The year of 1976 was a turning point for Australia’s
relations with China and for China itself, according to Professor
John Fitzgerald from La Trobe University, who delivered the 2007 RG
Neale lecture on the subject on 2 August.
The National Archives of Australia and the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade jointly host the RG Neale lecture series to
coincide with the 30-year release of government records about a
significant international event or relationship each year.
The series pays tribute to Robert George Neale AO, the first
Director-General of the Australian Archives (now the National
Archives of Australia) in 1975 who had also served as Professor of
History at the University of Queensland and the Editor of
Historical Documents in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
‘The year of 1976 opened with a fantastic meteor shower
over North China that was widely interpreted by peasant farmers as
an augury of momentous changes in store,’ said Professor
Fitzgerald. ‘By mid year, carp were leaping from their
ornamental ponds and frogs were abandoning the marshes. These omens
prefigured the most damaging earthquake of modern times, the
Tangshan earthquake, that struck North China in late July, taking
between one quarter and one half million lives.’
Rumours of Chairman Mao Zedong’s ailing health
foreshadowed the domestic struggles for power that would follow his
death in September, which culminated in the fall of the ‘Gang
of Four’ in October.
Professor Fitzgerald said that, taken together, the omens
spelled the end of the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of a
new style of pragmatic leadership that would place modernisation
and wealth creation above ideological purity.
‘After 1976 China would never be the same again,’ he
To coincide with the lecture, the National Archives of Australia
recently made available on its website digital copies of nearly 100
records of the Department of Foreign Affairs including records from
the Australian Embassy in Peking (now Beijing) from 1976 which
reveal both Australian and Chinese officials busily searching for
signs of what lay in store for regional security, bilateral trade,
and the general health of the Australia-China relationship.
‘The Peking Embassy, keen to discern whether the new
government of Malcolm Fraser would take China seriously, developed
a suite of diplomatic despatches looking forward to the decades
ahead, which predicted with uncanny accuracy what lay in store for
China and Australia to the year 2000,’ said Professor
‘Fraser himself sought advice from many quarters to
prepare a path-breaking State of the World statement that framed a
new strategic vision looking beyond the Vietnam debacle to
establish the foundations for a durable partnership with a
Armed with his new strategic blue-print, Prime Minister Fraser
visited China in June 1976 on arguably the most colourful and
controversial official visit undertaken between the two
Professor Fitzgerald’s lecture pays homage to the work of
RG Neale and the archivists and diplomats who have preserved and
made available the valuable historical records of a momentous year
in Australia’s developing relations with a country that was
on the point of reasserting its place in the region and the world
in the 21st century.
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