Agreeing and disagreeing: Australia’s critical deficit in China knowledge

By Jocelyn Chey

19 December 2023

Posted with permission. The original article can be viewed at:

The recent Beyond the Mainstream Media essay series spells out the urgency for Australia to come to grips with our deficit in China knowledge. China is not going to decline or disappear, and the frictions and problems that remain in our bilateral relationship impact all of us in many different ways. We must find ways to get on with all our neighbours.

“Cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest” is a neat formula, adopted by the Albanese government, and intended to apply to all aspects of Australia’s relations with China. Its simplicity is hard to argue with, but when we consider how to apply it to this or that issue, it is quickly revealed to be hard to implement.

The formula itself needs to be evaluated and its details spelled out clearly. This is an urgent matter, because China is not going to decline or disappear, and the frictions and problems that remain in our bilateral relationship impact all of us in many different ways. While some recommend economic and technical decoupling, in reality, this is impossible. Diversification of trade and investment is always a good idea, but no other economy can totally replace China. We must find ways to get on with all our neighbours, including China.

A recent series of essays titled Beyond the Mainstream Media described some of the complexities of the relationship, highlighting problems and opportunities. Starting with a post on 28 August, Marina Zhang outlined the complexities of institutional logic in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In September, Haiqing Yu wrote about the rapid development of AI and suggested that there were opportunities for cooperation in this field; while Shi Xue Dou and Chris Cook pointed to the hazards in such exchanges due to Australia’s anti-China security regulations. Several contributors in September reflected on the bilateral relationship – Colin MackerrasMarilyn LakePercy Allan, and Jingdong Yuan.

John Barclay wrote in October about his newly-published book on education and library exchanges with China, and Meg Hart commented on propaganda and truth in the movie world. Others reflected on China and the emerging new world order – Kerry BrownYun JiangGary Sigley and myself.

I made a short trip to Beijing to attend a conference at the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University and in November reflected on how Australia was seen from the other side. Michael Keane took an in-depth look at the place of humanities studies in China’s development plans. Richard Hu recounted the development of Australian Studies in China and the part they play in bilateral relations. Wanning Sun reported discussions at a bilateral symposium on gender and identity convened in Suzhou by the China Studies Centre of the University of Sydney and stressed the importance of such academic exchanges.

Also in November, contributors discussed the potential of bilateral cooperation in economic, technical and cultural fields. Marina Zhang explained the crucial role that China plays in global supply chains. Wei Li discussed the benefits of cooperation to solve climate issues. Nicholas Jose described the importance of cultural connections with China and Hong Kong.

Another thread in the Beyond the Mainstream Media series, published in November and December, included Merriden Varrall’s discussion of common misperceptions of the drivers of China’s foreign policy. Mobo Gao deplored bias in media reporting on China, and Minran Liu analysed media influence on Australia’s China policy.

Finally, in December, Jane Golley wrote about the recent decline in Australia’s China knowledge capability. This last essay is probably the most important of the whole series. All contributors have outlined important aspects of the bilateral relationship, revealing something of the extent to which China impacts on daily life in Australia. Surely it has never been more important to encourage teaching and research of Chinese language, history and culture, and to raise up a cohort of specialists to work in government, business and trade. Over the decades, reports and recommendations to foster Asian languages and Asian Studies in schools and universities have piled up on government department shelves, only to gather dust.

This essay series Beyond the Mainstream Media goes a very small way to compensate for the deficit in our China knowledge. It should be widely read, and the policy implications taken to heart.

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