The long conversation: Australia and China

Australia-China Youth Dialogue 2014

Australia-China Youth Dialogue 2014

I recently returned from the Australia China Youth Dialogue in Beijing, my head buzzing with new ideas. The Dialogue promotes “more sophisticated cross-cultural understanding among Australian and Chinese youth…[and] seeks to enhance Sino-Australian relations by bringing together key people from both sides to forge deeper connections for the future.” Now in its 5th year, it responds to an absence of – and a need for – more institutionalised dialogue between Australia and China, highlighted by the first Australian ambassador to the PRC in 2009.

While the Dialogue is not a conference specifically about languages, linguistics or just for academics, there were discussions at the ACYD about bilingualism, cross-cultural understanding and the role of universities in Australia-China relations, starting from the opening address by BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at PKU, the historian Professor David Walker. He put current Australia-China relations in a long-view context and explained the breadth of Australian studies in China today: there are now a whopping 42 Australian studies centres and programs across China. Later that day, the current Australian ambassador to the PRC, H.E. Ms Frances Adamson, gave an impassioned speech about the role of the ACYD itself, and the broader context of Australia-China relations. She had great anecdotes to share, having just experienced a career highlight accompanying China’s leader Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan on a state visit to Australia, after the G20 summit in Brisbane.

From the opening speeches’ wide-angle look at Australia-China relations, the Dialogue then moved into three intensive days of seminars, Q&As and interactive scenarios looking in more depth at Australia-China relations, on topics from artistic exchange to climate change to entrepreneurship, business development, biosecurity and military relations (a subject on which I wrote a follow up article, wearing another hat!)

Both Professor Walker and the Ambassador drew attention to the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan, a higher education initiative under which about 60 young Australians per year will study or complete internships in the Asia-Pacific region, from 2015. (The ‘old’ Colombo Plan was a Commonwealth human resource exchange and development program in South and Southeast Asia which grew over time from the 1950s to eventually involve 27 countries.)

When launching the New Colombo Plan earlier in 2014, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said “Our country will benefit enormously from having young ambassadors from Australia who have an understanding of and an insight into the region that only comes from living and studying and working there.” She’s right, and the calibre of the Australian delegates at the ACYD reflected how important and life changing living and working in China can be, for young Australians across so many sectors. Of course, of the 60 or so New Colombo scholars, only 10 are going to China in 2015, and this number needs to grow, as Professor Walker argued convincingly. He noted that Australia’s goal with New Colombo is so “unambitious” that we risk looking stingy in the Asian region. For my own part, when I first went to China to live and work it was through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program (scrapped in 2012), which allowed for more hands-on work in China for upwards of 30 young Australians per year.

This year’s Dialogue also involved a cohort of outstanding and diverse young Chinese people who are living and working, or have lived and worked, in Australia. Their insights, and their utility as ambassadors for both Australia and China, are as invaluable as the experiences of Australians going to China.

As Professor Walker reminded us at the start of the Dialogue, having “fly in fly out” Australians in China does not really work to build an engagement between the two counties. Relying only on Australians who grew up as Mandarin-English bilinguals is also insufficient. There is an additional value in having people learn Mandarin formally and in having Australians who are not from Chinese backgrounds understanding Chinese culture(s), history and language. As the University of Canberra’s Yuko Kinoshita has said,

Be it economics, business, politics, or defence, the basis of any relationship is the people behind it, who are driven by values and beliefs. Individual beliefs about cultural differences have a fundamental impact on our position in the region. Australia needs people who can face unfamiliar values and practices with a healthy respect and tolerance, not arrogance and fear.

For more significant engagement, and to create ‘Ausinophiles’, the Australian education system plays a crucial role. However, education has become demand-driven as well as being an instrument to serve the needs of the nation. Demand for high school subjects that increase Asia-literacy skills (including language classes) is low these days. One (of many) reasons I encounter in discussions with language teachers is that students are wary of taking language subjects for university entrance exams for fear their marks will scale badly. Matriculation from primary school to high school to university can also pose challenges for language students, as the streams do not run consistently throughout. (Australia is not alone in this regard; Livia Gerber recently wrote on this site about barriers to bilingualism for students in Switzerland).

Allowing high school demand to set the course is not good enough, from a macro perspective. As Professor Walker argued, we need to think about the national interest in changing to a more balanced and longer-term education system that will meet the demands not just of individual high school students choosing their subjects, but the demand for a labour force with strong ‘Asia-literacy’. And that requires incentivising Asia-literacy and having long term education investments in both teachers and students.

Elsewhere, Professor Walker has noted thatthe first systematic case for the teaching of Asian languages in Australian universities dates from 1908.” Around this time, there was also a small push to reframe the discourse about the “East” to be about the “North”, given the actual geographic relationship between China and Australia (it’s not East-West!). This aimed to break away from looking at China through British eyes and from the perspective of the British Isles, given that Australia is much closer to Asia than Europe and (was at the time predicted) likely to increasingly integrate into Asia (a prediction borne out).

While momentum on this front waxes and wanes in Australia, the Dialogue at least is a dynamic and growing institution. It was and remains a non-government, youth-led initiative and was just named as a finalist in the inaugural Australia-China Achievement Awards. The Dialogue’s Executive Director, Fiona Lawrie, herself a Dialogue delegate from 2012, was included, along with government ministers, in this month’s inaugural High Level Dialogue between Australia and China.

The Dialogue was a great forum for Asia- and Australia-literate, mainly bilingual, young academics and professionals who excel in diverse fields and who have lived in both countries to share ideas and talk about the future of Australia-China engagement. Most delegates had used formal foreign language learning (Mandarin or English) and/or higher education opportunities in the two countries, to then launch into self-styled programs of further study, greater cultural immersion and dual-country careers. The Dialogue was, in fact, a great example of more ambitious engagement between the two nations, and continued to build upon the much longer history of Asia-literacy and Australia-China relations that Professor Walker reminded us we have.

Author Alexandra Grey

Alex has completed her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney and is now waiting for graduation day! Her thesis is in sociolinguistics, analysing China's minority language policies today with a focus on Zhuang language. She also teaches various subjects in policy development and law at Macquarie University law school, and she was previously a legal researcher and advocacy trainer at a Chinese not-for-profit organization in Beijing, continuing there after a stint with AusAID's Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. Between the NGO and the PhD, Alex studied Mandarin at BLCU and Tsinghua University in Beijing, adjudicated and lectured in debate, and completed her Masters in Applied Linguistics. Alex has written for the Lowy Interpreter, Whydev and The China Beat blogs.

More posts by Alexandra Grey
  • Liv

    Very engaging post Alex, thank you!
    Where can I read more on the Australia-China Youth Dialogue?
    Cheers, Liv

  • Dominic Meagher

    Hi Liv,

    Check out the website:

    The organisers have contact details available there. Or feel free to contact me (I was a delegate in 2011)