REG LITTLE. Australian universities and China.

Oct 26, 2018

Comment on Australian universities and China needs to correct the universal Western oversight of the reality that China’s past, present and future can only be understood in the context of its unique classics and millennia of recorded history

Peter Varghese has presented under this heading an excellent, balanced and relevant review of the manner in which American decline and China’s rise will present not just universities but all elements of the Australian economy and society with a growing range of challenges. These will all require careful and unfamiliar evaluation and management. His commentary sets an example for others tackling this sensitive issue.

The only comment that might add to its value is, however, serious. It will highlight the challenges ahead for Australia. This concerns the maintenance of the universal Western oversight of the reality that China’s past, present and future can only be understood in the context of its unique classics and millennia of recorded history. Its 69 years of Communist history is insignificant and misleading in that context. For reasons outlined below universities are not well placed to correct this problem but need to understand and articulate it.

With half a century of exploring this issue, both as an Australian diplomat and activities leading to being elected a Vice President of the Beijing-based International Confucian Association in 2009, I would like to suggest that perhaps the West’s strongest intellectual taboo is any hint that there is an alternative or even superior Chinese political and education culture that has evolved over several millennia independent of Western influence.

Increasingly, it seems likely that continued Western apathy and disinterest on this front will only leave it more and more vulnerable in ways that are beyond its comprehension. In simple terms, substantial and diverse personal and professional interaction with the Chinese can leave one feeling they are better educated, harder working, more coherently and strategically organised and communitarian rather than individualistic.

These Chinese qualities are all the product of a unique classical tradition which has nurtured a thought culture and social practice that few peoples have rivalled either historically or contemporaneously. This has parents who have aspirations for their children have them rote learn from the age of three classics in language composed more than two millennia ago. Most importantly this tradition is undergoing a robust revival in private schools in China and elsewhere amongst Chinese populations. Even a Western university education in the late teens is little more than a vocational qualification in comparison.

The emerging global order where Chinese influence is already pervasive and soft will be one where other nations determine their own fortune largely according to their understanding of this unfamiliar civilization. If this should seem threatening it might be useful to reflect on the reality that this civilization has an unrivalled, almost unbroken, record over several millennia of organising people in peaceful and productive ways.
At present most commentary, with the exception of the type offered by Varghese, is counter-productive as it invites feelings of distrust, conflict and misguided areas of strength. Above all it is backward and not forward looking. Essentially Australia’s past is one of English speaking assertion and expansionism and its future is one of finding a constructive, harmonious and humble role in a Confucian Asia and broader global community. Few yet are aware of the degree of decline in American power across most areas of relevance, whether economic, political or military, and even fewer of China’s comparative advances.

The seriousness of the total lack of recognition or comment regarding this classical education can be highlighted by the fact that China’s top leaders since 1949, including Mao, seem to have been the beneficiaries of this education. They have managed the rise of Confucian China behind the misleading banner of Communist China in ways not dissimilar to the manner Confucian Japan managed its rise after defeat and occupation in 1945 under the banner of Capitalist Japan.

The notions of strategy, intelligence collection and peaceful conquest could hardly be more different, rendering most Australian comment on problems in its universities misguided and counter-productive in the context of processes already transforming Australia’s future. Only the total absence of coverage in the Australian media of serious reporting on electro-magnetic weaponry, hyper-sonic missiles and quantum computing enables the maintenance of the delusion that America and the Five Eyes Alliance would be able to provide useful assistance were Australia to come under threat from China of the type that the Anglo-American world has posed to so many others over recent centuries.

In summary, Australian thinking about China lags years beyond actualities and needs to shift fundamentally to accommodate today’s realities. Varghese’s words make an invaluable, professional contribution to this process. There is a need still to progress further, leaving aside past, and increasingly dated, professional norms and to begin the challenging task of evaluating the role a renascent Chinese classical culture will play in an increasingly China-centric world.

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat for 25 years, receiving 18 months Japanese and 15 months Chinese full time language training and serving as Deputy or Head of Mission in five posts. He was elected a Vice President of the International Confucian Association in 2009.

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