Chapter 34 – Australia’s China Lobby


A Force for Enlightenment?

Arriving in Canberra in the cold light of an early spring morning following the Whitlam November 1973 visit to Beijing, I thought for a moment I was still back in China. 

The airport with its tiny reception area was surrounded by sheep and wheat fields. 

The strict protocol in the line-up of official cars there to meet us was also Chinese. 

I was also to discover another Chinese-style feature – the pro-China lobby.

1. Rewriting History 

The first revelation came soon after my return to Australia. 

A Chinese table tennis team was in Sydney, to reciprocate our 1971 visit by the Australian team. Fitzgerald took charge of the various celebrations. 

I, along with the entire team that had visited China two years earlier, were carefully side-lined. 

For me, no invitation, in itself, did not matter much.  By then I was sick of table tennis. 

But I doubt if the original team were happy.

One of that team, Steven Knapp, later confided his distress.

Likeable, he had been a star player in our team.  

He had since become a good friend with one of the original Chinese partnering team and they hoped to go into business together.

But he too was carefully excluded.

Another Paul Pinckevich had developed good business contacts with Chinese suppliers of table tennis materials, and had established a strong import business as a result. 

But he too was carefully excluded, for no obvious reasons.

(Later it did become obvious.  The China Lobby crowd wanted to dominate table tennis business relations with China for themselves.   As far as I know they all failed.

Paul, the excluded one, succeeded


Many years later the two of us found ourselves invited on a hilarious 50 year anniversary trip back to China – dinner parties, nationally broadcast TV interviews, visits to TT memoria.

Paul was delightful company – a far cry from he stuck-up Lobby people who all declined the invitation to go back.. 

The organisers of the 1971 welcome were already making it look as if ping-pong diplomacy was entirely the result of their efforts. I, and the original team members, were not invited to the receptions either.

For sheer lack of grace and courtesy, not to mention commonsense, it was hard to find an equivalent. But that is what you have to expect when business ignorant people strive to dominate.

2. Book Writings

In their writings it is the same. 

The 285 pages of the 1985 book by Fung and Mackerras on Australia’s breakthrough in relations with China – “From Fear to Friendship” – devotes only one line to the ping-pong visit, described simply as an example of Beijing’s peoples diplomacy. 

Not even the threat of a ban on wheat imports from Australia gets a mention.

But page after page is devoted to Fitzgerald’s alleged role. 

My much earlier “In Fear of China” book also gets only one line, even though it seems to have contributed to the Fung-Mackerras book title. 

That one line is followed by the bald and totally gratuitous statement that Fitzgerald at that time was doing more than I, Clark, to make a China breakthrough! 

And the reality? 

While I was risking much in the 1960’s to rebut Canberra’s anti-China hysteria over Vietnam,  Fitzgerald was keeping his nose politically clean at the ANU job that I had helped him get and which was crucial to his later career.  

That in turn had allowed him to attach himself to the July 1971 Whitlam visit to Beijing, itself the direct result of the April 1971 ping-pong visit which I had been left single-handedly to organise. 

True, Fitzgerald was later to do much to promote the China relationship, and deserves kudos for that. But he did it only when it was safe and very politically advantageous for him to do so. 

During the ugly days of the Vietnam War, I had tried time and time again to get him to join me in public criticism of Canberra’s China policies. Almost always he would refuse. 

If after 1969 I could not do much more, that was because my earlier activities had forced me into semi-exile in Japan.

3. Australia’s Dragon Club

In Japan they call it the Chrysanthemum Club — the small clique of US academics and others close to Washington and Tokyo establishments who try to dominate much of the US-Japan academic interflow. 

In the case of Australia and China, maybe you can call it the Dragon Club. 

Many can claim credit for Australia’s opening to China. But to suggest that our pingpong visit did little or nothing in that direction is strange. 

Indeed, but for a casual breakfast conversation in my Tokyo apartment Canberra could well have succeeded in keeping the pingpong fever from Australian shores.

Yet that precisely is what the Club has tried ever since to ignore. The Mackerras book provides fairly brutal confirmation.

Excluded from China, by the Australia’s China Lobby 

The Club later was to make sure that I would never have the chance to reconnect with China. Several applications I made to join research and other projects were rejected out of hand.

For me it was a personal tragedy.

I had put three years into learning Chinese.  With due modesty I think I can claim to have had as good if not better Chinese (control of tones especially) than most.

I liked Chinese people and enjoyed travel. True, I had been able to make several trips to China at my own or Japanese university initiative.  But I never once since 1973 got to see the inside of the Embassy in Beijing

Unless the Club had something hide (for example, the poor quality, or bad Chinese, of the people being sent to represent Australia at the Embassy) I cannot understand why every effort  to be re-involved with the Australia-China relationship was blocked. 

(It happens Mackerras, Fitzgerald and myself have a  little-known connection.

(Back in the mid-sixties we had all applied for a Myer Scholarship being offered to send someone to Hong Kong for China studies. 

(Mackerras got the valuable scholarship, which in turn was to allow him to turn himself into some kind of China-watcher. But at the time he was doing no more than study Chinese music. How did he get that scholarship?

(Later I was to get know Ken Myer quite well – his wife was Japanese and he visited Japan often. He told me that Fitzgerald and myself were rejected because we had wanted to study Chinese politics, something regarded as far too dangerous and controversial in those hysterical anti-China days.

(Mackerras got the scholarship because he wanted to study Chinese opera, a much safer topic.) 

Straightening the Record

Let’s get the record straight, once and for all. 

And this is not some kind of sour grapes, since being excluded from China meant I was able to be even more deeply embedded in Japan – an existence far more rewarding and profitable than anything I could have had in hard-nosed China at the time. 

Indeed, if I stayed with China for any time I could have ended up like quite a few China-watchers at the time – confused and twisted. During a barren time trying to be a China business consultant Fitzgerald ended up promoting investment in North Korea

But for me personally it was important I be able to spend a year or two in China if only to maintain the language I had had to learn with such difficulty. I also wanted to maintain contact with the nation I had studied and written about

The publicity caused by the pingpong visit I had organised not only forced the Australian public to take much more notice of China and the Chinese people. It also had a direct impact on Australia’s politics. 

It was to lead fairly directly to Whitlam’s 1972 election as prime minister, which was to lay the foundation for a decade of ALP domination. It was greatly to increase pressure on Canberra to recognise Beijing. 

But thanks to the Dragon Club, all this has become irrelevant. 

Our 1971 pingpong visit has become a non-event. 

Even Mick Young’s crucial role in persuading an initially hesitant Whitlam to make the July 1971 visit is ignored

Ignoring History 

This determination to ignore the role, even the existence it would seem, of Zhou Enlai’s pingpong diplomacy has had another unfortunate result – namely the failure of  researchers into Australia’s diplomatic history to realise that Canberra was to the right even of the US in its fear and hostility to China. 

The attempt to prevent a table tennis team from going to China by arranging a Taiwan tour when the US was going out of its way to open relations with Bejing matched what I had discovered earlier over Vietnam, namely that Canberra was also to the right of the US on the question of military intervention in Indochina. 

And it matched to some extent what I discovered later in Beijing, namely Canberra’s blind refusal to allow any form of contact with the Sihanouk government. 

Canberra’s determination to prevent the pingpong opening to China even though Washington was in favour, should have been a topic for serious academic research. 

Indeed, for students of Australian foreign policies during this period I can think of little that was more important than Canberra’s extraordinary willingness to be to the right of the US over opening to China. 

These details are also important in countering mistaken leftwing claims – that Canberra was dragged into its Asian policies,Vietnam especially, by its US master. 

In fact, Canberra at the time had its own very independent foreign policies, designed almost entirely to keep the mythical Chinese threat at bay. 

Dragging the US even further into the Indochina morass was a key part of that effort. 

Canberra’s efforts to kill the pingpong visit were another, and highly Canutian, push in the same direction. 

One or two foreign policy scholars have picked up my argument about Australia being to the right of the US over Vietnam policy. 

But over Canberra’s scruffy attempt to prevent the 1971 pingpong visit, there has been complete silence. 

Black-balled, again 

Years later the Dragon Club Stalinists were to strike again. 

Still in Tokyo, I began to feel it was time for me to be re-involved with China, even if only for a year or so.

I needed to do something to keep up my language and previous interest before it was too late. 

I had applied for the lowly post of trade commissioner being advertised for Australia’s Beijing embassy 

A three-person committee to choose the appointee included Fitzgerald. It rejected my application, even though I was active in Japan-China trade relations and had qualifications.

The Japanese had even made me a member of their China Trade committee.

Visits to Canberra and visitors to Japan had also kept me in touch with many of the trade scene actors.

Soon after I also had rejected my very humble request to the Australia-China Council, another Dragon Club establishment, for a temporary unpaid academic slot in Beijing. 

The words of Machiavelli are highly relevant: “Whoever lets go of his own convenience, for the convenience of others, only loses his own and gets no thanks from them.”

But my problems are not important. Far more important is explaining Canberra’s quixotic move in recent years from an allegedly close friendship and strategic alliance with China to intensely anti-China, antagonistic relations.

The reason I suggest is that the entire relationship with China was built on very shallow foundations from the start, with most actors lacking the personal depth, education and generosity to provide the necessary framework.

Each sought to make China his or her own personal baliwick, with little attempt to reach out to others. We had no C.P. Fitzgerald to give the relationship some intellectual foundation. 

We had the splendidly-named China in the World. For a while we could hope it would impact our relations with China.  

But it seems since to have degenerated into a forum for cute academic presentations with minimal reach into Australian politics, economy or society.  

Compared with its US counterpart it seems almost irrelevant. 

The moment the spy-military complex moved antagonistically the pro-China edifice crumbled like the house of match-sticks it was.

No one had the gravitas or authority to put the bizarre and ridiculous anti-China crowd back into their box. 

Even my successor by many years from the Point Cook Chinese language school, Brian Rudd, seemed unable to be consistent over China, veering to the Right when a credential as a mid-roader seemed necessary for a US career. 

The fact is Australian society lacks the maturity to deal with China. 

Remember, this was the society which once convinced itself over a mountain of contrary evidence that North Vietnam was a mere puppet of China and threatening to Australia.

As I travelled in China with various journalist groups I could often feel a strain of contempt for the country and people before them. Was it White Australia reviving?

One incident says it all.

The Australian journalists covering an important Beijing meeting back in the seventies decided to amuse themselves by telling the Chinese journalists that the colloquial word in  Australia for journalist was ‘dickhead.’

As the plane left to take the Australians back home the Chinese lined up bid farewell: Goodbye ‘dickheads.’