No understanding of China can come without study

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am


At one level, Australia's engagement with China in the past decade can be judged to be a roaring success. China is now its largest trading partner and, late last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that the government would release a white paper on how Australia should build its level of engagement with China over the course of the next few decades.

Gillard's political opponents are also anxious to jump on the China bandwagon, with Malcolm Turnbull, a prominent opposition MP, giving an address in London last week that touched on a vision for a Sino-Australian relationship.

But while the political class, media and business leaders chatter about China on a daily basis, Australia's youth do not appear to be nearly as engaged.

Despite the fact that, for the average young Australian at school today, China will be as dominant in their future working and cultural lives as the US and Britain were for previous generations of Australians, the number of students wanting to study the Chinese language is diminishing.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald last month illustrates the disturbing level of disinterest. In Victoria, Australia's second-largest state, the number of non-Chinese-speaking students studying Chinese in the final year of schooling prior to university was only 150, and all 65 students who scored an A+ for Chinese language last year had a Chinese surname. Around Australia as a whole, there are only 300 non-Chinese-speaking students studying the language in their final year.

According to Dr Jane Orton, one of Australia's leading Chinese-language education experts, students from a non-Chinese background become disheartened in Chinese-language classes because they are competing with students who speak Chinese in the home environment.

That Australian students are not immersing themselves in Chinese culture and language has ramifications for attempts by the government to link Australia more closely to China.

As one commentator, Ben Jenson of the Grattan Institute, a Melbourne-based think tank, put it recently, the next generation of Australians 'must have an understanding of the history and culture of the countries and people that will more frequently become their customers, their employers, their colleagues and competitors'.

Or as Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the University of Melbourne's Asian Law Centre, observed recently, Asia has to be seen by Australians as an investment, not simply a market.

Beijing has a role in helping to bridge the gap between Australian government rhetoric about the need for greater engagement with, and understanding of, China and the reality for the millennium generation. The Confucius Institute is beginning to make its presence felt; a handful of schools and three state education authorities are involved with the institute in providing Chinese language, history and cultural programmes to schools in Australia.

But, to highlight the barriers to greater knowledge about China, the arrival of the Confucius Institute in Australia has been met with controversy.

A Green Party politician, John Kaye, has accused the New South Wales government of allowing Chinese propaganda to be taught in the classroom. 'Impressionable students are being exposed to a biased view of Chinese history, human rights and world affairs because the NSW government is too cheap to pay for properly qualified teachers,' Kaye said in July.

As Turnbull said last week, 'we in Australia are presented with a nation whose institutions and culture are very different to ours. Yet China is our largest trading partner, and largely responsible for our prosperity.'

Judging by the abject lack of engagement by the next generation of Australian leaders in all things Chinese, Australia has a long way to travel before it can truly understand the nation that in many ways will determine its destiny.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser