Bilateral bright spot: the future of Australian studies in China 

Dec 18, 2021
china embassy canberra australia
Australia's relationship with China has rapidly declined. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The largest Australian studies community in the world is in China. This augurs well for Beijing-Canberra relations, despite current tensions.

[From a speech by Li Jianjun at the Sustainability Symposium of the Foundation for Australian Studies in China (FASIC) on November 26.]

First, I’d like to thank Professor Pookong Kee and FASIC for this symposium and for their support to Australian studies in China. My thanks also go to Professor David Walker and Professor Greg McCarthy, former BHP Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University for their contribution in 2013-2019. I attended all the previous FASIC conferences in China and was impressed by the high quality of each one.

Apart from being director of Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), my other title is secretary-general of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies. Speaking of the future of Australian studies in China, I may say it is not as bleak as some people have worried, despite the current strained bilateral relations. One important reason is our strong individual and institutional links with Australian counterparts.

Scholars of Australian studies in China generally have strong cultural and emotive ties to Australia, as Professor Greg McCarthy once noted. These cultural and emotive ties are formed on the basis of long time people to people engagement. I can give some examples.

Professor Hu Wenzhong has a long list of Australian friends he has made over the four decades, including academics, writers, diplomats and ordinary Australians. And I have been very lucky that Professor Hu passed on some of the contacts to me so that 20 years ago I could get to know Professors Colin Mackerras at Griffith University, David Carter at the University of Queensland, Michael Wilding at the University of Sydney and Nicholas Jose at the University of Adelaide.

Professor Hu Zhuanglin still maintains contact with the University of Sydney where he got his MA in 1981. In 2017 he set up the Hu Zhuanglin Postgraduate Research Support Scholarship in Linguistics at the University of Sydney in honour of his supervisor Professor Michael Halliday. Professor Li Yao, the most renowned translator of Australian literature in China, keeps in close touch with writers Thomas Keneally, Alex Miller, Alexis Wright, Nick Jose, Gail Jones and some young writers as well.

Young academic and poet Chen Beibei, teaching now at East China Normal University, got her PhD in Australian literature from UNSW in Canberra. The ties between her and her supervisor Professor Nicole Moore and Nicole’s other doctoral students are strong. Nicole has been invited to attend conferences and give talks in Chinese universities because of Beibei’s links. Beibei has been to Australia frequently for conferences and research trips. Cases like Beibei are many. These ties are usually further strengthened with the passage of time.

The institutional links have also been maintained. The Chinese Association for Australian Studies (CAAS) has set up collaborative links with International Australian Studies Association (InASA) and Australian Studies Association of Japan (ASAJ). We send delegates to each other’s conferences.

Some Australian studies centres in Chinese universities have developed close partnerships with relevant institutions at Australian universities. For example, the Australian studies centre at BFSU have collaborative links with ANU’s Australian Studies Institute, Western Sydney University’s School of Humanities and Communication Art, UTS Australia-China Relations Institute, College of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. The China-Australia Transcultural Studies Symposium (CATS), initiated by Professor Sun Youzhong at BFSU and Professor Greg McCarthy and Professor Nick Jose in 2013, is held annually and is now in its ninth year.

The Conference of Australian Studies in China (CASIC) has been held 17 times. The 18th conference will be held at Shanghai International Studies University in mid-November next year. Hopefully international travel will become normal by then and colleagues from Australia, Japan and Korea can attend in person

Here I’d like to share two most recent events.

This year’s BHP Chair of Australian Studies Program Translation Competition, started in 2013 with support from Professor David Walker and FASIC and organised by the Australian studies centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University, was in its ninth year and attracted 672 participants from 74 universities across China. The results came out early this month and will be announced at the closing of this symposium. Of course winners can get money awards, but the young generation’s enthusiasm in Australian society and culture through translation is very impressive. This year’s text for translation is from the opening chapter of Return to Uluru by Mark McKenna. And it is encouraging to see the number of participants on the rise every year.

On November 23 we heard from Professor Li Yao that the book he and Professor David Walker co-authored Happy Together: Bridging the Australia and China Divide will be published soon by the Melbourne University Press. The book is about histories and memoirs of two families, one Australian and one Chinese. It’s also about profound friendship between two fine gentlemen. As its title suggests, people-to-people links serve as bridges to connect the divide. These links are more needed now than ever.

There are challenges Australian studies in China face: 1) Resources are not easily available; 2) Publication outlets are insufficient; 3) Team-building is needed for some centres to keep their sustainability.

But the future of Australian Studies in China is not bleak.

The largest Australian studies community in the world is in China, with 38 registered Australian studies centres. The Chinese Association for Australian Studies is a united and collaborative community, a tradition that has been cherished by the four generations of Chinese scholars of Australian studies. It is recently hailed as “aoyan moshi” (Australian Studies Model) in China for the dedication of individuals and member centres that strive for the collective good of the community and for the steady effort to promote the bilateral relations.

Though the current bilateral relationship is strained, the future of Australian studies in China is not doomed. On the whole, we are optimistic about the future of Australian studies in China, mainly because of the strong cultural and emotive ties to Australia shared by Chinese scholars of Australian studies. I remember Professor Colin Mackerras once said, “I love China as well as Australia.” I trust his love for China doesn’t make his love for Australia less. Similarly scholars of Australian studies in China share the same sentiments. That is the foundation for the long-term relationship between two countries.

Politicians may see more differences between us, but we ordinary people share more grounds in humanity. And in the long run humanity will prevail.

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