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Empire, orphans, and honourable Aussies

By Chek Ling - posted Friday, 22 June 2012

In June last year, China's Vice-President Xi Jinping, the man in line to become the next president of the world's most populous emerging superpower, came to Canberra with a 200-strong delegation of Chinese business and government leaders. On his way back to Beijing, he stopped in Darwin and took his entourage to visit Kakadu to see Aboriginal art.

Thus began Graham Bradley in The Australian last December. The Vice-President of China, when asked, told Bradley that he wanted to see the place where the Indigenous art came from, those beautiful works that our Governor General Quentin Bryce had presented to the Chinese government in Beijing recently. Could it be that he also wanted to see how the Aboriginal people live today?

Given that we have from time to time raised our concerns about human rights in China it is not unlikely that visiting Chinese dignitaries would be interested in aspects of our cultural practice which linger from the days when the first narco state in history, as Niall Ferguson put it in the TV series The Ascent of Money, smuggled opium into China to extract the silver dollars it desperately needed to pay for tea and silk.


The Qing government had insisted on silver for its tea and silk, outlawed opium, and rejected trade overtures from the Empire that ruled the waves. It was a terminal mistake. Great Britain invaded in 1939 and executed an unnecessarily prolonged military expedition until 1842. Opium spread like wildfire in China soon afterwards, and that opprobrium would last for the next 100 years until Mao’s triumph in 1949.

By that time the British Empire was all but a bag of bad dreams. Australia, the New Britannia, became an orphan cast adrift in an alien sea. Half a century on, we are now talking big about securing our place in the Asian Century, particularly the Chinese Century. We will be more China-literate in our business dealings, more China-sensitive in certain political matters, and perhaps even China-empathetic in some cultural aspects, as indicated in the presenting of Indigenous art works by our Governor General at the Gates of Heaven in Beijing.

And we are a tolerant people, with the success story of a multicultural society that is the envy of many in the West. But will all these best-foot-forward antics really wash with the well-educated and well-travelled ruling class of that one-Party capitalist behemoth on a path to reclaim the glory days of the unrivalled Middle Kingdom during the Ming Dynasty?

Trust is the basis of business dealings, and foreign relations. The leaked plans in which Australia becomes part of the American war machine against some nation looking rather like China are unfortunate to say the least. Is the orphan still yearning for the pampered days of the far away mother empire?

The British Empire gave us unbridled faith in our virility. Our dauntless endeavours in the New Britannia had regrown the Anglo-Saxon race, as our well-fed, better-built, and indomitable soldiers demonstrated amply in the Great War just ended. Bursting with pride, Billy Hughes refused point blank to entertain the Japanese proposal for a racial equality clause in the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919. The result was the transfer of German concessions in Shandung Province to the Japanese as compensation for loss of face.

China, an ally of the West in that Great War, bitterly disappointed, refused to sign the Treaty. In hindsight, we can see that the West had afforded Japan a bridgehead on Chinese soil from which to launch in 1931 its pan-Asia empire of the rising sun. Will the Chinese forget that? Do we have to say anything about that in our cultural engagement with the Chinese? Funding Australian Studies Centres at their universities and staging Australian productions in their cultural venues is no doubt helpful. But what are we to make of the sins from our Imperial past?


The Chinese are a serious people. Despite Mao’s Cultural Revolution they are still infused with the Confucian belief in intellectual rigour and perseverance. They have not forgiven the Japanese for the Nanking Massacres in 1937, and they find the continuing Japanese failure to admit in their school curriculum the atrocities they inflicted upon China particularly repugnant.

Is there a vein there we should mine? We never did anything anywhere near what the Japanese did. But we were an integral part of the Empire that gave China a hundred years of abject humiliation and turmoil. We sent a contingent to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, too late to do the real fighting, but soon enough to do the “cleaning up” of the remnants of boxers, hunted down and slaughtered.

The Chinese are unlikely to care too much about that episode. But the Yellow Peril, the Versailles Peace Treaty, the Red Menace, may well be in their calculus of how our overtures should be regarded, particularly with the recent posting of American troops in Darwin, reminiscent of a time when we were overwhelmed by the fear of Asian invasion.

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About the Author

Chek Ling arrived in Melbourne in 1962 to study engineering, under the Colombo Plan, from the then British Colony of Sarawak, now part of Malaysia. Decades later, the anti-Asian episodes fomented by Blainey and later Hanson turned him into a mature age activist.

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