An education strategy to combat Australia’s “China threat”

Apr 5, 2023
Australia and China flags with Speech Bubbles in a 3D Illustration

In recent years a contemporary China Threat narrative has emerged in Australia and elsewhere related to defence capabilities. An equally important China Threat though, is ignorance. Our knowledge of China and our Chinese communities has declined dramatically over the last thirteen years. How can we combat this threat?

The People’s Republic of China [PRC] and Chinese culture are significant factors for the world’s and particularly Australia’s future. The PRC’s rise to superpower status has challenged and continues to challenge the international order, often in unpredictable ways. It is Australia’s largest and most significant trade partner by a large margin; and its influence in our region is both seminal and disruptive. In addition, Chinese-Australians are now 5.5% of the Australian population, mostly the result of migration since the PRC entered its period of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ after 1978, if not linked directly to that country’s rise. Economics and politics aside there is then quite a significant Chinese social and cultural aspect to Australia.

The challenges of understanding the complexities of China and Chinese culture are enormous regardless of whether one has a pessimistic or optimistic interpretation of the PRC’s rise. China in itself is socially, economically and culturally complex before one even starts to consider how that complexity is understood, interpreted and reacted to around the rest of the world. For starters, the project of nation-building that identifies China, the Chinese and citizens separate from former conceptualisations in terms of a series of hereditary ruling dynasties and their subjects is only about a century old. Most people now speak either Modern Standard Chinese or a variety, but equally for many it is not their first language. There is a variety of economic and social geographies across the country, including practices of birth, marriages and death, though again there is a tendency to homogenisation. All the same, marriage and family development is more usually within language groups.

Moreover, within Australia the notion that there is a single Chinese community is more than a little bizarre. Language and point of origin in China are only a start to that complexity. Some Chinese families have been in Australia far longer than most Europeans, with migration from the 19th century. Many from earlier migrant families speak no Chinese language at all. Others came in the last few decades, and in the way of things the various groups each regards themselves as the genuine ‘Chinese’.

In recent years a contemporary China Threat narrative has emerged in Australia and elsewhere related to defence capabilities. Ignorance is though an equally important China Threat. Open conflict ought to be avoidable with adults in the room but even if it is not, China will still be there and the Chinese will still be here whatever eventuates from the current drift to enmity, and there will still need to be more understanding than is currently being generated in Australia.

The just-published report of the Australian Academy of Humanities (AAH) on China Studies in Australia emphasises that our capacity to provide knowledge and understanding to help ourselves about China and our Chinese communities has declined dramatically over the last thirteen years. China Studies in this context is defined not just in terms of language and culture, but also involving health studies, science, the social sciences, and technology related to China and the Chinese. The AAH Report calls on government, business and the university sector to support the revitalisation of China Studies both with programs of teaching and learning and in research, all of which it sees as nationally desirable.

The call to the university sector is a good place to start discussion of how the AAH’s recommendations might be best implemented. Understanding China and Chinese communities in Australia (or indeed anywhere) is not a simple act, and not just because of the complexity of the country and the varieties of its cultures. Complexity is one thing, but interpretation is another. Understanding entails debate and discussion about what constitutes China, Chinese culture, and even Chinese tradition. The traditions of the university and of academic research are that different views can be articulated and respected. China may be on the nose currently with politicians and defence officials, but universities need to defend their areas of teaching and research that is China-related even when student numbers may have declined and research on China is regarded with suspicion by government agencies here and overseas. Not to do so is to mortgage the national future.

The key problem is of course funding: as with every discipline and field of study, funding follows fashion in both student numbers and even to some extent in research (as the AAH Report explicates). This is where the role of government becomes important. Direct funding for the (re)development of China Studies would of course be welcome. Scholarships for students to learn Chinese; the targeted establishment of research centres under the Australian Research Centres to work on different aspects on China’s society and development. There are precedents. In the late 1980s the Federal Government established an Asian Studies Council which itself organised and also lobbied other federal agencies to support the development of Asian Studies, seen as a national priority. As Melissa Crouch pointed out recently in the Melbourne Asian Studies Review:

‘The key challenge in Australia is that universities respond to incentives that government offers—incentives primarily being in the form of funding or the different ways they structure fees and degrees and so forth. When there is an absence of funding in a particular area it can be really hard for academics to justify to their faculty and school why certain programs should keep running.’

At the same time, government funding is not the only answer, nor the only action required from governments. Both federal and state governments would assist the renewal of China Studies by adopting positive attitudes towards that goal, in their formal and less formal statements, as well as in their actions. Some state governments have indeed developed China offices but the relatively low number of officials with China or Chinese-competence who work in federal departments and their agencies seems short-sighted. It is almost as if the mantra has developed that anyone with China competence is suspect. Understandable as a function of the current dominant geopolitics, but essentially short-sighted and definitely not sustainable.

The business community is necessarily more positive about relations with China. Exports take the headlines here but it is far from the whole story. 34% of Australia’s exports went to the PRC in 2022. The next highest was the 17% that went to Japan. 29% of Australia’s imports came from the PRC in 2022. The next highest was the 11% from the USA. Many businesspeople are China-competent and their interactions with both formal and informal China Studies operations in education and higher education is both welcome and well-established in many places. The business world has no problem in employing graduates and others with China-competence. Converting that good will into support for China Studies with scholarships for students and project funding for research has already started to some extent but there is clearly a need for more in the absence of government action.

The challenge for Australia is to build on its economic and social relations with China to build for the future. One important action would be for federal government to start proceedings by taking a leaf out of the past playbook, and establish a process to develop a China Studies strategy for Australia. A committee of enquiry might include university managers, businesspeople, members of the Chinese communities, government officials, and academics.

For more on this topic, we recommend:

How can it be that Australia has actually gone backwards in knowledge of China?!

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