Pollies and Chinese Understanding on Show

Australia China Business Council Networking Day in Canberra, 25 March 2015

By Charles Qin

There are 32 Australia study centres in China and through them and the many exchanges going on between the two countries every day, Chinese understanding of Australia is growing.

Based on the attendance at the Australia China Business Council’s Canberra Networking Day in March 2015, our future in China is in good hands with the business community too. I was surprised at the level of understanding of China, the number of native Aussies speaking Chinese and the overall enthusiasm for the subject of Australia-China relations. There was a good mix of Chinese and Aussie attendees too – a far cry from the old days when such events were the domain of white men!

Julie Bishop launches ACBC Trade Report Plenty of capable women were on show – headlined by Julie Bishop who launched the 2014 Australia-China Trade Report, certainly on top of her brief. Tanya Plibersek was missed but her Shadow Parliamentary Secretary, Matt Thistlethwaite, filled in. He shocked us all by comparing Norway, which has made Mandarin training compulsory for all years of school, with his own difficulty finding a school to teach Mandarin to his daughters.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) proved to be a thorn in Joe Hockey’s side. Joe had been busy encouraging other countries to join while not committing Australia. Joe, thankfully and perhaps pressured by the force of opinion at the ACBC event, has now indicated that Australia will sign the MOU and participate as a prospective founding member.

Professor Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist, had us gasping about the growing gap between science spending in our two countries. China spends $50 billion on science every year – more than our defence and education budgets combined. He told us that China is now ranked second in scientific output and pointed out the “significantly spectacular achievement” of being ranked fourth in the top 1% of cited publications.

Australia benefits greatly from collaborations with China and science helps cultural understanding at many levels. In maths and chemistry, for example, China is Australia’s number one partner.

Minister for Small Business, Bruce Billson, put in a good word for our “dexterous Chinese translators” too. At Australia Week in China he was lining up after Andrew Robb for a photo with a famous Chinese actress. He said to her “Good to have a photo with a younger man!” The translator saved the day.

Bruce Gosper, head of Austrade, delivered some positive information and a surprising fact: Australia has not been so dependent on one country (China) since the 1940s when we would sell our entire wool clip every year to Britain.

And, of course, tourism was a strong focus – Chinese now want high-quality experiences and 5-star hotels. They are the second biggest in visitor numbers and number one in spending. With Australia aiming to have 1 million Chinese tourists by 2020, he reinforced the importance of being China Ready.

The Government aims to double international students by 2025 and we also learnt that there are 11,000 Chinese students in Australian TAFE programs in China. So students don’t have to be onshore in Australia to enjoy a good Australian education.

Food was on the menu – Chinese buy more food online every year than Australia exports in a whole year! Fantastic statistics to encourage us all, but very clear that intending exporters must get online and compete at the premium end. Ian Macfarlane said it well: “The opportunity is NOT to be the supermarket to Asia, but to be the delicatessen.”

Despite Kate Ritchie’s question of Bill Shorten about whether he would follow Whitlam and Fraser and lead the Australian people to a better acceptance of China, he did not outline a policy position. However he spoke very strongly about Labor’s support of the AIIB – a better reflection of the modern world than older multilateral institutions; also about Australia’s need to join China in a strong response to climate change. We’ll have to wait for the next election to learn more about the Labor Party’s plans for China. bill-shorten

The Free Trade Agreement, we learnt from the senior negotiators, was the “most liberalising agreement on services China has ever done.” The negotiators got to know each other well, speaking a common WTO lingo even where they didn’t share a language – a nice reminder at the important work done by us – interpreters and translators – in trade and diplomacy, and without us an FTA would never be possible.

So, the packed ACBC program delivered plenty of information and promise. Rounded out with a visit to the Chinese Embassy, we returned home having made new friends and been converted on why we went in the first place.