Chi­nese puz­zle

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - OPENERS -

For a long time now we’ve been told how Australia is a part of Asia. But let’s be hon­est: in our heads at least, we live in Europe. You can see this clearly in a walk along North Ter­race. Stay cool be­neath the Euro­pean plane trees. Ad­mire the grand public build­ings that wouldn’t be out of place in London or Paris. Then out­side the Univer­sity of Ade­laide be struck by the sheer num­ber of Asian stu­dents. We may not be yet a part of Asia, but Asia is in­creas­ingly part of us.

Un­for­tu­nately, we don’t re­ally un­der­stand that. We know China is what keeps our econ­omy roar­ing along just as Ja­pan once did; we also know that most stuff we buy has been made there. But that’s about it. Com­pare that to our knowl­edge of Amer­ica. If you open any news­pa­per at the mo­ment, you’ll likely find a story about the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion – even though it’s not un­til Novem­ber and the Repub­li­cans haven’t even cho­sen a can­di­date yet. But did you know the Chi­nese are also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lead­er­ship ten­sions not seen so pub­licly since 1989 (the year of the Tianan­men Square mas­sacre)? Or even the name of the man – Xi Jin­ping – widely tipped to take over the party lead­er­ship from Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao in Oc­to­ber?

If not, join the club. While we’ve em­braced Asia in ar­eas like food, we re­main firmly An­glo-cen­tric. And we’ve re­in­forced that with a mi­gra­tion pro­gram which for most of the last cen­tury has re­lied on Europe as its chief source. Yes we’ve di­ver­si­fied since the Viet­namese refugees be­gan to ar­rive in the 1970s, but the UK has al­ways been our num­ber one source of mi­grants.

Un­til now. Last year most mi­grants came from China (29,000), with Bri­tain sec­ond (24,000). Third was In­dia (21,000). Seven of the top 10 source coun­tries were Asian (ex­clud­ing New Zealand which doesn’t fea­ture in the pro­gram). Two mil­lion Aus­tralians were born in Asia. We may have failed to make the leap into Asia, but Asians haven’t had the same dif­fi­culty with us.

That much is ob­vi­ous from a city stroll. Nearly 70 per cent of for­eign stu­dents are Asian. Their num­bers have stayed strong de­spite the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Yet it is one-way traf­fic: very few Aus­tralians study in Asia. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is wor­ried this will af­fect our fu­ture abil­ity to un­der­stand the place.

So why not? In my opin­ion, two rea­sons: our head space is Europe and the US, and un­less you’re Kevin Rudd, the Chi­nese lan­guage seems to be too dull or dif­fi­cult. Very few Aus­tralian stu­dents of An­glo-saxon back­ground seem ca­pa­ble of mas­ter­ing it, or keen to pur­sue it as a ca­reer tool. In Year 12, the num­bers are plum­met­ing, down from 480 to 311 be­tween 2008 and 2011, and most of those al­ready have a back­ground in Chi­nese.

It’s a ter­ri­ble fail­ure of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. I blame our school sys­tem’s ca­reer ad­vice and es­pe­cially the fo­cus on per­fect Year 12 scores to max­imise a stu­dent’s op­tions for univer­sity en­trance. Chi­nese is tough, and no won­der stu­dents want­ing the top mark would opt for some­thing eas­ier.

But we’ve got it wrong. We don’t need per­fect speak­ers, just good ones who can help forge greater links and un­der­stand­ing be­tween our coun­tries. SACE should ac­com­mo­date this.

China presents op­por­tu­ni­ties and threats. It is the world’s banker, Australia’s best cus­tomer, and a gi­ant caul­dron of so­cial and eco­nomic change. Yet its work­ings are opaque. Some ex­perts fear a growth of na­tion­al­ism, oth­ers a drop-off in its GDP.

We need to un­der­stand it bet­ter. The best way to un­lock the Chi­nese puz­zle is to learn the lan­guage.

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