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

Mar 16, 2023
Back view of graduates during commencement.

At exactly the same time as proclaimed “experts” from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute are telling us to prepare for war with China within three years or so, people who have done proper research on the situation with China studies are saying our record is disappointing, indeed getting worse, not better.  

Early in March 2023, the Academy of the Humanities of Australia (AAH) released a detailed report on “Australia’s China Knowledge Capability” by Jon Lane and others. As one would expect from our most senior academy dealing with the humanities, it is an excellent report in academic terms. The trouble is that its findings are very disturbing and suggest that, despite some important successes, Australia has actually gone backwards over the last couple of decades in China training in our universities. So, at exactly the same time as proclaimed “experts” from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute are telling us to prepare for war with China within three years or so, people who have done proper research on the situation with China studies are saying our record is disappointing, indeed getting worse, not better.

The report quotes Frances Adamson A.C., Governor of South Australia and former Australian Ambassador to China as saying that “deep knowledge of a country reduces the risk of strategic miscalculation – a real danger in an increasingly volatile world.” I think she’s right. I also think that kind of thinking needs a bit more priority in policy-making circles.

On 9 March, two of the members of the Advisory Group overseeing the writing of the report, Peter Varghese AO and Joe Lo Bianco AM, themselves leading minds in the Academy, wrote in the Australian Financial Review: “A deeper understanding of China, including how China sees itself, is critical to our ability to comprehend the dynamics of the multipolar global environment.”

My own view, as one long involved with China, is that the ability and wish to see China as it would see itself, are crucial to formulating policy. The fact is that it is very easy for politicians of one country to lecture those of another and assume a moral superiority without knowing or caring, let alone putting due emphasis on how they might see the world. When we get into binaries that are not always apposite, such as “autocracy versus democracy”, it is very easy to forget that people from other countries might have different world outlooks, different concerns, different priorities. Holding different values does not necessarily make them inferior or wrong.

So, let’s note a success. The report says that “Australia’s universities generate prolific, diverse knowledge about China” and proclaims this “a success story”. Yes, Australia does produce more and more varied research on China than it once did, and Australian-born and immigrant scholars, including Chinese resident in Australia, deserve credit.

It is all the more a pity that excessive government obsession with national security blocks some perfectly valid and useful joint research, because the Chinese might be able to take advantage of Australia’s skill to benefit their own security at Australia’s expense. Of course, national security is a concern, but I think it is often taken to excessive lengths that create unnecessary and harmful blockages of trust among researchers.

So, let’s name some specific areas where Australia’s China knowledge and knowledge production has gone backwards.

The AAH report mentions honours programmes in China studies, once quite strong but now seriously declined. China studies programmes are declining both in offerings and enrolments. China-focussed courses are declining in number and influence. Several universities with which I am very familiar exemplify this very point. Once vibrant honours programmes in China studies have disappeared altogether. Few or no courses focus exclusively on China.

Increasingly, knowledge of China relies on scholars and other thought leaders who have applied their expertise to China but are not themselves China specialists. One can’t help thinking of some of the discussion in Pearls and Irritations last week about the hysteria being pedalled in the Fairfax media.

The report calls for more Australians to be trained with mastery in the Chinese language, as well as a deep knowledge of Chinese culture, politics and history. I can only endorse that strongly but can’t help noticing erosion over the past decades.

The AAH report includes a stark timeline of progress. It says that, following the prioritisation of Asian studies both in the universities and schools about 1990, China knowledge capability reached a peak period about 2000, when “young Australian China scholars came to maturity”.

It claims that a downturn began as early as 2002 as some of the best Australian China specialists were headhunted. At the same time the Howard government suspended funding for Asian studies in schools. It is true that Gillard and even Marise Payne tried to revive it in different forms, but it always lacked the enthusiasm and push of earlier times.

I’m afraid that the deterioration in bilateral relations we’ve seen over the last few years does contribute to reduction in emphasis on China in the education system. This is because young people think they have less chance of finding good employment with knowledge of China. China is no longer “cool” to use a term popular with young people. They are more likely to get a job with knowledge of Japan and of course English is enough to deal with India.

Meanwhile, our prime minister goes around the world seeking military agreements that are in effect aimed against China. I have no objection to Albanese’s making friends with India. I certainly do object to his making security deals against China, and especially hobnobbing with Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak to purchase highly expensive and totally unnecessary nuclear-powered submarines aimed against China that won’t be ready for decades anyway. All that at a time when our ignorance of China is being exposed! Personally, I think it’s an absolute disgrace! Surely, improving knowledge of China within the community is both cheaper and far more productive!

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!