Upholding peace as China crosses the threshold of world powerOct 2, 2023
Today, we live in an era of high tension between China, our largest trading partner and the US, our closest ally. We risk being goaded into war by the Australian and American hawks and their Chinese equivalents in reaction. Of seeing our sovereignty eroded and becoming the “USS Terra Australis” the largest aircraft carrier in the US Pacific Fleet. We should, therefore, do all in our power to ease conflict by strengthening all that upholds peace.
A newly published book recalls happier days of exchanges between Australia and China. As we drift further away from the world our ancestors saw and survived, dangerously, our collective memories cloud and our societies forget. The Mao Estate: China on the threshold of modernisation, glimpses of social history (1970-1980) by John Barclay and John Cleverley reflects a China captured in images taken because of Australia-China educational and cultural exchange that can be traced back half a century.
The book, nine years in the making, is a photographic archive of about 1100 images, in twelve theme areas, supported with appropriate contextualising notes. The work attests the ongoing commitment of the two authors to educational and cultural exchange between Australia and China and provides a unique contribution to scholarship. The images show China at the end of the epoch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as it progressed into the Four Modernisations which fast-forwarded China’s development.
The images show everyday life in China at the turning point between the past and modernity. They show China on the threshold of becoming the world power it is today, a nation that has seen tens of millions raised from poverty.
Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr launched the book at the University of Sydney on 8 August. In 1972, John Cleverley, then a senior lecturer at that University, organised and was a member of the first delegation of educators to visit the PRC. It took place despite strong anti-China sentiment –“you’ll be giving comfort to the enemy”, “count the bodies floating down the Yangtze” and “you’ll have an ASIO file on you”. More visits followed, and John worked throughout his career to foster positive and mutually respectful relationships, ‘people to people’, between Chinese and Australian scholars and educators until his death in 2014.
Speaking at the book launch, I recalled how, in primary school, I read a children’s biography of Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China, who wrote: “Peace be unto the peoples of all nations,” which resonates almost 70 years later.
My China interest developed at university in my undergraduate study in East Asian history at UNSW. I led study tours, notably groups of librarians and a range of other initiatives under the aegis of the Library Association of Australia with my contribution primarily in the field of librarianship. I later led cultural tours through various agencies.
Both John Cleverley and I have written on Chinese education and librarianship, actively stimulating exchange between the two nations. We focused on relational, rather than transactional exchange with China, utilising a myriad of diverse approaches – people to people – more akin to the way school teachers operate, and more culturally attuned to Chinese mores, helping assure their effectiveness. Amongst other activities, we sent 50,000 books on library science to help redress the isolation of Chinese librarianship from international discourse during the Cultural Revolution and to assist the teaching of English.
Today, we live in an era of high tension between China, our largest trading partner and the US, our closest ally. Not as simple as playing “goodies and baddies” and overshadowed by risk of nuclear catastrophe that could strike at the heart of our nation.
We risk being goaded into war by the Australian and American hawks and their Chinese equivalents in reaction. Of seeing our sovereignty eroded and becoming the “USS Terra Australis” the largest aircraft carrier in the US Pacific Fleet. And as a consequence, becoming a potential nuclear target if things go belly up.
We should, therefore, do all in our power to ease conflict by strengthening all that upholds peace. Refraining from unnecessary provocation, resisting the distortions of disinformation. Not subordinating our national interest to that of any other nation. So as to not “sleep-walk into war.” “People to people” educational and cultural exchange directed towards understanding between cultures, peoples and nations, especially Australia and China, is now needed and remains, as ever, a powerful antidote. Interestingly President Xi Jinping of China has recently called for implementation of a people-to-people strategy that was well used in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Mao Estate and the work of countless other Australians and Chinese over the last half century in developing educational and cultural exchange and friendship needs to be built upon. Although the book is a small but tangible contribution, it nevertheless attests the ongoing dedication and commitment of the authors to strengthen academic and educational ties with China. It represents a baton to be taken up by emerging and future scholars not for the sake of esoteric interest, but for the sake of humanity and world peace.
Read more in our China Perspectives series, edited by Jocelyn Chey: