As If: Australia-China at Fifty

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Chapter XXVIII, Part II


The month of December in 1972 brought to a culmination a process that had unfolded during ‘the coup year’ of 1971. In that year:

  • Marshal Lin Biao, Mao Zedong’s close comrade-in-arms and hand-picked successor, died in mysterious circumstances following what the official Chinese media claimed was a failed coup aimed at toppling the Chairman from power;
  • American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a clandestine trip to Beijing as part of a process that eventually led to Washington and Beijing establishing formal diplomatic relations; and,
  • During a visit to Beijing, Gough Whitlam, leader of the opposition Labor Party in the Australian commonwealth government, made an undertaking that Australia would recognise the government of the People’s Republic of China if he won the 1972 election.

On 21 December 1972, within three weeks of Whitlam’s electoral victory, the Australian government announced that it recognised the People’s Republic as the sole legal government of China and ordered representatives of the Republic of China to leave Canberra the following month. (See Ryan Manuel and Geremie R. Barmé, eds, Forty Years of Australia-China Diplomatic Relations, The Australia-China Story; and, 1971: Gough Whitlam Visits China, The Whitlam Institute, 1 July 2021.)

Following a series of activities, publications and public lectures organised to mark the fortieth anniversary of Australia-PRC diplomatic relations in December 2012, the Australian Centre on China in the World 中華全球研究中心 (CIW), of which I was the founding director, ended the year by publishing a Letter to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Canberra.

We reproduce that letter here to commemorate the fifty years of direct Australia-PRC contact. For me, it also marks the fiftieth year since I began my formal training in Chinese language, history and culture (see Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng 甲乙丙丁 — Beginning Chinese with Pierre Ryckmans).

CIW was established as an academic institution that exemplified the practical application of New Sinology. It was also a prescient response to gradually deteriorating relations between Australia and China, a process that was evident from 2008, and one that would be glaringly obvious from 2015.

On 21 December 2022, in a bid to repair long-frazzled bilateral ties, the foreign ministers of the two countries met in Beijing on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations. As a boilerplate announcement issued by China’s Foreign Ministry put it:

‘After the talks, the two sides issued the China-Australia Foreign and Strategic Dialogue Joint Outcomes Statement. The two sides agreed to a China-Australia relationship that is in keeping with their comprehensive strategic partnership. They agreed to maintain high-level engagement, and to commence or restart dialogue in areas including bilateral relations, economy and trade, and regional and international issues. They also agreed to support people-to-people exchanges.’

Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, was somewhat more forthcoming and she told her Chinese counterpart that:

‘We can grow our bilateral relationship and uphold both of our national interests if both countries navigate our differences wisely.

‘With that in mind, today I would like to discuss in the course of this meeting several issues of importance for Australia, which include consular matters, trade blockages, human rights and the global rules and the norms that underpin our security and our prosperity.’


As If

As part of the fortieth anniversary year, in August 2012 CIW launched The China Story project. It consisted of The China Story website and the inaugural China Story Yearbook, the title of which was Red Rising, Red Eclipse.

[Note: See Appendix X 敘 — A Decade of Telling Chinese Stories, 1 May 2022; Chapter Twenty-eight 赤字 — 華表 huabiao — Red Rising, Red Eclipse, 29 December 2022; and, Red Allure & The Crimson BlindfoldChina Heritage, 13 July 2021.]

In the lead up to the 1st October 2012 Chinese National Day, representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Canberra raised objections to the Yearbook, first to officials in the Commonwealth Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — which they mistakenly presumed was ‘in charge’ of CIW — and then to our Centre directly. Acting at the behest of the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, the diplomats took issue both with the editorial approach of the Yearbook and to some of its contents. In response, we suggested that, if they could provide us with their criticisms in writing we would willingly publish them on the China Story website.

After a lengthy hiatus, I wrote to the Embassy to elucidate in detail the academic approach we had taken in producing the Yearbook, as well as to respond to some of the detailed points that they had raised (they found the expression ‘red eclipse’ particularly provocative). As I noted in the preamble to my letter to the Chinese Embassy:

The Australian Centre on China in the World comports itself with simple clarity of purpose; we treat our colleagues, collaborators and interested parties, be they in China or elsewhere, academic, official, private or otherwise in an even-handed, open and frank manner. We believe that it is important to act as if the People’s Republic had already sloughed off the vestiges of Cold War-era and Maoist attitudes, behaviour and language. We engage with the People’s Republic as if it enjoyed an environment like that of any other mature, open and equitable society. We treat with due consideration and respect responses to our work as if they were expressed with the aim of engaging in forward-looking and open intellectual debate and exchange. It is my belief that it is important to respond to official Chinese views of our academic work as if such comments and criticisms were not a result of ideological bullying nor merely the product of fearful bureaucratic fiat or the desire to avoid possible official embarrassment. We act as if the rhetoric of friendship, understanding and shared concerns were a reality.

I added that if, after a reasonable length of time, I still had not heard from them, I would publish my letter regardless. I did so on the 31st of December 2012.

All of the above unfolded just as Xi Jinping was enjoying his ineluctable rise to power. Thereupon, he would articulate his own vision of ‘The China Story’ and, all too soon, the expression ‘as if’ meant something quite different.


This is the ninth and final section in Appendix V of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, the theme of which is the fiftieth anniversary of 1972.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
31 December 2022


Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:

Appendix V, Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:


The Australia Centre on China in the World, Canberra, designed by Beijing-based architect Gerald Szeto 司徒佐 of Mo Atelier Szeto Architects, in collaboration with Canberra firm Munns Sly Moore Architects. Photograph: Ben Wrigley


A Letter to the Embassy of
The People’s Republic of China in
Canberra, Australia


The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
Canberra, Australia

Re: China Story Yearbook 2012

14 November 2012

Dear Sir,

I believe that my colleague Dr Benjamin Penny, Deputy Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), hosted a courtesy call by you and another member of the staff of the Embassy of the People’s Republic in the week prior to the Chinese 1 October National Day holiday this year.

Unfortunately, I was not in Canberra at the time. I was wrapping up a series of seminar-launch activities related to the recently inaugurated The China Story Project and our China Story Yearbook in the United States. To be precise, I was presenting the Project to colleagues and collaborators at the Fairbank Center, Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, and the Weatherhead East Asia Institute, Columbia University in New York, as well as to audiences and interested parties at key institutions with which we have a long-term engagement, such as the East-West Center in Hawai’i and George Washington University in Washington DC.

Given that your visit was related to our Yearbook, I would also note that we have had launches for both the Yearbook and the related The China Story Project in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, as well as in Taiwan. Naturally, given the nature of our work, our profile in international academia and the innovative nature of our endeavours, I believe that it would be ideal if we could have similar activities in Beijing and Shanghai. I look forward to our Centre having such an opportunity in the future.

In response to your visit, I was briefed on the comments that you and your Embassy colleague presented to Dr Penny which were, I gather, based on notes that had been prepared both in Chinese and in English. It is regrettable that I don’t have your remarks in writing; if I did I would now be able to refer to them and respond in appropriate detail.

Nonetheless, as a result of a phone discussion with me in the aftermath of your visit, Dr Penny addressed the following email to you on 3 October:

Dear Sir,

Thank you for coming to see me last week about Red Rising, Red Eclipse. Your views were clearly expressed and I am very glad we have had the opportunity to have such friendly discussions. I spoke with Professor Barmé this morning – he is currently in Beijing – and he indicated that he will also be sending a letter to the embassy soon on these matters. He has, however, agreed that the Centre would be very happy – if the embassy wished – to publish a response to Red Rising, Red Eclipse on our Centre blog (, or on the Red Rising, Red Eclipse site (, in English or in Chinese. If you would like to do so, please send your response to me and I will pass it on to our web editors.

All the best,

Benjamin Penny

Sadly, it would seem that due to the pressing nature of other business you have not yet had the opportunity to reply or to respond to this request. It is also disappointing that representatives of your Embassy previously found themselves unavailable to attend the formal launch of the Yearbook and our The China Story Project on the afternoon of 10 August 2012. You will daresay have noted that the Yearbook and Project were announced at the Australian National University (ANU) amidst some fanfare by Dr Ken Henry, a leading figure in the public policy community of Australia and chair of the Prime Ministerial committee given the task of writing Australia in the Asian Century: Commonwealth Government White Paper 2012, itself launched just recently on 28 October.

Despite this, I am pleased that your staff and presumably certain colleagues in Beijing have had a passing opportunity to read some of the contents of our Yearbook. As you may appreciate, I am nonetheless somewhat baffled that prior to your rather sudden visit to see Dr Penny, your Embassy representatives chose first to approach officers in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to express views in regard to the Yearbook. I have not subsequently been directly contacted by the DFAT officers concerned, although I do believe that Dr Penny bumped into the relevant DFAT personnel at a 1 October National Day celebration at your Embassy and that there was some informal conversation and exchange of information on the subject. Since our Centre is neither an arm of government, nor answerable to the requirements of the foreign affairs bureaucracy, I will leave matters between your Embassy and DFAT to the respective officers concerned. However, as you and your colleagues have made these approaches, I believe that in a spirit of equitable exchange it is now opportune for me to provide your Embassy, and your superiors, with further information related to our Centre, our academic work, and our responsibilities.

Having said that, I nonetheless still look forward to your written response to Dr Penny’s email. I also welcome the opportunity to share your concerns about the perceived deficiencies of our Yearbook with the considerable readership of our online The China Story Journal. I think this would be a fruitful exercise, and one that I would encourage you and your superiors to consider. All too often concerns are raised in the People’s Republic that ‘China does not have a voice’ (see, for instance Wang Wen’s recent cri de coeur published on 6 November regarding so-called academic ‘discursive hegemony’ regarding China at Harvard University, 《美国观察:在哈佛主讲中国后的震惊》, online at: Well, we can provide an appropriate platform for this voice and such views. I believe that Dr Penny also expressed the hope that our Yearbook be reviewed by serious scholars or media writers in the People’s Republic.

In the meantime, I think it both timely and appropriate for me to further explicate my view of matters arising from your visit.


As is well known, the establishment of our Centre was announced in 2010 as part of a multi-faceted Commonwealth Government initiative involving The Australian National University. I would point out, however, that the idea of the Centre was part of a long-term gestation dating back to the mid-2000s involving numerous colleagues and developed in light of international research best practice. Therefore, I would hope that you appreciate that our Centre was created as a non-partisan, publicly funded university research centre; we scrupulously avoid bias and maintain an unwavering independence in our undertakings.

Whereas we enjoy a cordial relationship with various Commonwealth and State government departments and individuals, and with the various political parties in the Commonwealth Parliament, as well as with leading figures in the Australian business community and among the media, we are nonetheless an academic enterprise. As we mark the fortieth anniversary of Australia-China diplomatic normalisation in 2012, I would remark that four decades of contact, exchanges, and broadening experience have surely brought colleagues in the People’s Republic to a better understanding of the recognised norms of international education and research.

Since there may be some confusion about the nature of our work, I would further remark that our Centre is, as I repeatedly emphasise to colleagues both in Australia and internationally ‘a humanities led, social sciences engaged, public policy relevant and publicly oriented independent academic research centre’. As such it abides by the basic principles of rigorous scholarship, free expression and critical enquiry that are the hallmarks of best, and recognised research practice be it in Australia or overseas. I am also pleased to report that in our one and a-half years of substantive operation we have been acknowledged for the probity, public relevance and academic value of our work by key institutions and leading colleagues in Australia, the broad Chinese world, North America, Japan, Europe and South-east Asia. We are also presently developing contacts with new colleagues in Africa and Latin America.

Our Centre, whose primary focus is on research, also has an active public policy program. Of our many activities related to our strong and ongoing collaboration since April 2010 with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Beijing have been particularly productive. Here I would note that we successfully launched our CIW-CICIR Report on the Bilateral Australia-China Relationship at Capital M overlooking Tiananmen Square in Beijing in February this year. This was the first of a series of activities by which we are marking the fortieth anniversary of the Australia-People’s Republic of China relationship (to date others include: the inauguration of The China Story Project; the co-hosted visit of Professor Ezra Vogel of Harvard University; a distinguished lecture by Professor Emeritus Wang Gungwu from Singapore; and, a keynote address by Dr Stephen FitzGerald, our first ambassador to your country, and so on).

As you are aware, the present Australian Ambassador to the People’s Republic, Dr Frances Adamson, formally launched the CIW-CICIR Report with Dr Yang Mingjie, Deputy Director of CICIR (the report is available in print form and in downloadable PDF form here). We are presently working on our next collaborative effort with CICIR. I would point out that our first Report and our ongoing relationship mark in a substantive, practical and realistic fashion the fortieth anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Australia and China, an occasion being commemorated in various ways by both countries throughout 2012.

We are also fruitfully engaged with the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) and collaborate with DFAT in supporting the Australia-China Forum, announced by our then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Vice-president Xi Jinping in June 2010 (you will recall that, at that time, Vice-president Xi also graciously presented a generous gift of books and research materials to our nascent Centre). The first Forum was hosted by our Centre at ANU in November 2011. The second Forum will be held in China in a few days time. I would suggest that this Forum would have provided an ideal opportunity for our Yearbook to be made more widely available to your colleagues – and to be read more carefully.


Prior to Prime Minister Rudd’s announcement of the establishment of our Centre on the occasion of the Seventieth George E Morrison Lecture at ANU on 23 April 2010, the brief of CIW was outlined in detail during lengthy negotiations between ANU and the Commonwealth Government in 2009-2010. Among the foundational ideas of the Centre is the concept of a New Sinology 后汉学/後漢學. This is an academic approach about which I have written repeatedly and at length since 2005. New Sinology is, in short, concerned with:

A robust engagement with contemporary China and indeed with the Sinophone world in all of its complexity, be it local, regional or global. It affirms a conversation and intermingling that also emphasizes strong scholastic underpinnings in both the classical and modern Chinese language and studies, at the same time as encouraging an ecumenical attitude in relation to a rich variety of approaches and disciplines, whether they be mainly empirical or more theoretically inflected. In seeking to emphasize innovation within Sinology by recourse to the word ‘new’, it is nonetheless evident that I continue to affirm the distinctiveness of Sinology as a mode of intellectual inquiry. (From my 2005 essay ‘On New Sinology’. For further details, and other papers on this subject, see:

In his April 2010 Morrison Lecture, Prime Minister Rudd took up this theme and remarked that:

A New Sinology is not based on old theories. It is about engaging with a re-emergent China. It says that China should not simply be viewed as a threat. Nor should this New Sinology be based on a reticence towards speaking honestly or critically about today’s China, for fear of causing offence.

Instead we seek a new balance, one that goes beyond old Cold War concepts of fan-Hua 反华 or qin-Hua 亲华 – that is, of either being anti-China or pro-China – as if we are eternally locked into a binary world. This is about a more sophisticated way of understanding today’s China: a New Sinology capable of opening up new ways of understanding this great and ancient civilisation, and what it might offer again in the future. The challenge for us all is how we move forward to promote a deeper, textured understanding of the China in the 21st century. Both a China that encourages us all, as well a China that from time to time causes us to ask ourselves where China is going. In April 2008, when speaking at Peking University, I talked about Australia’s evolving relationship with China and the maturing of our friendship in this new era.

Furthermore, as Prime Minister Rudd emphasised, we believe in a frank and principled exchange with our interlocutors in the Chinese world. You may well recall that this is an approach first articulated by PM Rudd in Beijing in April 2008, when he spoke about zhengyou 诤友/諍友. In his further explication of this idea in April 2010, PM Rudd said:

I have spoken of zhengyou because I feel we need to be able to speak to the government of China, its media and its peoples in a frank manner.

I believe that those engaged with the Chinese world will be respected both for what they bring materially to the relationship, but also for what they represent in their own right.

In Australia, we are an open society. The consensus by which we govern ourselves is forged through political conflict, conversation and conciliation – and resolved through the ballot box. We in politics live in the scrimmage of media exposure, and we have various tiers of democratically elected government. Like our colleagues in China, we are conditioned by our history, answerable to our environment, and constrained by our realities.

For us in Australia, our history, our values and our alliances are part of who we are. Our commitment to a positive, forward-looking and mutually beneficial relationship with the People’s Republic and the Chinese world has been tested and proven over time. We believe that it is on that basis that we can progress.

I do not think that every time we express ourselves on the basis of our values and beliefs that our core friendship towards China should be called into question.

I would question a view that regards honesty and well-intentioned comment as being ‘anti-China’ (fan-Hua), just as I reject the careless application of the expression ‘un-Australian’ here at home.

I promote the concept of zhengyou so we can develop the language and the demeanour for a more sophisticated way of talking to and about each other.

We have long ago moved beyond the Cold War. I am of the view that the binary language of that era—that is, of either being anti-China or pro-China without any form of nuance—also belongs in the past. I believe this is as much an important new principle for the collective West as it is an important principle for China herself.

Otherwise, the dialogue among us all will forever be trapped in a frustrating and unproductive cycle of offence, high dudgeon and mutual recrimination. [The full text of the speech, in English and Chinese, is available here.]

[Note: For more on New Sinology as I cast it for those speeches, see Contentious Friendship; and, New Sinology in 1964 and 2022.]

I was delighted to note that, when our Ambassador, Dr Adamson, recently launched the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in Beijing on 30 October 2012, in response to a question from the floor as to whether the concept of zhengyou was still a part of Australian policy, she remarked that although the term itself is not much used at the moment, the concept remains valid.

In a more humble way, I have offered my own explanation of the concept of zhengyou in the context of our Centre and the general university environment. In the Inaugural CIW Annual Lecture, presented at ANU on 15 July 2011, I said:

Universities are the place where ideas and abilities are taught and expressed. It is in the contending environment of the university that should provide the freest forums for discussion, debate and contention. Answers don’t always have to be sought but received beliefs and simplistic unquestioning attitudes are here subjected to rational consideration and discussion. Tensions are at the very centre of serious thinking and research. Without the febrile pursuit of ideas, the healthy clash of views, paradigms and approaches, the world of the mind is but a barren landscape.

The university is where our natural (and ideal) disposition is that of the zhengyou – an empathetic and engaged friend who can disagree, a trusted interlocutor, a principled partner in understanding.

It is interesting that few people, especially academics, have recognized the other dimensions of a concept such as zhengyou. After all, we are researchers and educators. Our relationships with colleagues, with students, with the various intellectual traditions of which we are custodians, are in their essence often that of a zhengyou. We share an in-principle engagement, we study and think within our areas of expertise as well as objectively outside of them. We expect to be challenged by peers, by students and by interlocutors of all kinds. In our own work, in our minds, we contend constantly with ideas, information, writing; we tussle, argue, consider and reconsider what we do, or at least we should. For this is integral to learning and to the self-expression of the engaged, scholastic mind.

Do we not as engaged thinkers and educators have the responsibility to elucidate through our writing, research, teaching and contributions to the public debate to understand, convey and question the ‘stories of China’? While a tendency towards monolithic or mono-linear narratives may suit a government – ours as well as others – the overlapping accounts of reality that enrich the depth and breadth of our understanding is something that falls to us. It is therefore in the academy, in a university environment – a realm of equitable and principled intellectual contestation – that we offer to our colleagues, our students and the public understandings of China in the world. [For the full text, see here.]

In the February 2012 CIW-CICIR Report both sides presented a series of suggestions to policy makers, the media, academics, as well as business and the public regarding the maturing relationship between Australian and China. In light of the publication of our Yearbook I think it particularly worthwhile to recall our final recommendation:

The sixth principle is that simple slogans and formulas for discussing the relationship must be avoided.

The complexity and nuances of the relationship cannot be captured by simplified dichotomies. The relationship is too important for public discussions to be based on such simple ideas. Hence, in recent years some Australian political leaders and scholars have spoken of the importance of the frank expression of views and opinions in the context of the Chinese term zhengyou (roughly translated as ‘principled friend’). The Chinese side has expressed the need to view and develop bilateral relations from a strategic and long- term point of view and not to allow momentary disturbances to stand in the way of positive development in overall relations between the two countries.

Neither the interests of Australia nor of China are well served by shallow analyses that look at one isolated element of the relationship. In the media, in public debate, in politics, in academic discussions and in business, it is crucial that we avoid resorting to simple slogans and formulas in discussing the relationship, its potential and its challenges. This applies equally to attempts to characterise the closeness of our partnership or the differences between us. [For the full text, see here.]

And, in a speech written at our Centre’s invitation to mark the fortieth anniversary of Australia-China relations released on 12 November 2012, Australia’s first Ambassador to the People’s Republic, Dr Stephen FitzGerald (who, in his remarks speaks of ‘the excellent China Story Yearbook’), offered the following observation:

Exceptionalism doesn’t drive everything in China’s foreign policy, but it does influence foreign relations from time to time and it’s not new. In the 1970s, for example, the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni made a documentary film about China which the Chinese denounced as anti-Chinese. When the ABC announced it would show the film, a protest was lodged in Canberra with a demand that the showing be cancelled. On the Australian side, we said this was a matter of our right to freedom of speech and the media. The Chinese attitude was not just that China objected to the film but that when China says so we actually don’t have that right – in effect, the Chinese right extinguishes ours – and the attitude was self-righteous and rude and somewhat bullying. I should add that later, after the Smashing of the Gang of Four and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, I had a personal apology from the Foreign Ministry over this issue. Which shows that the exceptionalist view is not fixed, not everyone shares it, and the foreign affairs establishment acknowledges that it can be damaging. Now admittedly 1973 was itself an exceptional time in China. But three and a-half decades later we had that incident with the Melbourne Film Festival, when a junior official from the Chinese Consulate General rang the Festival Director and demanded not only that the film be withdrawn but that the Director actually justify himself to her for programming it.

Some may say that is similar to what Australia does when it raises human rights in China. But I think not. The Chinese position was that its right should override any rights we had, in these cases China’s right being to direct how it is seen, presented and understood in Australia. That is not something Australia does in China. [For the full text of Dr FitzGerald’s speech, see here.]

In the concluding paragraphs of his speech Dr FitzGerald also said:

… let’s not sideline discussion about values in our relations with China. My view is that we can have a close partnership and not just an economic one, and a close relationship of political trust. But you have to be tough, and have courage in your values, to deal with China, just as you ought to be tough, and have courage in independent views, to deal with the United States. [Op.cit.]

I recommend Dr FitzGerald’s full oration to you and your colleagues. [Note: Chinese version of the speech is now available.]


I believe that there was some inference in the observations made to Dr Penny that there was a feeling that there was evidence of partiality in our Yearbook, or a perceived ‘lack of balance’. Furthermore, there seemed to be some concern expressed to the effect that this initial Yearbook did not represent all Chinese views – veritably, a Herculean and encyclopaedic task!

Sir, you will appreciate that we are a high profile, publicly accessible and independent research Centre within ANU. We have a duty to educate, inform and engage with students at all levels (in particular, from high school onwards), as well as with researchers, educators, the media, the business community, the diplomatic world, politicians, government and a range of professional and engaged international audiences, all of whom are interested in our work and perspectives.

We are constantly approached by these various constituencies to respond to issues of concern that arise with increasing frequency in the international and Chinese media, in the Chinese world and in relation to China. Our interlocutors regularly encounter topics of pressing general or research interest that they feel are inadequately or unsatisfactorily reported or commented on in the formal government-funded media of the People’s Republic of China. Not surprisingly, these include topics that official China may well find difficult and controversial, topics that are said to be misrepresented or that should be left out of the public spotlight. Given our brief, our background and our profile, we do not have the luxury of ignoring questions (be they issues, events, personalities, or ideas) of international public and media concern.

Of course, your government has notably increased funding support for your international information/publicity/propaganda efforts since 2007. As a result, much useful information has been made available to global audiences and as never before. However, as it is repeatedly stated by the concerned authorities with carriage of official information, China champions a ‘guided media’, one that serves particular, well-defined socio-political interests. Of course, it is argued that this is necessary due to China’s ‘national conditions’ 国情. We appreciate this and indeed offer a cogent account of the version of contemporary China as presented in your official media in our Yearbook (to mention just a few places in Red Rising, Red Eclipse, see, for example, pp.223-224; along with a full digest of the official account of China’s recent achievements, pp.225-229; and a summary of the ‘Glorious Decade’ of 2001-2012 from People’s Daily, pp.229-231, etc etc). Despite the prodigious efforts of the Chinese authorities to ‘get the China story’ out via the Xinhua News Agency and other organisations, nonetheless, as you must doubtless be aware from living in Australia, there remains a widespread thirst for independent and objective analysis, commentary and broad-spectrum information on all aspects of China, be it in the People’s Republic, in the broader Chinese world or internationally. This is even more so the case now that the Australia-China relationship has reached unprecedented levels of intermeshing and exchange.

It is therefore incumbent upon research and pedagogical institutions like the Australian Centre on China in the World to bring the widest range of research expertise into engagement with contemporary Chinese realities. We are obliged to make available the research of colleagues in all fields not only within the cloistered environment of global academe, but also to the various groups that I have described above. My duty as the head of an internationally recognised Centre on the study of China and its global presence is to help present a full range of views. I would therefore emphasise that in an age of media openness, public contention and greater debate within China and internationally that our Yearbook does just this, and that it is recognised as having done so in an exemplary fashion. In pursuing this goal it is not surprising that some of the issues presented, and various perspectives on them, are ones that some in official China may regard as being marginal, unrepresentative, disquieting or distracting. However, I would note that the information in our Yearbook reflects well actual discussions in the multi-vocal environment of China itself, be it political, economic, social, academic, cultural, print, electronic, blog or Weibo. We are at pains to give voice and representation to the lively range of Chinese voices that are now, thanks to modern technology, finding expression.


Colleagues tell me that there has also been disquiet expressed regarding the title of our 2012 YearbookRed Rising, Red Eclipse. Thus, it occurs to me that there may be some unnecessary confusion about the meaning and intent of the title. So, let me explain:

First, for your convenience, I would note that the appropriate Chinese translation of the title of our book is 《红盛红蚀》.

Secondly, those familiar with the Chinese literary and historical tradition immediately realise the origin of the word ‘eclipse’ 蚀 in the title of our 2012 Yearbook. Indeed, we recall two well-known loci classici. One is to be found in Sima Qian’s famous, first century BCE Records of the Historian 司马迁著《史记》 of the Han dynasty:


The other, in the eighth-century CE Older History of the Tang Dynasty 《旧唐书》:


Both sources refer to the word bo 薄 and to the fact that an eclipse 蚀 is a passing and transitory phenomenon. Be it solar or lunar, neither the sun nor the moon is long occluded as the result of an eclipse.

So, in formulating the title of our Yearbook, and in the spirit of New Sinology to which I referred to earlier, we engaged in a play on ideas and words that relate to the Communist Party’s 2011-2012 struggle with those who cloaked themselves in red garb. If that is too arcane or obscure, then I am surprised our intent was not evident from the detailed contents of the book. Indeed, I would suggest that any careful reader of the Yearbook would have noted the following:

This first volume of the Centre’s China Story Yearbook takes as its theme the colour red, and the title Red Rising, Red Eclipse. We believe that the red of party control, of state enterprises, of reformulated party ideology and culture, the red dominion of the party-state over the individual and the red successors who have been moving onto centre stage are a particular feature of the political transition period that began furtively in 2008. In the years 2009 to 2012, the colour red featured also in the major celebrations of the Chinese state and the Communist Party – the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the 1 October National Day of 2009, which was marked by a grand parade in the heart of the Chinese capital, just as the marking of the ninetieth year since the foundation in July 1921 of the Chinese Communist Party led to months of media-saturated celebration in 2011. The red symbolism of politics, society and culture will remain a fixture of the Chinese world for some time to come, but the fall of Bo Xilai in early 2012 and the seeming lack of viable long-term solutions to China’s socio-political problems also cast a shadow over the country’s contentious red traditions. [from China Story Yearbook 2012, pp.xv-xvi]

In the concluding chapter, we further explicate the second half of our title – ‘Red Eclipse’, and end with a series of open-ended questions of the kind that are frequently asked by specialists, students, the media and interested parties who are involved in trying to understand the People’s Republic today:

One of the most abiding legacies of Red Culture is the paradigm of the Cold War. Cold War attitudes and rhetoric are easily applied to the tensions between the People’s Republic of China and its neighbours as well as other nations with which it finds itself in conflict. The use of such rhetoric by the party-state and those in its thrall (from state think tank apparatchiki and a swarm of left-leaning academics to semi-independent media writers) of course encourages a response from the other side in any given stoush.

Since 2009, rhetorical clashes of this kind, some quite aggressive, have revolved around such topics as climate change, US arms sales to Taiwan, the valuation of the Renminbi, Internet freedom, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Sino-Australian relations, as well as ongoing disturbances in Tibet and Xinjiang. In regard to these issues – and here we are concerned with Chinese rhetoric, not the substantive matters involving different national and economic interests – the default position of the Chinese party-state remains that of the early Maoist days when conspiracy theories, class struggle and overblown rhetoric formed the backdrop to any official stance. This is not to underplay the importance of substantial clashes of national interests, worldviews, or political and economic systems, but simply to make the point that the way in which the party-state responds is very much dictated by the official parameters of The China Story.

Many questions remain as yet unanswered. Have revolutionary politics and ideology lost their traction in China’s Story as the fall of Bo Xilai and the eclipse of red culture might indicate? Has the neo-liberal turn of Chinese statist politics in the decades of reform reshaped The China Story around a concocted and self-interested ‘Chinese race’, in which the main narrative is that of nationalistic rise to superpower on the world stage? Or, do the various red legacies that date from China’s Republican era (be they communist, socialist or social-democratic) still contribute something to the ways in which thinking Chinese, in and out of power, contemplate that country’s future direction? Can a left-leaning legacy distinguish itself from a failed Maoism or Red Culture as entertainment? Or is Maoism and its panoply of language and practices the only viable source of resistance to the continuing spectre of Western imperialism? How do the discourses of universalism, as well as of economic and human rights fit into The China Story today?

This book has attempted to account for some aspects of The China Story over recent years. It is inevitably a limited and narrowly focused effort. We hope this first China Story Yearbook does, nonetheless, make accessible to a broad and engaged public some of the key issues, ideas and people important in China today. [from China Story Yearbook 2012, pp.278-280.]

However, mindful as I now am of possible confusion regarding titles of subsequent Yearbooks, in future each volume will feature a Chinese-language name and a précis of the contents. Here I am pleased to tell you that our 2013 Yearbook is titled Civilising China, in Chinese, 《文明中华》.


Australia and the People’s Republic have, in recent years, entered an exciting and important new phase in our maturing relationship. It is one of unprecedented exchange, an intermeshing that works across a wide range of areas, from the political and economic to the scientific, financial, social, cultural, intellectual and individual. This is worthy of celebration. Ours is a developed relationship, one that demands ever-larger amounts of information, analysis and in-depth discussion.

The China Story Project is a multi-faceted effort to reflect these realities and to engage meaningfully with them. If you visit The China Story site, you will note that apart from our Yearbook, we feature The China Story Journal, which is constantly updated; Thinking China which introduces leading Chinese intellectuals and public debates; Key Articles which translates material from Chinese media; Related Sites which provides links to a range of online resources and relevant websites; the Archive which offers research material for those who would avail themselves of the information that contributes to our various projects; Lexicon which will gradually build up to provide a wide-spectrum introduction to keywords related to contemporary China and its representation; and, a collection of essays on New Sinology that further explicate the concept.

Also on our site, The Australia-China Story archive offers a unique unfolding resource that tracks the discussion of the bilateral relationship in all of its important dimensions (see: Although still very much a work-in-progress, I believe that The Australia-China Story is the only online resource that tracks the evolving relationship between Australia and the Chinese world (the People’s Republic of China, including Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwan and where relevant the global Chinese presence). I would also like you to note that we are gradually building up an archive of Chinese media and Chinese-language on-line discussions and representations of Australia for the use of educators, researchers and journalists.

In recent decades, China has enjoyed a period of unprecedented economic growth, increased international stature, burgeoning global respect and cultural resilience. The China Story Project reflects these realities while also offering insights into the lively, open and pluralistic debates that provide on-the-ground, granular, real-time, practical and realistic understandings of contemporary China in its many dimensions. To do so is vital for any who would attempt to appreciate both the achievements and the challenges that face the Chinese world in an era of rapid change and uncertainty. This is not merely of concern for our Chinese friends and colleagues, it is of pressing and practical interest to all of us.

Having said this, I would report that, from the end of that first week of October, just after your visit to our Centre, the China Story Yearbook section of The China Story website has been blocked in the People’s Republic, except for Hong Kong and Macau. Prior to this, it was readily accessible. I would remark that this is, to say the least, an extremely unfortunate coincidence. More importantly, in this age of openness, exchange and debate, such harassment means that readers in the People’s Republic who could meaningfully engage with our work, enhance it and enrich it are deprived of direct access to our material. I for one do not see how such a crude interdiction benefits mutual understanding, respect, nor indeed how it can reflect well on the maturing relationship between China and international academic and research communities.


Our China Story Yearbook is an exemplary model of serious, balanced, comprehensive and insightful analysis that is produced to inform audiences in Australia, our region, the Chinese world and globally. These are readerships that demand sophisticated, ever more detailed, ever more thorough information from a range of viewpoints and perspectives about the People’s Republic, the Chinese world and China’s global presence.

In producing our Yearbook in 2012, and as we work on our 2013 Yearbook, I reiterate a belief that:

In the media, in public debate, in politics, in academic discussions and in business, it is crucial that we avoid resorting to simple slogans and formulas in discussing the relationship, its potential and its challenges. This applies equally to attempts to characterise the closeness of our partnership or the differences between us.

I am proud of the fact that our Centre is fulfilling its brief as outlined in 2010 and subsequently in our foundational documents, statements of intent and the iterations of our intellectual duty. We are doing so with the positive, supportive and constructive contribution of many individuals and groups. Having emphasised this, I say once again that we welcome constructive, well-intentioned and serious comment on and analysis of our work and our ongoing endeavours.

I should also point out that our Yearbook and our The China Story Project are new ventures. They have already garnered widespread international attention and comment and we look forward to developing them according to the academic standards to which we constantly aspire. Our work is still maturing and developing and, although I would question some of the assumptions that are revealed by your comments on our Yearbook, and must reject claims based on a lack of understanding of international academic practice, values and objectivity, I do appreciate that you have made this effort to contribute to the further enrichment of our efforts. I take it that this has been done in the spirit of the Australia-China zhengyou 诤友 and the academic zhengyou about which I have spoken in the above. Sincerity and good will are the twin bedrocks of substantive, friendly and equitable exchange. This is particularly so in the context of our Australia-China anniversary year.

We have taken your concerns seriously and I have written this lengthy response as a way of engaging fruitfully with the issues you raised with my colleague Dr Benjamin Penny, as well as those matters that I am informed you discussed with DFAT. I believe that such a clear exposition is warranted for it contributes to our efforts to understand, engage with, record, analyse and explicate the numerous and fascinating aspects of The China Story and Australia’s involvement with and understandings of China.

Once again, thank you for your interest and for your attention. I look forward to your response. I will be most happy to publish it, along with this letter, in The China Story Journal.

Please pass on my regards to the Ambassador and your colleagues.

Your truly,

Geremie R. Barmé

Founding Director
Australian Centre on China in the World
The Australian National University


Media Report




The Australia Centre on China in the World. Photograph: Ben Wrigley