis of Japan’s changing and troubled relationship with China. And former Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, John McCarthy weighing up Australia’s relationship with Indonesia and the anxieties and policy dilemmas generated by the steady flow of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat.

No conference could possibly avoid the meaning and implications of the ‘rise of China’. While the economic benefits of China’s rise are clear enough, how Australia might respond to this changing world order was appreciably less clear. In a fascinating discussion, Lauren Johnston, a PKU PhD graduate, wondered if Australia had become too fixated on China itself and in doing so had neglected to examine Africa, where China is now investing in a very big way. Did being Asia literate now require a concomitant deeper knowledge of the ‘rise of Africa’?

A group of leading Chinese scholars tackled the question of The Inscrutable Australian. What now are the dominant Chinese understandings of Australia and Australians? If we accept there is such a thing as ‘China literacy’, what would the opposing ‘Australia literacy’ look like in China? Can either society ever know the other? And what might ‘knowing’ entail?

All of these questions led naturally enough to a discussion of attempts to make the school system in Australia better equipped to produce an Asia-literate student population. What was happening to the curriculum to develop a stronger focus on Asia? The panel discussion led by Christine Halse and Greg McCarthy suggested that while much was happening, one could not be confident of a positive outcome. Moreover, the incoming Abbott government might not see Asia literacy as a key educational goal.

The final panel, chaired by Geraldine Doogue, took on the question of what it meant to study in China. The panelists were members of the Australia China Youth Association. All were studying in China, grappling with learning the language and with the tricky business of cross-cultural communication. All could recount dreadful moments when their poor control of the tones required in Mandarin delivered distressing results.

In a final conference session on Sunday evening in the elegant surroundings of the Capital M restaurant, I talked with Geraldine Doogue and Paul Kelly about the recent election and what might be expected from the Abbot government.

The conference attracted participants from all over mainland China as well as from Hong Kong and South Korea. There was much to discuss and celebrate and many high points, not least the announcement that Professor Li Yao will be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney for his lifetime contribution to the translation of Australian writing into Chinese.

The rising generation was not forgotten either as the results of the first national Translation Competition were announced. Students at Chinese Universities were given an Australian newspaper article and a book passage to translate into Chinese. The first prize went to a student from Beijing Foreign Studies University. This competition, like the PKU conference itself, will become an annual event. The BHP Billiton Chair and the Foundation for Australian Studies in China see a bright future for Chinese students wanting to learn more about Australia.

*David Walker is the inaugural BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University and the Alfred Deakin Professor of Australian Studies at Deakin University, Melbourne. 

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