Our ignorance of China is a disgrace

It’s a disgrace that after half a century or so of multiculturalism, it is still possible that Australian Chinese can be made to feel disloyal merely on the basis of their ethnic background. That’s exactly what happened when right-wing Senator Eric Abetz asked three Chinese-heritage Australians before a Senate committee whether they were willing unconditionally to condemn the Chinese Communist Party. 

The three took Abetz’s interrogation as questioning their loyalty to Australia, which it was. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has on occasion stated that he distinguishes between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Australians, praising the latter. However, when asked on 16 October about his attitude to Senator Abetz’s performance he refused to criticize it directly, in effect contributing to anxiety among concerned Australians that being Chinese means your loyalty is under suspicion.

There is plenty of evidence that anti-Chinese racism has increased along with the rising tensions in Australia-China relations. One survey with results published in the Sydney Morning Herald (7 June 2020) “documented 386 racist incidents, including abuse, physical intimidation and spitting” against Chinese in Australia and the situation has probably worsened since then. Chinese authorities used this racism to argue against sending Chinese to Australia. It’s all very well to sneer at this attitude, as many have done. However, it is reasonable if you look at the situation from China’s point of view.

Surveys tell us that images of China have worsened greatly. A recent Pew Research Center poll found 81 per cent of Australians viewed China unfavourably, a 24 per cent increase in a year. And the Lowy Institute poll of 2020 found trust in China (23 per cent) at the lowest in history.

I’m not denying that the situation in China itself contributes to how Australians (or anybody else) view it. But politics in the West itself is also crucial. The mainstream media rarely has anything good to say about China. The Murdoch media is generally hostile (and to judge from the blogs on articles about China, most of its readers obsessively so), while the Fairfax stable is not much better. Even the ABC tends to focus on the bad things, and a couple of “Four Corners” programmes have done quite a lot to stoke negative views.

While aware that knowing a lot about a country doesn’t necessarily mean a positive view, it’s my strong impression that ignorance means less wish to engage. As one involved for decades in trying to promote Asian and especially China studies, I find it alarming and horrifying that knowledge and appreciation of China, its people, its language and its culture are so low.

As early as 1994 the federal, state and territory governments set up a body with some decent funding to promote Asian languages and studies in Australian schools. There have been various iterations of this work, though none as well funded or carried out with such enthusiasm as that early attempt. These programmes made a difference, and Asian languages and studies are more prevalent in the Australian education system than they were in the old days.

Yet I have to say that the results are overall disappointing in the extreme. I never imagined that in 2020 Australia would be back to the situation where for an Australian to be Chinese could make their loyalty suspect. Have people like Eric Abetz remained so immune to multiculturalism, at least as it concerns Chinese?

In a report by Anne McLaren of 22 November 2019 and published by the Asian Studies of Australia the next year, one unnamed “seasoned” academic was reported to have said the following: “We have seen the gradual hollowing out of the deep language and cultural expertise on China in Australia. Increasingly those Australians who speak to us about China don’t know the language, nor have they spent extended time studying its history, culture and politics” (http://asaa.asn.au/chinese-studies-in-australian-universities-a-problem-of-balance/).

That comment accords with my own impressions. Just at the time of China’s rise when we need expertise most, the country doesn’t have the will to invest in knowledge of our biggest trading partner. That is not only stupid but verging on suicidal.

As for the sub-tertiary level, the situation is mixed. In Victoria, which has long been the main centre for Chinese language learning at primary and secondary level, there has been a rise in the number of schools offering the language and the number of students taking it. 

Obviously, that is positive. Most of the students, however, are themselves background speakers of Chinese. Of course, it is good that they learn their own language. But it is very unfortunate that so few whose background language is not Chinese want to learn the language. One 2016 report found “an overall drop over the past eight years of some 20% in the number of [students] taking Chinese as a second language” (https://www.crikey.com.au/2019/06/25/fact-check-mandarin-speakers-china/). If young people think there are no jobs in Chinese, obviously they are not going to learn it.

The number of second-language learners who can use Chinese at a really professional level is extremely small. This impacts on mutual trust. I regard this as very important, because trust has now completely disappeared in Australia-China relations and that is a disaster. Trust takes years to build, but can be destroyed in minutes.

The deterioration of Australia-China relations and the decline of China literacy in Australia are both unfortunate trends that reinforce each other. Our government is focusing less on China and allowing reactionary trends in the United States and elsewhere to undermine not only relations with China but even understanding and knowledge about it. Just when China is most important, we are least in a position to deal with it.

I remain an advocate and lover of Western culture, especially music. However, I also believe passionately that Australia must study China, its language, people, history and culture not only because they are also worth study and appreciation, but because they matter more and more in our contemporary world. The cost of ignorance of China could be high.

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COLIN MACKERRAS, AO, FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University, Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, during the first working as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

He is a specialist on Chinese history, theatre, minority nationalities, Western images of China and Australia-China relations and has written widely on all topics. His many books include Western Perspectives on the People's Republic of China, Politics, Economy and Society, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2015.

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