Asian-Chinese Studies: a glance back at more hopeful days

May 16, 2024
Map showing China, SE Asia and Australia

The disgraceful current state of Asian studies in general and Chinese studies in particular suggests a glance back at the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, when the situation was, if not always greater in a numerical sense, at least much more productive, enthusiastic and forward-looking, and generally much more hopeful.

One thing is very clear. At that time, governments of both main political parties, universities and education departments were much more active and vocal in support for Asian studies, especially Chinese. I am not the first to see it as a kind of golden age. I am clear in calling for a return to the attitudes and government funding invested in the understanding of and engagement with Asia in general, and China in particular.

Of course there is a background. China and other Asian countries have been available as subjects in selected Australian universities for a long time. Asian studies scholarships were available in what was then called the Canberra University College, part of the University of Melbourne, in the late 1950s and later. A few distinguished professors came to Australia from overseas, the most prolific and notable being Sinologist Professor C.P. Fitzgerald (1902-1992) of the Australian National University.

Diplomatic relations between Australia and China brought initial, but very important, student exchanges between individual Chinese and Australian universities, which helped knowledge of each other. In 1978 the Australia-China Council was established by the Commonwealth Government and managed within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Primary initiative for this came from Professors Jocelyn Chey, so active in this online journal, and Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. This Council promoted China literacy and numerous other aspects of relations, with significant government funds and energy. Various kinds of technical and cultural exchanges promoted understanding, enthusiasm and focus.

At the same time, many Chinese and other Asian students took up jobs in Australia. They contributed their talents in many scholarly directions, including in research into and teaching about their countries of origin and elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that the Asian Studies Association of Australia dates from roughly the same period, being set up in 1976, with the late and extremely distinguished Indonesianist Professor John Legge (1921-2016) as its first president. The Association did very valuable work at university level, one of its main aims being to promote Asian Studies at Australian universities and elsewhere. In 2002, it published a document entitled “Maximising Australia’s Asia Knowledge”, which, among other points, called for greater government investment in Asian studies.

By this time, Australia’s universities were doing very well in terms of engagement with Asia in general, and China in particular. In my opinion, the call for “maximising Australia’s Asia knowledge” was extremely apt and signals a high point in Australia’s effort and understanding as regards Asia. Some universities were more active than others in their enthusiasm and contributions to teaching and researching about East and Southeast Asian countries. But virtually all the universities and colleges had active and good Asian studies and/or China studies departments or centres.

In 1987, the National Policy on Languages, written by Professor Joseph Lo Bianco, highlighted the importance of mastering languages other than English. He argued that this would enhance the abilities of a multicultural Australia in terms of its international, economic and diplomatic relations, as well as contributing to its society. The National Policy was underwritten by the federal government, and argued for continued close government involvement. Although Lo Bianco’s policy did not highlight Asian languages, or mention Chinese, these languages were all funded at secondary level. Lo Bianco’s initiative certainly DID create the kind of atmosphere that would help Asian languages and studies.

In 1992, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) commissioned a document called Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, endorsing the completed report in 1994. It is usually known as the Rudd report, because the primary initiative came from the then head of the Premier’s Department in Queensland (and later Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd. To implement it, COAG established the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Taskforce. With government money, this taskforce made a broad-ranging attempt to promote the study of Asian languages and studies in the primary and secondary education sectors throughout Australia. Though the Rudd report emphasised “Australia’s economic future”, quite a bit of work was done to promote Asian cultures and histories as well. The taskforce adopted ambitious targets for the schools, emphasising Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese.

In a scholarly paper published in 2007 in the Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, based in Singapore, Deborah Henderson (p. 4) claims NALSAS as “the first national attempt to establish the study of Asian languages and cultures in the Australian education system”, especially at primary and secondary level. She also suggests (p. 17) that that policy implementation “was successful in establishing the formative foundations for learning Asian languages in Australian schools”.

Unfortunately, however, the Howard government cut off the funding in 2002. This was far from a useless project and did some very good work. However, Henderson is right in her observation (p. 17) that the “Commonwealth’s decision to terminate its funding agreement before the scheduled time, was short-sighted and undermines Australia’s future capacity for regional engagement”. Of course, NALSAS applied only to primary and secondary level, but to cut it off prematurely hardly helped those who would go on to tertiary level.

These various projects are just examples among many that signalled a bright period in Asian, and specifically Chinese, studies in Australia. Others have discussed the unfortunate tendencies since the early years of the twenty-first century. In my opinion Paul Keating, who promoted Asian studies and engagement with Asia as prime minister (1991-1996), has been absolutely right in calling for better and more extensive relations with China. It is totally against Australian interests for us to turn our back on any major Asian country, and especially on China!

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