R.G. Neale Lecture 2007 – Australia's relations with China

Media Release

2 August 2007

Media Release

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of Australia) in 1975 who had also served as Professor of History at the University of Queensland and the Editor of Historical Documents in the Department of Foreign Affairs.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 said.

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 Fitzgerald.

‘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 resurgent China.’

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 countries.

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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Last Updated: 19 September 2014