Chapter 31c – Australian reaction plus


Breakthrough For China

1. Wheat Diplomacy
2. Australian Reactions to Wheat Ban
3. The Mick Young Connection
4. The Whitlam Visit to China
5. Whitlam in Tokyo; the Kissinger Visit
6. Liberal Party Defeated

As it turns out, our ping-pong visit does help to open the doors between China and Australia.

But some rather unpleasant people will do all they can decide who can pass through those doors.

1. Wheat Diplomacy

Towards the end of our visit, I realise just how big in Australia the ping-pong visit has become.

I decide to ask my minders for a briefing on how China now sees relations with Australia.

And so on the last day of our visit, myself, Suich, and Vince are invited to a farewell banquet organised by the Foreign Ministry.

In careful, measured tones we are told how China might find it very hard to continue to buy wheat from Australia if Canberra persists in its hostile, anti-Beijing policies.

Indeed, and in future, China might be inclined to buy much more of its wheat from Canada, which is much friendlier to China.

Suich and myself have no problem realising the importance of the message we were receiving. We prepare the stories to send to Australia.

Early on the morning after the banquet, Yu calls on us to make sure we had got the message from the night before, and to give us some extra material on Beijing’s determination to exclude Australia from future wheat purchases.

Suich and I have already filed our stories from the night before. But delayed deadlines mean we have the chance to re-file.

On the way to the airport that morning, myself and Suich are frantically trying to rewrite our earlier stories.

Vince looks on with mild contempt.

“ The first rule of good journalism,” he says sagely, “is to get your stories right from the beginning. That way you won’t have to re-write.”

It is good rule (in circumstances other than that morning) , and I admire people who can keep to it.

Sadly, I am a chronic re-writer.

2. Australian Reactions to Wheat Ban

Needless to say, our ‘Peking Threatens Wheat Ban’ stories ran prominently in the Australian newspapers the next day.

Equally predictably, Canberra’s conservative Liberal-Country Party government was greatly upset.

No wheat sales and the Country Party coalition partner would have to face some very angry supporters.

Up till then it had been trying to claim that the wheat deals were quite separate from, and unharmed by, its anti-Beijing stance.

Our reports about the threatened ban would have been a major embarrassment for them.

Indeed, the very fact of our visit had already embarrassed them, thanks to the enormous publicity it was getting in the media.

On May 11, even as our ping-pong visit was underway, Foreign Affairs announced it was making a review of relations with China.

Foreign Affairs had long been at the head of Canberra’s anti-Beijing offensive. 

Its volte-face was significant, especially since FA had also been the prime mover in trying to get the ping-pong team to go to Taiwan rather than to China.

Pingpong team in Beijing

3. The Mick Young Connection

Realising that big things were happening, the senior Labor party official, Mick Young, ALP Secretary, decided to set about organising a visit to Beijing for the ALP leader, Gough Whitlam.

That would make life even more difficult for the ruling anti-Beijing conservatives in Canberra, he hoped.

One of his first moves was to ring me when I got back to Tokyo to confirm the wheat ban story and to find out what kind of reception I thought a Whitlam visit would receive.

He added that Whitlam was very hesitant about making this visit into hostile territory, and needed all the assurance he could get.

(Mick’s links with China went back to his years as a very leftwing trade union representative and very welcome in China as a result. I had got to know him quite well through Walsh and Menadue in Canberra, and in Tokyo on his trips in and out of China.

(As someone who had worked his way up from the sheep shearing sheds of South Australia, he was sensitive to the way people behaved. His deep popularity within the ALP and across a broad spectrum of Australian society was no accident.

(He once gave me an insight which I have often used to great effect in my writing about Japan.

(This was the fact that in Japan, despite its alleged feudalistic class distinctions, he sensed little hint of class difference between company drivers and their elite passengers. But in China, despite its claimed egalitarianism, drivers behaved with inferiority.)

4. The Whitlam Visit to China

Thanks to Mick’s efforts, the Whitlam visit went ahead in July of that year, three months after our ping-pong visit. 

It was clearly aimed to cash in on the publicity being given to China in Australia as a result of our visit.

Another aim of the Whitlam visit was to follow up on our wheat story, to prove that Canberra’s anti-Beijing policies were indeed likely to do great harm to Australia’s rural industries.

It culminated in an historic meeting with Zhou Enlai, whom we had met a few months earlier, and also in the Great Hall of the People.

The Whitlam visit got good publicity back in Australia, though the usual gaggle of rightwing journalists from Fairfax and the Melbourne Herald tried to make something of the fact that Whitlam had been unduly deferential in his meeting with Zhou Enlai (by their logic he should have used the meeting to lecture the Chinese on the evils of their communist ways, it seems).

Back in Canberra, the LCP government of the very forgettable Billie McMahon tried to score anti-China points by saying that Zhou had played Whitlam ‘like a trout.’

Bad move, Billie.

Just a day or two later the world discovers that at almost the same moment the ‘trout’ had visited Beijing, Henry Kissinger was making his own very secret and momentous visit to Beijing – to organise a visit by Richard Nixon in February the next year.

5. Whitlam in Tokyo; the Kissinger Visit

Whitlam had decided to return to Australia via Tokyo.

I was able to meet him alone in his Tokyo hotel room and give him that day’s news about the secret Kissinger visit.

He erupted with that special Whitlam mix of sarcastic joy.

As he strode back and forward around the small hotel room rubbing his hands together he repeated: “So I was played like a trout, was I? Well when I get back to Canberra I will show them just who is the trout, and who is doing the playing.”

Washington had not told its allegedly close Canberra ally anything about the Kissinger visit in advance. 

Back in Canberra, Whitlam ‘played’ McMahon to the hilt.

6. Liberal Party Defeated

The Liberal Party leader never recovered from the setback.

Billie’s Coalition government went to crashing defeat in the November elections the next year.

That defeat in turn did much to revive the morale of the Labor Party, which had suffered so much from the unscrupulous way the LCP for three decades earlier had used first the alleged Communist threat and then the alleged Chinese threat via Vietnam to win elections. 

Labor went on to win six elections in the next two decades.

May I immodestly suggest that much of this might not have occurred but for my extraordinary luck in having that telephone call get through to Jackson at that Nagoya factory in April 1971, and for Jackson not wanting to sleep on tatami mats.

Such are the ways history is made.