Steve FitzGerald on Gough Whitlam, Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou

Nov 17, 2014

Of the many things I admired and loved about Gough, one of the most delicious, next to our shared liking for food, was that he was the best person I’ve ever been privileged to brief. It wasn’t just that he soaked it up like blotting paper and asked for more and never forgot. It was that each piece of information was absorbed into its appointed niche and found a place in his political and historical cosmology, and emerged as knowledge, fully fashioned, and in context. One imagined the Graeco-Roman or later Christian ‘art of memory’, but of course Whitlamesque in its Enlightenment commitment to science and reason and the art of enquiry.

When I went with Gough to meet Chairman Mao in 1973, at one point the discussion got into history and Sino-Soviet relations, and Gough says, from his reading it seems the Soviet Union wasn’t always helpful to the Chinese and at times directed them to actions which proved disastrous, ‘like the Nanchang Uprising. I understand Premier Zhou (Zhou Enlai, who was also at the meeting), you were the leader of that uprising’. I looked at him in astonishment. This generally little known event in Chinese history took place in 1927, after the Chinese Nationalists broke a united front with the Communists and staged a bloody attempt to wipe them out. Two and a half years before, on that famous 1971 visit that laid the fear of China, I’d given Gough background reading on a huge range of things and somewhere in there was a small piece on the early history of the Chinese Communist Party. And now, this obscure detail comes out, in context, accurate, appropriate. And Premier Zhou Enlai caps the moment with a self-criticism about his responsibility for the failure of that uprising.

But the one time when in my experience Gough’s memory failed him was also in that meeting. They were winding up, with some comments from Gough about the roles of Mao and Zhou in the Chinese revolution, and Mao decided to launch back into the discussion, and asked ‘Would your Party dare to make revolution’ and Gough said ‘we believe in evolution,’ and the meeting was re-ignited, and there was an exchange on the theories of Charles Darwin (which Mao said he accepted but they didn’t apply to historical changes in human society). Mao asked if the city of Darwin was named after Charles Darwin and did Darwin ever visit that city in the Beagle, and Gough had a rarest of moments when a detail escaped his prodigious memory. Zhou Enlai looked at his watch, and with some banter about Mao’s age and infirmities, we stood to leave.

A few days after Gough’s departure from China, I received the following telegram. It was vintage Gough.

‘Apropos my conversation with Chairman Mao, you should know that in 1836 Charles Darwin visited Australia as official naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle, landed at Sydney on 12 January and visited Bathurst. On next voyage in 1839 Beagle without Darwin visited Darwin harbour which captain named after him.

Please make full confession of error to Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai and say that with Chairman’s help I shall now follow correct line.’

The ‘big ideas’ about which so much has been said and written in the last few weeks,  came from the big learning, the foundation of Gough’s weltanschauung. And the big target. Not for Gough the small target. No temporising, no pussy-footing politics or ducking and weaving to dodge negative opinion polls, no fudging principle to make oneself look more like one’s opponents. You could brief him. You could contribute ideas. But it was the courage and fortitude of the big target that turned the big ideas into the big public policy reform.

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