Envoy blazed a trail
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