[lg policy] Australia: Rudd ’s ‘China literacy’, thirteen years on

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 25 16:18:59 UTC 2009

Rudd’s ‘China literacy’, thirteen years on
June 24th, 2009

Author: Charles Prestidge-King

In 1996, Australia’s current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wrote an
article for a collection entitled ‘Australia and China: Partners in
Asia’, edited by Colin Mackerras of Griffith University.  In it, he
outlined the case for improving Australia’s cultural and linguistic
literacy of Asia in general, and China in particular. The popular view
of China was, as Rudd put it, the ‘product of 150 years of conflicting
and intersecting paradigms, which carry inaccuracies’, a curious mix
of racism, vestigial or otherwise, strategic paranoia, and a sense of
economic opportunity.

Improving Australia’s China literacy would help clear up those
inaccuracies, and would give Australians a better understanding of the
cultural factors behind key Chinese institutions. With China’s
increasing economic significance, it would also give Australians a
tremendous advantage in business. Despite a debate that started in the
1960s and attempts by several governments to push such a plan forward,
we’re still no closer to a comprehensive plan for improving
Australia’s Asia literacy than we were in 1996.

The COAG-commissioned report that Rudd co-authored in 1992, for
instance, was ambitious, but its proposals were straightforward
enough: ‘(E)very Grade 3 child in the country should be required to
study a second language. Sixty per cent of those children will be
required to study a language of Eastern Asia: Japanese, Mandarin,
Indonesian or Korean. … Our projections are that, by the time this
program works through the school system, 25 per cent of the school
population of this country will be taking one or other of those four
languages for ten consecutive years. …deliberately modeled on the
language teaching policies and programs of the Western Europeans, the
Dutch and the Scandinavians …’

The idea was never to create generations of Asia-focused specialists
or canny foreign policy operators. It was dual-discipline, intended to
create reasonably proficient Asian language-speaking Australians who
have at least some cultural understanding of Asia and can engage with
the region in whichever way they choose to. The issue was ignored, if
not deliberately buried, during the years Howard was in office. Yet
aside from a smattering of media releases at much the same time as he
was spruiking his Asia Pacific Community idea, we’ve heard very little
on this from the Rudd government.

Henry Makeham has recently written about Australian graduates falling
behind in the Asian job market. Being able to understand and to deal
with China, and our neighbours in the Asian region, ought not just be
a matter of competitive advantage. China literacy goes to the central
question of Australia’s future international interests. It did then,
and it certainly does now. We ought not expect every Australian to
speak Mandarin, but with the collapse of Chinalco’s deal with Rio
Tinto, and the fatuousness of the Federal Opposition and some sections
of the press over the past few months, there’s rarely been a better
time for improving the state of Asia literacy in general, and China
literacy in particular, in Australia.

In 1996, Rudd expressed frustration that nearly a generation of
discussion and no fewer than sixteen reports written on the matter had
been met with no real policy response. Rudd should not wait for the
thirty-second report to be written. If we truly wish Australia to be a
leader, or simply a competent manager of its own affairs in Asia, this
is an important step to take. Now is the time for him to put his foot
forward on Asia literacy.


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