Looking on the bright side: Report from Beijing

Nov 3, 2023
High-rise buildings and viaducts in the financial district of the city, night view of Beijing, China.

Australian Studies scholars in China are optimistic that relations can “get back to normal”. This is the impression I gained from a recent symposium at one of the major Australian Studies Centres in that country. University colleagues I met while in Beijing were all encouraged by news of the forthcoming visit by Prime Minister Albanese and had great hopes for positive outcomes.

The researchers and teachers in the more than 40 Australian Studies Centres scattered across China have been Australia’s staunchest allies in recent years, despite restrictions on travel and accusations of disloyalty and underhanded dealings. They are now hopeful that regular communication and exchanges of views can resume with support from official agencies on both sides. There are unique cordial relations between all the “Australianists” that differentiate them from other groups that study American, UK or other cultures, giving these people a special status in Chinese academic circles.

Everyone I spoke to at the Symposium was excited about Albanese’s forthcoming five-day visit to Shanghai and Beijing. They took this as a sign that academic cooperation and exchanges could soon resume without the rigorous imposition of security restrictions that has hampered frank and free exchanges of views and people in recent years. They stated frankly that their scholars were not in the business of imposing or seeking to influence political decision-making in Australia. Their research was often purely academic in intent, sometimes drawing valuable lessons for China’s own development plans, and sometimes seeking to better understand the issues and problems that face both nations. The Centres hope soon to be able to resume placing students in Australian institutions for further study and to develop ongoing research collaboration.

Many of the Australian Studies Centres in China were originally devoted to language and literature studies, but in recent years they have expanded their areas of research. At this symposium I listened to presentations on Australian culture, politics, economics and regional issues as well as language and literature. Shen Yujia of Sichuan University, for instance, spoke about the securitisation of Australian foreign policy, and Chen Hong of East China Normal University talked about the challenges facing the future development of bilateral Australia-China relations. Others spoke about literary translation, the study in China of Australian English language, Chinese language education in Australia, and Chinese Australian community organisations. One group of students reported on a recent study tour to Melbourne and Sydney where they conducted a survey of popular attitudes to Chinese culture.

Research students that I spoke to told me that they were researching topics including Australian policies towards LGBTQIA, MeToo, Indigenous language preservation, and refugee and asylum seekers. These topics, possibly controversial in Australia, all have relevance to current social concerns in China. It is good to see that frank and fair discussion of relevant issues is possible at least at this academic level. The students’ final research papers may well feed into wider discussions of policies and practices in China.

I was invited to attend this 9th China-Australia Transcultural Studies Symposium (abbreviated as CATS) at Beijing Foreign Studies University (in the interests of transparency, let me state that my travel was paid by that university). The symposium marked the 40th anniversary of the founding of the University’s Australian Studies Centre, so it had some special significance for both new and old. When it was founded in 1983, I was the Executive Director of the Australia China Council, and the Council actively supported the development of this and other centres in China. It was good to see it had not only survived but thrived and was confidently looking to the future.

Among distinguished guests and speakers at the symposium was the Vice Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University Barney Glover, who announced that WSU will host the 10th Symposium in 2024. Other guests included You Jia, the Director of the Department of International Cooperation and Exchanges of the Chinese Ministry of Education, Kevin Hopgood-Brown, the former Chairman of the Foundation for Australian Studies in China, and the incoming Chair Angela Lehmann. Many of the delegates to CATS went on to a second conference of Australian Studies Centres convened by FASIC at Anhui University.

China and Hong Kong imposed severe travel restrictions during the Covid epidemic that put a halt to most academic exchanges. Although a few were able to continue online, that was no substitute for face-to-face meetings. At the Beijing symposium, as at similar events around the world, there were lively discussions during tea-breaks and shared meals, and a general feeling that the academic world was resuming its fairly normal habits and routines.

Readers of Pearls and Irritations may remember that, before I set off on this visit, I was nervous about possible security issues that might impact my travel. I am glad to report that I had no mishaps. My only difficulties with the trip were due to China’s use of advanced technology. Many official processes, such as border health checks, have moved online. Cash is hardly used. Taxis and ride-share vehicles depend on one having the appropriate app and a local bank account. I managed to find ways around these problems. I was worried about internet connections, which had been difficult on my previous visit to China, but I found no difficulty connecting to my home-based email account. Life in Chinese cities, I concluded, is very much a taste of life for future urban generations everywhere.

Next week Prime Minister Albanese will be in China. His meeting agenda will of course cover major issues of international importance and there are many difficulties and problems that must be addressed. Having engaged over several days with the Australianists at this Symposium, I am sure that I can speak for them all in a heartfelt request to the PM and his advisers. Please let them think positively and pragmatically of the benefits to both countries that can flow from closer cooperation and exchanges.


Read more articles in our China Perspectives series:

China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media

Share and Enjoy !

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


Thank you for subscribing!