Five decades after the journey that changed relations between Australia and China

In 1971, a young Australian scholar was enjoying a late-morning beverage in a bar in Canberra when he made a call that would forever alter his course of events.

Is there anyone here named Stephen FitzGerald? the bar yelled.

Future prime minister Gough Whitlam, one of Australia’s most influential politicians, was on the line.

Then-opposition leader Mr. Whitlam asked the China specialist if he would accompany him on a significant diplomatic mission to the nation.


Yes, of course I would, I replied. To the BBC, Dr. FitzGerald said.

Then, in his typical wisdom, he asked, “Would you mind flying economy class?”

The establishment of diplomatic relations between Australia and China would begin at that time. On December 21, 1972—50 years ago—it accomplished it.

Deeply polarizing issue
Mr. Whitlam made a dangerous political choice by taking the trip.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was vying for better relations with other countries and a seat at the UN at the height of the Cold War in 1971, was forcibly making its way onto the international stage.

Key players like the US, who refused to acknowledge the CCP as China’s legitimate government, posed obstacles, nevertheless.

Australia was one of those countries. The topic of China remained “very controversial” there, according to Dr. FitzGerald.

Just 3% of the population at the time was non-Australian or non-European, and many people were wary of other cultures. Another major worry was the communist “red threat”. These concerns converged on China.

According to Dr. FitzGerald, when Australia’s conservative government discussed the danger posed by the “downward thrust of China,” it struck a chord with many people. It was simple to “imagine China, and not just China, but Chinese who were communist, taking over Australia.”

“Even though it was not even remotely possible, it was a powerful statement,”

Stephen FitzGerald speaking from a podium
Source of the photo: The Whitlam Institute
Dr. FitzGerald has spent decades researching China.
However, Mr. Whitlam had long pushed for Australia to establish diplomatic ties with China.

According to Dr. FitzGerald, it wasn’t because of any ideological affinity for the CCP. You don’t have to agree with them, but in his opinion, how can you not have diplomatic ties with the government of a large country?

However, even inside Mr. Whitlam’s Labor Party, many believed that any move toward China would spell “political death” at home.

Therefore, Dr. FitzGerald explains, “it took guts on several fronts.”

Dr. FitzGerald’s journey to China was more of an accident than Mr. Whitlam’s inadvertent ambassadorship.

He declined to pursue a study of China. From the moment he was given Chinese language classes on his first day as a foreign service cadet, everything started to spiral. Furthermore, Dr. FitzGerald had already left for a career in academia by the time Mr. Whitlam arrived.

The trip itself felt even more weird, since the invitation was a surprise.

There were no flights back then; you had to walk into China, according to Dr. FitzGerald. We had to travel to Hong Kong, take a train to the border, carry our bags across, pass through customs and immigration on the Chinese side, and then board a different train.

For two weeks, the delegation visited businesses, factories, schools, and tourism attractions. Dr. FitzGerald remembers having to regularly enlighten “mystified” Chinese officials about Australian humor.

The meeting with Zhou Enlai, the then-premier of China, was the mission’s true objective. It was never certain if that would occur until late one night when Chinese officials showed up at the Australians’ hotel and started herding them into cars.

Zhou Enlai was there in the room when we entered the Great Hall of the People after driving through the deserted streets of Beijing, according to Dr. FitzGerald.

Mr. Zhou startled the delegation by inviting journalists to remain in the room as the much awaited meeting got underway.

Whitlam conversing with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier IMAGE SOURCE:STEVE FITZGERALD
Gough Whitlam (second from left) conversing with Zhou Enlai in the photo (right)
The meeting altered Australia’s perception of China.

“The Chinese were demonized as a hybrid of red devils and yellow perils; they appeared to have horns virtually.” And here was this incredibly refined and civilized, courteous, diplomatic, kind, and endearing individual.

“I came to the conclusion that our relations with China would never be the same again after watching that meeting between Whitlam and Zhou Enlai.

“At that point, the election in December 1972 was the only thing standing in the way of diplomatic relations.”

The election was won by Mr. Whitlam, ending 23 years of conservative administration. He officially recognized the People’s Republic of China on December 21 a few weeks later.

He appointed Dr. FitzGerald as Australia’s first ambassador to China shortly after that. He was Australia’s youngest ambassador ever at the age of 34.

Obviously, it was intimidating. It had to be, he claims. But I believe the thrill completely overcame that sense.

Stephen Fitzgerald and Chairman Mao Zedong meet with Gough Whitlam
Photographer: Stephen Fitzgerald
Image caption: In 1973, Dr. FitzGerald and Mr. Whitlam met Mao Zedong
According to Dr. FitzGerald, Mr. Whitlam wanted Australia’s relationship with China to be on par with its relationships with other major nations.

But things aren’t like that now, 50 years later.

Advice for today?
Although commerce between Australia and China has greatly benefited both countries, recent years have seen a historic low in bilateral relations. In the midst of disagreements over trade, human rights, and foreign intervention, high-level contact was halted for two years.

But in the past month, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was elected in May, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time since 2016.

Although there was no progress on crucial problems for Australia, he described the conversation as “warm” and “quite helpful.” Few experts are hopeful that the relationship will change drastically any time soon.

Is China sincere about reconciling with Australia?
In the year that relations between China and Australia were at their “lowest ebb,” Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute think tank in Australia, told the BBC that there were still far too many areas of contention. She claims that many of them have their roots in “fundamental” differences like governing structures or moral standards.

“One meeting, or perhaps multiple meetings, won’t be enough to resolve those difficulties.”

Another such encounter will occur on Wednesday in Beijing when Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, meets Wang Yi, the Chinese equivalent. It is an Australian minister’s first trip to the Chinese capital in more than three years.

Dr. FitzGerald believes there are still lessons to be learned from what happened 50 years ago, despite the fact that the China of today appears to be more “dictatorially minded” and “assertive.”

The [Whitlam] government understood that maintaining good relations with the local authority was necessary despite whatever had occurred.

Not everything was nice and light, but it did indicate that we were conversing with one another.

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