Australia must prize, not demonise China capability

Jun 20, 2024
Grunge country flag illustration / China vs Australia (Political or economic conflict, Rival )

China expertise – including that of our huge Chinese diaspora – has increasingly become a source of suspicion. China scholar Angela Lehmann offers three policy responses to promote Australia’s capability to engage with our biggest trading partner.

The visit this week by Chinese Premier Li Qiang is a reminder of an old dilemma at the heart of Australia’s engagement with China: how to maintain trade and economic relationships with a country that is not a security partner.

Navigating this complexity requires knowledge across a range of fields – from cross-cultural business acumen and economic know-how, to understanding the social and policy issues China is grappling with. In the case of China, knowledge is indeed power. Australians who seek to understand China’s middle classes, youth sentiment, labour market needs, education and research policy, for example, are a vital asset in Australia’s China engagement.

The Premier’s visit presents an opportunity to consider how Australia is building, nurturing and engaging with those with the knowledge and expertise needed to successfully plot Australia’s future relationship with China.

The recent Australian Academy of the Humanities report into Australia’s China capacity clearly demonstrates the need to increase education on China and Chinese language within our schools and universities. Katie Howe makes the argument that Australia does have China expertise, although it is not well used and is a lost resource for Australia.

The question is, how can we better engage that China talent pool?

They are Australians who have spent time working, studying and living in China. They are graduates who either pursued China studies in Australia or undertook studies in their fields in China. They are Australians of Chinese background who hold valuable knowledge about what is happening in China and why, and the implications for Australia. They are people who should be engaged with Australian industry and government as the nation works towards defining the terms of a new ‘stabilised’ Australia-China relationship.

In this febrile geopolitical environment, there is a very great risk the expertise of people who have spent time living and working in mainland China not only goes unrecognised by Australian business and industry but becomes a source of suspicion.

I spent several years living and working in China. As a young Australian, I ‘accidentally’ first travelled there in the early 2000s, teaching extra-curricular English classes to children in Jinan for six weeks. More than 20 years later, my work still takes me across the Australia-China borders. The initial exposure to China, led to a doctoral thesis at the Australian National University that explored the experiences of people from Australia and other Western countries living and working in Xiamen, a second-tier Chinese city. After graduation, I accepted a teaching and research role at Xiamen University, providing me with a unique perspective on life within the Chinese higher education system and the ambitions and expectations of Chinese students.

On my return to Australia, I drew on this background to inform universities about the challenges and opportunities present in engaging with China. Recently, I was appointed Chair of the Foundation for Australian Studies in China, a non-profit organisation that facilitates academics and students in China to engage with Australia via study and research.

As a nation, we need to draw on first-hand, direct experience of social change and in-country relationship building. On-the-ground China knowledge is a resource for Australia that would be squandered by those who see it as a liability.

At a recent dinner, a Canberra-region media company owner accused me of being a “spy” for the Chinese government. He questioned me on my rationale for returning to Australia after spending some time in China working as an academic. He wanted to know the details of my time in China, about personal connections I made there and seemed very keen to know my motivations for returning to Australia. He grilled me on my “allegiances” and asked me to declare that I do not support the Chinese Communist Party.

Unfortunately, this episode is emblematic of a wider malaise. Some people – too often occupying positions of authority, and who should know better – see experience and credentials such as mine as suspect.

As a social scientist, working within Australia’s university sector, I seek to better build China capacity within institutions that depend on fee income generated by students from China. Our universities benefit from access to external data and insight into China’s political-economy and the aspirations of its people. So do government and business in planning how they engage with China. Surely, this ought to be seen as in our national interest.

I can only imagine the barriers facing Australians of Chinese descent who seek to contribute to current public and policy discussions.

It is increasingly urgent for Australia to find a way to better support young Australians to spend time either working or studying in China, and importantly, to support them on their return to participate in economic and public policy life using the knowledge they have accumulated.

Li Qiang’s visit is an opportunity for the Australian government to consider three priority areas to boost its China knowledge assets.

First, openly declare support for Australian students to study in China. Students should be encouraged to take up opportunities to study in China under DFAT’s New Colombo Plan program. China currently has one of the world’s largest international education sectors, despite recent sharp declines. In the most recent data, Australian students don’t feature in the top 15 countries of origin.

Second, Australian industry and policy circles need better links to Australians with China experience and expertise and should be encouraged to engage with those with bilingual and bicultural knowledge. Frances Adamson’s claim that “Australia’s China capacity is central to the national interest” needs to be recognised within the business and policy sectors.

Third, there is a dearth of data in Australia on our citizens who have spent time studying and working in China. What is the scale of our China expertise? Where are they working and how can we better engage their knowledge? Understanding our national knowledge base and effectively engaging with it, is essential in moving forward in our relationship with China.

Australia has a China knowledge gap. But we do have valuable existing knowledge assets. If we don’t maximise them, we will impede our national security with our own national insecurity.


Republished from Asialink Insights, June 17, 2024.

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