By Charles Qin
“Thank you, young man,” he warmly shook my hand at Te Whare Pirimia, the Premier House of New Zealand, the official residence of the Prime Minister of New Zealand. “I appreciate your efforts in strengthening the relationships between China and New Zealand, as well as China and Australia. It’s a pleasant surprise to see you here in New Zealand so soon after our meeting in Australia just yesterday.”
“I’m here to assist and make sure the language is right, Premier”, I replied to Mr Li Keqiang, who was Premier of China at that time and on a state visit to Australia and later New Zealand.
Building bridges – the importance of good interpreters in diplomacy
The news of Premier Li Keqiang’s passing today is a sombre moment in history, as we reflect on the remarkable contributions of Mr Li who played a pivotal role in shaping the relationship between China and Australia. As an individual who had the privilege of engaging with Premier Li on a number of occasions, I can attest to his dedication, his statesmanship, and his commitment to fostering international cooperation.
I explained that my role involved working to promote diplomatic ties. His appreciation for the effort that individuals like me put into building bridges between nations was both humbling and inspiring.
During that same visit, I had the privilege of interacting with Professor Cheng Hong, Premier Li’s accomplished wife, who is a professor of English Language and Literature at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. Her fluency in English was remarkable. She was reciting English poems at the family dinner hosted by Prime Minister Bill English of New Zealand. Luckily I wasn’t asked to translate them!
Premier Li Keqiang’s proficiency in English was also evident during family dinners with Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers, where he occasionally conversed in English and even corrected his interpreter’s translations. However, during formal bilateral meetings, Premier Li relied on his interpreters to convey his messages in English, and I had the privilege of interpreting English into Mandarin for him and the Chinese delegates to hear.
One amusing and memorable moment occurred when General Cosgrove, the Governor-General of Australia, introduced Premier Li to a 7-month-old kangaroo joey, one of Australia’s most iconic animals. The Premier and his wife initially appeared puzzled, but their confusion quickly turned to delight when I shared the Chinese term for “joey,” a word not commonly known in the Chinese language. Their smiles during that interaction exemplified Premier Li’s genuine warmth and curiosity.
My first encounter with Premier Li Keqiang took place in the imperial hall of Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council of China, back in November 2010. He was Deputy Prime Minister at the time, and I had the unique opportunity to witness his statesmanship during a meeting with Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan. Zhongnanhai is regarded by the Chinese people as the heart of the nation, and being there marked a rare and memorable experience.
During Premier Li Keqiang’s tenure as China’s Premier, which began in March 2013, the relationship between China and Australia went through various significant milestones. One of the most notable achievements was the strengthening of economic ties. China became Australia’s largest trading partner, with substantial exports of Australian resources and agricultural products. Additionally, Australian universities welcomed a significant influx of Chinese students, further deepening cultural exchange.
In 2015, a groundbreaking Free Trade Agreement was signed between the two nations, marking a significant achievement in their economic relations. This agreement aimed to reduce trade barriers and foster greater economic cooperation, laying the foundation for increased trade and collaboration between the two countries.
Chinese companies also made substantial investments in Australian infrastructure, including energy, real estate, and agriculture. These investments not only contributed to Australia’s economic growth but also demonstrated the mutually beneficial nature of the relationship.
However, the journey was not without its challenges but both China and Australia maintained a level of diplomatic engagement, with leaders from both sides periodically meeting to discuss their differences.
In commemoration of Premier Li Keqiang, we remember a leader who left an indelible mark on the relationship between China and Australia. His dedication to economic cooperation, cultural exchange, and diplomacy was instrumental in helping shape the course of these two nations’ interactions on the global stage. Premier Li’s legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of dialogue (respecting the role of interpreters), collaboration, and understanding. We honour his memory and the contribution he made to international relations.
My last interaction with Premier Li was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in November 2022. He had been ousted from the Politburo at the National Congress of the Communist Party one month earlier. The temperature had turned quite chilly and then there was a downpour – he was in the distance, a vague image.