Chapter 2 – From Australia to China
BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA.
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS and FOUR LANGUAGES
1. Back to Australia
2. Into Canberra
3. A China Connection
4. Into Hong Kong
When I finished up at Oxford university, future career was far from certain.
I had decided I did not want to stay on to study economics; apart from anything else I was no great admirer of British class society, or the British climate.
But degrees in geography, with side courses in ethnology, geology and surveying (where I even got a minor certificate), do not open many doors, though the surveying course did lead to two job offers – one doing aerial surveys of the Middle East and the other in the Falkland Islands, both paying about 2,000 sterling a year.
I decided I should try to find something better back in Australia.
But what? I had no contacts or relatives there, apart from three very distant elderly female cousins living together in Melbourne. A check with Australia House in London told me there were two positions I could apply for and get accepted while still in England.
1. Back to Australia
One was with the Melbourne Tramways Board. The other was with the Australian Department of External Affairs.
The choice was not as easy as it sounds. I had little interest in foreign affairs, even though I enjoyed languages and travel. The Queensland farm upbringing had given me a strong dislike for office work – a dislike that remains with me.
But a brief interview with the two senior Australian diplomats in London at the time – Keith Waller and Mick Shann – saw me accepted as a potential candidate (they seemed mainly interested in the fact I had graduated from Oxford).
And so, on a cold , damp, late autumn Oxford morning, I set out on a motorbike donated by my grand-mother for London to board a ten pound a head migrant ship headed for Melbourne.
We crated the bike on the wharf and loaded it on the ship just an hour before departure time. For me, as for the migrants, it was to be the beginning of a very new life in a very different country.
A day from Suez our boat was ordered to about-turn and head for Malta. War had broken out, the canal was closed, and we would have to go around the south of Africa, landing two weeks late at Fremantle.
The motorbike ride from Melbourne to Canberra was not the ultimate in tourist attraction. It was early summer and the Hume Highway was still only partly bitumened.
The hot dusty ride through an empty countryside took two days, with one night at a wayside pub. For someone from manicured, over-crowded, sunshine-bereft England it was a rough re-introduction to Australian reality.
2. Into Canberra
So too was Canberra.
The Australian capital in those days was a town of sheep fields, a few scattered monumental buildings and about 30,000 people.
I had been told by my new employers at the Department of External Affairs that I could stay at somewhere called Reid House – a name that gave visions of a stately mansion surrounded by lawns with the plunk of tennis balls in the background.
The real Reid House was different – a heap of temporary fibro shacks set up for itinerant workers on the fringes of Canberra’s alleged Civic Center.
It was some months before I, together with the seven others in the Department’s 1957 batch of recruits, could move to an up-market, middle-class hostel for junior public servants – Havelock House in Northbourne Avenue, then close to the Canberra outskirts – and make our formal entry to the Department.
Most of our first year was spent in a fairly useless round of departmental training trips, in-house work rotation, and laboured hostel parties where the men outnumbered women by about five to one.
In those primitive days few females were recruited for career public service work, and we had to compete for favours from secretaries. I missed D. badly.
Fortunately we also had the chance to do some courses at the local Canberra University College. Claiming to have had some experience with economics while at Oxford with my father, I was accepted for the second year classes being run by a young, vigorous professor called Heinz Arndt.
In those days, Arndt had a reputation for strongly leftwing views. I was still very conservative. But we got on well enough.
A few years later, it was the reverse. He had turned very rightwing, over Indonesia especially. I was influenced by what I had seen of China. But we still got on well enough with each other.
Arndt was a genuine intellectual, with a tolerance and breadth of interest that one does not often find in Australia, or in most other Anglosaxon societies for that matter.
For Arndt, differences of opinions and ideas were things to be welcomed and discussed rather than ignored or put down. That was a rare quality in Canberra’s constipated intellectual climate. But then, Heinz was not Australian. He was a German Jew, exiled to Australia during the war years.
At the then Canberra University College we also had lectures on Australian politics from the resident political scientist, Fin Crisp.
In one lecture, to our collective conservative shock, he said blandly that no one of intelligence could fail to belong to the progressive leftwing of Australian politics.
Years later, during the Vietnam War, he was to emerge as rigid hard-liner, intolerant of anyone trying to point out the insanity of that conflict.
I was to call it the flip-flop effect — the inability of Australian intellectuals to maintain intellectual consistency.
But it was also to show the poverty of Australian opinion when it came to China. It was a poverty I would have to live with for the rest of my career.
Arndt’s lectures gave me a firm interest in development economics. A few years later he was to do me a favour crucial to my future career.
Ironically, he did the exact opposite for my father. He claimed to be an admirer of Colin; he was certainly familiar with all his works and many years later he wrote an excellent treatise pointing out my father’s role in the development of economic theory, economic development theory especially.
But in the early sixties he intervened to prevent my father from getting the lowly position of Statistics professor at CUC (the position went to an alcoholic Canberra bureaucrat who soon drank himself to death).
It was a bad setback for my father, who had wanted very much to be in Canberra to have a base for getting re-involved in Federal economic policy.
But in Canberra’s closed academic world at the time, the fact that he was a world-famous economist was irrelevant. He was seen as a politically unacceptable conservative, and an academic rival to boot.
He ended up, fairly unhappily I suspect, at Monash University in Melbourne and later at Queensland University where he did get some recognition for past achievement.
While in Canberra I also took a one year course in Russian. Reasons were several – the Yugoslavia experience, Soviet space success, my interest in languages generally.
But above all I wanted to get back to Europe so I could meet up with D. again.
She was studying somewhere in Germany. Australia’s Moscow embassy was due to reopen, having been closed for three years following the Petrov spy scandal. Russian speakers might be needed.
Hopefully, if I learned some of the language I would get myself posted there, and get to visit Germany.
The plan fizzled badly. The embassy did not reopen. D. married a German scientist involved with secret rocket development in the forests outside Munich. And I ended up in China.
3. A China Connection
The China connection needs some explaining.
Diplomatic relations with Beijing had been cut off after the 1949 communist revolution. So too had Departmental training in the Chinese language.
But in 1958 Canberra decided it was time to begin to take China and its language seriously again.
Towards the end of that year a circular landed on my desk calling for applicants to learn the language – one year intensive study course at the Point Cook military language school, with the promise of a two year posting to Hongkong to follow.
I was only mildly interested. Like most of my colleagues at the time, I saw Europe and the US as the foci of world affairs and the areas with the choicest postings.
Involvement with Asia was an invitation to be seen as a narrow specialist in things not very important to the future of the world.
But the Canberra existence was beginning to pall. Most of my colleagues in the 1957 entry cohort had been posted abroad. They were all older, some such as Rawdon Dalrymple, later ambassador to Japan and the US, were much older than I.
I was left kicking heels in the Department’s economic aid section, helping to arrange funds for Asian projects bound to fail through corruption or to be bombed by anti-government rebels. Being sent to learn Chinese would at least get me out of Canberra.
So I wrote my name in on the circular, mainly to keep my options open (keeping options open was to be a guiding philosophy for much of the rest of my career). I would decide later whether I really wanted to learn Chinese.
But the options never opened. Out of the several hundred diplomats then employed by the Department, I was the only one to sign on.
I was it, so to speak.
Two months later I was bundled off to stay in more cheap fibro sheds, this time at the bleak, windswept Point Cook airforce base facing Port Phillip bay south of Melbourne. It was to be my home for nearly a year.
The eight hours a day, five days a week, Point Cook course in Chinese would never win prizes for teaching efficiency.
Days went stumbling over numbing sentence patterns, memorising grammar and trying to remember basic ideographs.
Evenings were spent in the officers mess, drinking beer, playing billiards and listening to rambo stories about bombing missions over North Korea little more than a decade earlier.
“We strafed everything that moved, even the cows. And when we ran out of cows, we strafed the haystacks” was one comment that burned into the memory box. Later, in Korea, I was made to realise the true horror of those boasts.
My fellow students were average military types. They had little or no experience of learning even a simple foreign language, let alone something like Chinese.
God only knows what they would do with the language in their future careers.
Presumably they would end up as fingernail removers in any future war with China, or retreaded into some other language to pull fingernails in some other Asian war.
I applied and was allowed to take the final exam some months ahead of them, and return to the relative civilisation of Canberra.
After a brief spell in the Department’s East Asia section, I set off for Hongkong via Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and South Vietnam.
4. Into Hong Kong
En route I began to discover a few Asian realities.
In Singapore, I saw how the squalor and poverty of the native population lapped at the feet of the aloof former colonialists in their luxury mansions and gardens.
The British there had run the society and economy into the ground. Their sole aim was to have the grandiose Far Eastern naval base which they soon had to abandon anyway.
Later, when the Singaporeans themselves had pushed their economy and per capita GNP to a level well above that of the UK, I would recall how our political masters at the time had claimed the UK had to remain in that part of the world because the natives were unable to run their own affairs.
Australians there were part of the same arrogant picture.
An intelligent, progressive Chinese called Lee Kwan Yew had just won his fiercely fought 1959 election to become prime minister of the former colony.
But Canberra’s pudgy head-of-mission in the newly born nation – David McNicol, a man who was later to go on to dictate much of Australia’s hard-line China policy – had decreed that Australia should avoid any contact with Lee.
Why? Because in his election campaign Lee had used promises of drastic reform and anti-colonialist rhetoric to appeal to the masses.
He was seen as a dangerous crypto-communist who would allow a Beijing takeover.
The idea that he might be one of the few activist politicians of intelligence who could steer Singapore away from communism never even crossed their rock-ribbed conservative minds.
It was my first brush with the blind stupidity of Western policies in Asia those days.
Later I discovered Canberra, the UK and the US had backed and financed Lee’s main opponent, the Anglofied Lim Yew Hock. Lee got revenge by sending Lim to Canberra as ambassador, a post far above his abilities and from which he disappeared for a week to enjoy the pleasures of Sydney’s sex scene.
And this was the man the West saw as crucial to stopping the communist virus from taking over Asia!
From Singapore I headed north by rail through Malaya to Thailand, and then onto Cambodia and Angkor Wat, where third secretary Milton Osborne (later to become an academic expert on Indochina) and his wife offered kind hospitality.
From Phnom Penh I decided to go on to Saigon by bus rather than by plane.
I had been told that, while we were going through territory subject to occasional guerrilla attack, the trip would be quite safe. As it turned out, my bus was the last to make that trip.
Vietcong guerrillas were already in control in large areas of the Mekong Delta as early as 1959, even as our Western experts were insisting they were no more than a bunch of bandits confined to distant mountains.
After a day in a still French-heavy Saigon a brief flight took me to Hong Kong. On my first day there, at the Star Ferry wharf, the crowds walked past nonchalantly as a dead body bobbed quietly in the ocean alongside.
Welcome to China, December 1959.