Knowledge and understanding deficit: The dire state of China Studies

Apr 18, 2024
China and Australia jigsaw puzzles from flags.

Disgraceful gaps have emerged in our knowledge and understanding of Asian countries. This capability is essential to successful navigation of the future, as Peter Varghese and Joseph Lo Bianco have noted.

Whether it is seen as a threat or an opportunity, in recent years China has dominated the rhetoric of politicians and commentators. The shouting match has happily abated. Now is the time to focus on the way forward, to maximise benefits for both sides from a smoother relationship, and to avoid potentially disastrous confrontation. Never has there been more need for in-depth research and understanding of contemporary China, of Chinese culture, and of Chinese perspectives on the world. Its absence is striking.

A 2023 report on the state of teaching and research has revealed a steady decline in expertise in Chinese Studies at all Australian universities. The Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH) Australia’s China Knowledge Capability revealed that Asian language departments across Australia have declining student enrolments. Language, history, culture, and identity studies have given way to a focus on security. The report deplores the ability of universities to provide input to stakeholders in government and business and calls for a national approach to build up capability.

We should be benefiting from decades of experience in this area. Exchange of teachers and students between Australia and China began fifty years ago. When the Australia China Council was founded in 1978, Australia led the world in efforts to develop and manage bilateral relations. In the 1980s, professional connections proliferated between the two countries. Dozens of Australian technical advisors moved to China under a Technical Cooperation Agreement, education cooperation was strengthened, and more Australian students gained work experience in China.

Recognising the importance of the relationship, Australia adopted a National Language Policy in 1987, funding the teaching of Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian languages in secondary schools. Asian Studies flourished in all universities. Australia’s China capability reached its peak around 2000, across the board, in schools, universities, business and government.

The Howard government stopped funding for Asian Studies in 2005. A Senate Inquiry into Relations with China found then that capacity to improve China literacy was declining at all levels. Contrarily, this period coincided with a dramatic growth in exports to China. While Chinese Studies flourished in the US, Germany, and France, they did not in Australia. Possibly this was because those countries had substantial manufacturing investments in China, whereas Australia simply dug stuff up and shipped it out.

Over the last two decades, the Chinese Australian community has grown and become more complex. With lived experience and cultural sensitivity, its skills and knowledge could contribute to national capabilities. Regrettably, as Yun Jiang noted in a policy paper for the Lowy Institute, few enter the public service where they could play an important role so this resource has been ignored.

Outside the universities, there are hardly any independent sources of research and advice. For ten years, from 2014 to 2024, the think tank China Matters presented valuable insights into the management of relations with China. It voiced alternative views to those found in the mainstream media. Now it is being wound up and its remaining funding diverted to a research fellowship at ACRI.

This is not irrelevant to the AAH report. Elena Collinson has commented,

“Australia cannot continue to shape future policy towards China reliant on only the advice of its national security agencies. It would be foolhardy to suggest that nations never change – China too will change, perhaps in unpredictably ways. The question is whether Australia mortgages its image of China to the present or starts learning to be more adaptable and agile in the event that circumstances change.”

The demise of China Matters demonstrates how security concerns outweigh the importance of independent and informed research in the minds of our political leaders. It was stripped of government funding and of its tax-exempt status in 2020, on suspicion of having supported China’s national interests. At the time China Matters Chair Kevin McCann, a former Chairman of Macquarie Group, told Nine News,

“Advocacy of ongoing engagement with the PRC does not make one a stooge of the Communist Party of China or an agent of influence. One can call out the government in Beijing and at the same time strongly support – in the national interest – engagement with the PRC. What is detrimental to Australia’s national interest is the labelling of such people as pro-Beijing.”

China Matters founding Director Linda Jakobson has returned to her native Finland. Her objective and insightful advice and commentary will be greatly missed in Australia. The importance of this think tank can be gauged from its last event in November 2023 when, in conjunction with the Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney, it presented a panel discussion on PRC foreign policy in the post-Covid era. Its many insights and commissioned research findings are still available on its website.

In a final message to supporters, Jakobson acknowledged the work of China Matters board members including the late Allan Gyngell. Gyngell’s sophisticated view of the Australia China relationship characterised the whole work of the think tank. What he has said and written is still relevant. In a 2022 podcast he urged the government to make a clear statement of its China policy that set out the parameters and the depth of Australia’s interests and objectives and avoided the possibility of misreading or misapprehension. This is particularly apposite to policy on Taiwan.

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” The saying is generally attributed to Albert Einstein, although it actually comes from a 1973 television drama about the physicist. It is nevertheless an insight into the importance of deep research and engagement with people, cultures and learning, and relates powerfully to the Australia-China relationship. A national policy and program for China Studies teaching and research is urgently required.

Professor Anne McLaren will present the main findings of the AAH report to the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW on 23 April.

Registration to attend can be made here:

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