En­voy blazed a trail

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald Ross Fitzger­ald is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and history at Grif­fith Univer­sity. Com­rade Am­bas­sador: Whitlam’s Bei­jing En­voy By Stephen FitzGer­ald MUP, 272pp, $34.99

When Gough Whitlam ap­pointed Stephen FitzGer­ald as Aus­tralia’s first am­bas­sador to the Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of China, he did so with typ­i­cal ironic hu­mour: “I shall now call you Com­rade Am­bas­sador. ” Hence the ti­tle of this en­gag­ing memoir.

Schooled in Ho­bart, FitzGer­ald, the youngest of five chil­dren, did not know a sin­gle Asian per­son un­til he went to the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia in 1957. Even there, few stu­dents re­garded ‘‘the dis­cov­ery of Asia’’ as a burn­ing is­sue.

But, as FitzGer­ald puts it, “the deeply re­lated is­sue of White Aus­tralia” was cer­tainly a cause for ac­tivism and ac­tive in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­est. Thus by 1960, his last year as an un­der­grad­u­ate, FitzGer­ald and his highly tal­ented wife-to-be, Gay Over­ton, were part of the “aroused gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian Aus­tralians”. It was this co­hort who came to un­der­stand that to change the way our na­tion re­lated to Asia, we had to change our­selves.

This was the per­spec­tive that led FitzGer­ald to be­gin work at the Depart­ment of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs in Jan­uary 1961. On his first day in Aus­tralia’s for­eign ser­vice, he was briskly told to learn Chi­nese. As the fu­ture China-watcher, diplo­mat and inau­gu­ral am­bas­sador ex­plains, he had “no idea about the lan­guage, ex­cept that it’s said to be very dif­fi­cult!”

He passed his lan­guage ex­ams and on New Year’s Eve 1962 he and Over­ton ar­rived in Hong Kong. Al­most im­me­di­ately FitzGer­ald be­gan in­ten­sive study at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong. There, at last, was a sea of peo­ple, in­clud­ing some Euro­peans, who spoke Can­tonese and FitzGer­ald’s des­ig­nated lan­guage, Man­darin.

Af­ter com­plet­ing his PhD on con­tem­po­rary China’s re­la­tions with over­seas Chi­nese, in July 1969 FitzGer­ald was ap­pointed a re­search fel­low at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity. There he was able to rub shoul­ders with other in­tel­lec­tu­als who had an in­ter­est in Asia, and China in par­tic­u­lar.

Fit­tingly, this fas­ci­nat­ing memoir fo­cuses on FitzGer­ald’s role as an ad­viser to Whitlam about all things Chi­nese, which ul­ti­mately led to the ap­point­ment in Bei­jing, a post he held with dis­tinc­tion from 1973 to 1976. The book gath­ers con­sid­er­able steam when FitzGer­ald de­tails his ex­pe­ri­ences in China serv­ing un­der Whitlam and Mal­colm Fraser.

While his time in China is the core of Com­rade Am­bas­sador, FitzGer­ald has skil­fully wo­ven his per­sonal story into the nar­ra­tive of the ex­tra­or­di­nary na­tional change from the White Aus­tralia of the 1950s to the ac­cep­tance of Asia.

So this is as much a book about FitzGer­ald and Aus­tralia as about FitzGer­ald and China. One of the dra­matic high­lights is FitzGer­ald’s near lynch­ing by the Red Guards in 1968. Also in­trigu­ing are his ac­counts of Whitlam’s trip to China as op­po­si­tion leader in 1971, as prime min­is­ter two years later, when he met Mao Ze­dong, and Fraser’s 1976 visit. Later on, two stand­out episodes are FitzGer­ald’s or­ches­tra­tion of our re­sponse to the Tianan­men Square mas­sacre of June 1989 and his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the first Aus­tralian hu­man rights del­e­ga­tion to China in the early 90s.

Un­for­tu­nately, FitzGer­ald can­not write as op­ti­misti­cally about our fu­ture be­ing in­ter­locked with Asia as he once did, even as re­cently as the mid-90s. Then, he ar­gues, there was a more pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive po­lit­i­cal bi­par­ti­san­ship. This ap­plied not just to is­sues of race, refugees, immigration and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, but to a shared vi­sion of what was good for Aus­tralia and our re­la­tion­ship with Asia, cul­tur­ally and eco­nom­i­cally.

“Big­otry and racial ha­tred hadn’t been ban­ished, but they were tem­pered by strong po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship and mod­er­ated by a ci­vil­ity in so­ci­ety,” he writes. There was, he ar­gues, a con­fi­dence and an open­ness that made us in­ter­na­tional in out­look and in­creas­ingly cos­mopoli­tan at home.

Through­out this memoir FitzGer­ald makes a sus­tained ar­gu­ment for Aus­tralian in­de­pen­dence in for­eign pol­icy. He strongly ar­gues that, although Whitlam, Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keat­ing were able to achieve this, it’s not the case to­day.

Thus at the end of the book he ex­presses his con­cern that, lack­ing pos­i­tive po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing the lead­er­ship of ideas, Aus­tralia will have trou­ble cop­ing with the great changes tak­ing place in our re­gion, par­tic­u­larly in China.

FitzGer­ald’s the­sis is that from Whitlam to Keat­ing our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers were pre­pared to lead. More­over, all of these PMs had a longterm vi­sion of our re­la­tions with Asia. This vi­sion was grounded in an in­creas­ingly plu­ral­ist Aus­tralia that in­volved find­ing our se­cu­rity in and with Asia, not from it. Yet in 2015, de­spite our in­creas­ingly di­vided na­tion and frac­tured polity, when it comes to for­eign pol­icy, it re­mains the case that we have to un­der­stand Asians at least as well as they un­der­stand us.

While FitzGer­ald is op­ti­mistic about the Aus­tralian peo­ple be­cause, with re­gard to Asia, we’ve shown our­selves able to un­der­stand, and to change, he doubts any­one can be op­ti­mistic about our cur­rent crop of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. They could do worse than read Com­rade Am­bas­sador.

It is un­for­tu­nate this co­gently writ­ten and well-in­dexed book con­tains no pho­to­graphs or il­lus­tra­tions. It also does not have any ac­knowl­edg­ments. Still, it’s an im­por­tant, il­lu­mi­nat­ing book.

Gough Whitlam meets Mao Ze­dong dur­ing the then prime min­is­ter’s trip to China in 1973

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