Exploring Australia-China history
Canberra writer and journalist Rob Macklin has written a highly relevant, timely and utterly riveting book on the intricate relationship between Australia and China. Over the years, I’ve read most of Macklin’s 28 books but this is his best. It’s a cracker.
With China established as Australia’s major trading partner, and the Beijing rulers under enormous Western pressure to declare all-out economic war on their nearest neighbour, North Korea, Australians have been obliged to consider soberly the “China question”. Can Australia maintain its current twin-track policy of a) profiting from trade with China while b) joining the US and British strategy to encircle China with a menacing military and diplomatic cordon?
Macklin’s new book, Dragon & Kangaroo, deserves to be read by every thoughtful Australian concerned with Canberra’s pro-US diplomacy and the risks of a military escalation.
Macklin is a refreshing voice in the field of history which has been hitherto dominated by academic historians whose narrative echoes the philosophic standpoint of Western imperialism. What they have written – and what most of us have been taught in the classroom – is a pro-capitalist and pro-colonialist view of history.
The underlying theme is racist, or at least xenophobic, because the West invariably comprises the “good guys” while the black, yellow and brown people are invariably cast as the “bad guys”, or at least violent, sly, lazy, untrustworthy and unappreciative.
The China challenge
As a journalist with decades of experience on Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, Melbourne’s Age, The Bulletin and the Canberra Times, Macklin has become an authentic, independent people’s historian.
His sources are primary ones – letters, documents, parliamentary debates, press articles and personal diaries – and not the official line of the US State Department, the Foreign Office or Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). This ground-breaking approach takes courage and a fierce devotion to digging up facts however uncomfortable they might be.
In Dragon & Kangaroo Macklin is not afraid to canvas Australia’s official commitment to the White Australia policy since the dawn of white settlement in 1788 and its lingering malignance in the 21st century.
Readers will be shocked, amazed and enthralled by Macklin’s page-turning account. Buy a copy for yourself, lend it to a friend and ask your local public library to grab a copy – or donate one!
Macklin has concluded his book with the conundrum: can Australia strengthen its ties with China without offence to its security alliance with America? He attempts to answer the question with a challenge: “If successful, the result [of strengthening ties with China] would secure Australia’s future safety, security and prosperity.”
The author says that a successful policy outcome will depend upon “the response to the question that had bedeviled Australia since almost the beginning of its colonial history: could the prejudices of the past be replaced by a sense of realism, an appreciation that there was much to be gained from a growing Chinese engagement across an ever-broadening spectrum of endeavour; and much to be lost by refusing to learn from a history that until now, if seen at all, has been viewed through a glass darkly?”
- Dragon & Kangaroo – Australia and China’s shared history from the goldfields to the present day by Robert Macklin. Hachette Australia 2017
China and two great Australians
In reviewing Macklin’s 2016 biography Hamilton Hume which established the reputation of the great Australian-born explorer, I welcomed enthusiastically the author’s ability to re-examine history from an Australian viewpoint and write an account which celebrated indigenous Australians as well as the best of the settlers. At a much higher level, he’s done something similar in Dragon & Kangaroo.
Woven into the economic and cultural history of China and Australia are the lives of two great Australians, George “Chinese” Morrison and Bill Donald, and Macklin tells their story with affection and understanding. There are also numerous tributes to Chinese-Australians who devoted much of their lives to building a respectful alliance between the two countries they called “home”. They include Mei Quong Tart, business battler, restaurateur and community leader, Pine Creek-born diplomat Charles Lee, businessman William Liu, Melbourne barrister William Ah Ket, political activist Pamela Tan (Chinese name Tan Pingmei), Chairman Mao’s Australian-educated doctor Li Zhisui and many more.
The late Cyril Pearl wrote a marvellous biography of Morrison called Morrison of Peking (Angus and Robertson 1967) and Macklin and his longtime literary collaborator London-based Peter Thompson wrote a Morrison biography called The Man Who Died Twice, Allen & Unwin 2004.
However, it seems to me that Macklin has re-calibrated Morrison’s role as a journalist, adviser and ambassador-at-large during the tumultuous events in the Middle Kingdom at the turn of the 19th century when the feudalist emperor system was being challenged by a coalition of influential nationalist merchants led by Sun Yat-sen.
When Morrison died on 20 May 1920, aged 58, a wreath was placed on his coffin with the note: “In sorrow and gratitude, from the President of the Republic of China.”
When Donald died on 9 November 1946 the China Press wrote: “Australia can be proud of Donald who served as a better Ambassador of Goodwill than could have any career diplomat, for in his every word, in his every deed, Australia showed the marks of the tradition of democracy which has made Australia what she is today. Yet Donald was more than an Australian, more than any man of ‘European’ background. He was something far greater, far finer – a citizen of the world.”
A treasured legacy
Will Malcolm “I am a strong leader” Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or John Howard ever be awarded posthumous tributes similar to the ones given to Morrison and Donald? I very much doubt it.
Both men were journalists and foreign correspondents. Both were badly treated by Canberra politicians and bureaucrats who refused to accept their advice. Australian officialdom decided to back the Emperor system in China until the last minute and Japan’s Emperor system as well.
Even in the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping jettisoned the doctrinaire “Marxist” economy for the capitalist road – “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – the US and UK-led policy-makers in Canberra were abysmally slow to respond.
In The Times in 1937 after the Japanese Imperial Army’s capture of Shanghai, Lady Beatrice Brownrigg wrote: “George Ernest Morrison never ceased to prophesy the danger of the rapid expansion of Japanese military policy.”
Neither Morrison nor Lithgow-born Donald returned to Australia when they retired; and neither accepted job offers that they were belatedly offered.
However, although Australia forgot them, they never forgot Australia. In one of his last letters, Morrison bequeathed his voluminous personal papers to the Mitchell Library in Sydney.
The journalist as historian
While Macklin is one of the most conscientious journalists-cum-historians writing in Australia there are trail-blazers in Britain and Europe as well.
For example, former Guardian reporters Simon Winchester and Misha Glenny have written outstanding historical books giving wide public access to information and perspectives hitherto controlled by academia and the Foreign Office.
The control and shaping of the British colonial view of history is so embedded in white imperialist culture around the world in the former British Empire, that it almost goes unnoticed. Generations of people from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and North America have been taught (indoctrinated?) with one picture book story.
It involved fiercely brave men (few women) who opened the world and its population of illiterate savages to Christianity, education, agriculture and modernity.
School children in the 1940s and 50s sang “God Save the King (or Queen)”, waved the Union Jack and the local brass band played “Rule Britannia”.
These earnest and frequent displays of British jingoism had a definite purpose – to bind generations of Europeans at home and abroad to the mythology of colonial superiority and its prosperous hegemony over the largest empire the world had ever seen where “the sun never set and the wages never rose”.
These adulatory rituals flanked by monarchy were nothing more than a celebration of white supremacy and the theory that the Empire had a god-given right to impose exploitation and the theft of land, water and resources on faraway lands. So, there were two sides to the colonial equation: it was fabulous for the City of London, the London Stock Exchange, bible societies, Christian fund-raisers and the industrial nobility of Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, but horrific for the oppressed and exploited people of the empire, the indigenous people and the slaves imported from Africa.
As one British writer said recently: “The bacillus of pro-slavery racism was transmitted to America from Britain.”
By the same token anti-Aboriginal racism was transmitted to Australia from Britain. It arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 and with the theft of the whole continent by the proclamation of terra nullius (“nobody’s land”) and was repeated in other British colonial possessions around the world.
In China in the 19th century London’s colonial racism was inflicted by forcing merchants in Canton and Shanghai to buy and distribute opium. It drove the population into despair and submission and it was accompanied by a Fleet Street and Foreign Office campaign depicting China as a land of depraved opium dens and prostitution.
In other words, racism was a weapon of British colonialism; it served the savage economic interests of the British ruling class.
I’m not pom-bashing when I say that I sincerely believe that the London institutions which peddled racism and rampant exploitation in the underdeveloped world in past centuries are still alive and kicking. They are simply going about their larceny in a more delicate fashion and helped by an army of highly paid consultants, spin doctors and a loyal mass media.
Tony Blair is cactus … again
Only a couple of months ago, the entire Murdoch-owned media in the UK, US and Australia was placed at the service of Tony Blair and his plan to start a new party to thwart Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Columns, editorials, letters, emails and profiles were crafted by exorbitantly paid scribblers and TV hosts calling for the “rebirth of Tony” in a new party to be called the Progressives. The mainstream media claimed that 100 Labour MPs were willing to join the Blairite project and money from wealthy business interests was said to be pouring in.
But at the June 8 general election, PM Theresa May turned her majority government into a minority administration which now depends on ultra-right Orange Order nationalists to cling to office.
Lord Sainsbury, the billionaire supermarket czar who financed Blair’s treacherous New Labour project, has announced he won’t be giving money to the so-called Progressives.
The dismal death of Blair’s latest ambition has left scrambled eggs all over the faces of Murdoch, his media executives and scribblers.
Any apologies, resignations, suspensions or sackings? Perish the thought!
Story you may have missed
Billionaire Frank Lowy, the shopping centre mogul, is now Sir Frank courtesy of Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority Tory government in Britain.
The Westfield chiseller received the knighthood allegedly for “services to business and philanthropy”. For “services to business” read growing his family fortune and for “services to philanthropy” read giving money to the Zionist regime in Israel.
By the way, Westfield (UK) has donated $500,000 to the British Tories since 2011. It helped to defeat Labour and install David Cameron and then Theresa May in No 10 Downing Street. Next he’ll be given Life Membership of the NSW Labor Party!