Gough Whitlam and the start of the modern Australia-China relationship

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Australia’s 21st Prime Minister Gough Whitlam died Tuesday aged 98. One of the most colourful and transformative figures in Australian domestic politics, he was also the first politician to re-engage with China in the modern age. He visited as Opposition leader and Prime Minister. Here are 10 of his most prescient insights following his 1971 visit.

"We expect China to believe the best about our statements of intention, while we choose to believe the worst about hers."
Gough Whitlam, Former Australian Prime Minister

Insights from Gough Whitlam on China from his reports following a visit to China in July, 1971.

  1. “The new China is Chinese first, Maoist second and Communist third. The distinction is crucial. The West’s failure to accept the difference has been the major cause of misconceptions about China and the mutual hostility between us over the past 22 years.”
  2. “We should always remember that our post-war policies towards China developed in the atmosphere of the Cold War ... For a generation every event in our region has been forced into this scenario. It is not necessary to visit China to learn the basic flaws in this concept.”
  3. “The real insight one receives in China is how much Chinese experience – their experience in history – dominates Chinese thinking and attitudes. The Chinese experience determines her attitudes to her neighbours and her view of her place in the  world.”
  4. “We will never understand the Chinese and we will never begin to grasp their attitudes to Maoism unless we try to understand that above all they are determined never again to submit to humiliation. The corollary of this is that we will never understand China’s attitude to her neighbours and to the world unless we realise that she will not put herself in a situation where the chances of being humiliated could arise. And if anybody thinks about this for two seconds, he will realise that it is one of the most hopeful things about world affairs today.”
  5. “I can see no irremoveable obstacles towards improved sensible relations between China and the United States. The Chinese have not closed the door despite Vietnam, despite Taiwan. We have found little evidence that the United States inspires the same fear and mistrust which the Soviet and Japan manifestly do. If this assessment is correct, tremendous new opportunities for the United States and for the benefit of the region open up.”
  6. “For a generation, the great questions of China, colour and colonialism – the keys to our region – have been corrupted by our hang-ups about Chinese communism.”
  7. “I do not expect to find the Chinese exactly agog with excitement about us. I do not ever expect Australia to have very great influence with China. But we do have meaningful relations with the two other great Pacific powers – the United States and Japan. It is through the U.S. and Japan that our role lies, particularly and immediately in easing the U.S. down from her generation of over-reaction against the Chinese revolution.”
  8. “We expect China to believe the best about our statements of intention, while we choose to believe the worst about hers.”
  9. “The real risk Australia runs of isolating herself is through a failure of her policies and attitudes to catch up with events.”
  10. One thing is certain. We are not going to be confronted with a choice between China and the United States, anymore than West Germany faces a choice between the Soviet and the United States.”

Photo: Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (centre, right) meets Chinese premier Chairman Mao Zedong (1893 - 1976) during an official visit to China, 3rd November 1973. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Nicole Franklin - Corporate Communications at ANZ, coordinating the ANZ insight series.   

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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