The Dragon and the Kangaroo
Young Australians in China
By staff reporter VAUGHAN WINTERBOTTOM
APOLOGIES for the clichéd zoophilia of the title. Unfortunately, with the most auspicious of Chinese zodiacs swooping in only once in 12 years, 2012 journalistic protocol for articles on China stipulates bestial kitsch whenever possible. And the kangaroo, whose pouch and hallmark hop seem perhaps even more improbable than a winged, fire-breathing serpent, is the obvious choice to complete our epithet for a story about Australia and China.
While "The Dragon and the Kangaroo" are yet to make their way into popular fable, an interesting story is certainly being drafted by a young generation of antipodean Asianists who have found their métier in China's capital, Beijing.
Background Down Under
Behind Australian identity lies a contradiction. Though the country's colonial past ensures its occidental leanings in social, cultural and political matters, geographic realities demand meaningful engagement with the oriental nations to its immediate north. This engagement has not always been benign, and Australian politicians in particular have been rather hate-and-love when it comes to dealings with the neighbors. Indeed in the past, relations were odious – until 1973, the country championed an immigration regime known as The White Australia Policy, which restricted Asian immigration to the country in favor of Europeans, particularly Britons. Australia's politicos embraced this official discrimination with ribald enthusiasm, with one former Prime Minister, Arthur Caldwell, earning worldwide infamy for his racist barb, "Two Wongs don't make a White."
Thankfully, times have changed. Today, almost 10 percent of the country's population is of Asian descent. While whiffs of xenophobia are occasionally detected in debate over issues such as the treatment of asylum seekers who boat their way to Australian shores from neighboring Indonesia, public discourse in general remains free of racist verbiage. And in good time, too.
Today, Asian and particularly Chinese demand for Australia's exports is vital to the health of its economy. Seven of its top 10 two-way trading partners are Asian. Higher education is Australia's largest services export sector – international students, 75 percent of whom come from Asian countries and over 100,000 from China, earn the country close to US $10 billion per year. Australia's resource sector is the country's largest overall exporter, worth almost US $190 billion in the 2010/2011 fiscal year and accounting for almost 60 percent of all exports. China overtook Japan to become Australia's largest trading partner in 2009, and mineral exports to the country continue to grow at an annual rate of almost 40 percent.
Despite Australia's relationship with China being overwhelmingly pragmatic and economic in nature, sapient political commentators down under have been pushing for greater Mandarin language education in the country's schools as a way to train up an Asia-literate populace and move relations with the nation's largest trading partner beyond economic expediency.
While in-power politician's efforts to improve the standing of Mandarin in the high school curriculum have been at best capricious and at worst woeful – despite one former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, being a fluent Mandarin speaker – Australia's universities are nonetheless producing a small but dedicated generation of young sinophiles who are taking up the mantle for their lethargic legislators. China Today talks with two up-and-coming "Aussies" residing in Beijing who, together with an expatriate community of like-minded young Australian professionals, are forging greater cultural links between the two nations on their own terms.
Sinologues and Dialogues
The Australia-China Youth Association (ACYA) was founded in 2008 on an exiguous budget by Australian students Henry Makeham and Huw Pohlner, together with a number of other undergraduate students on exchange programs in Beijing. Originally intended to be a China information resource for Australian high schoolers and young professionals, the ACYA proved to be the germinal for something much bigger. Today, the association enjoys a high media profile in Australia, boasts over 2,000 members and runs a number of side initiatives, including the Australia-China Youth Dialogue, the Engaging China high schools program and the Australia-China Young Professionals Initiative.
The Australia-China Youth Dialogue (ACYD), inaugurated in 2010, is perhaps the most well known of the association's initiatives. It provides an annual stage for meaningful engagement and idea sharing between 12 Australian and 12 Chinese young professionals and scholars. Held in Beijing and Shanghai in 2010 and Canberra and Sydney in October last year, the Dialogue has succeeded in attracting many renowned intellectuals, politicians and businessmen from both countries to deliver talks on various subjects, which the young delegates then discuss. Christian Jack, 25, first attended the dialogue as a delegate in 2010 and went on to help organize the event in 2011.