27/07/2004 - 22:00

WA men help develop national ties

27/07/2004 - 22:00


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WA men help develop national ties

The past six Australian ambassadors to China have come from WA. They are listed in order of their term (most recent first).

Alan Thomas

Tenure: 2003 to present

Current: Australian Ambassador to China

The beginning of Dr Thomas’s time in China coincided with the swearing in of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

“SARS also hit Beijing that very week,” Dr Thomas said.

“When we arrived we were told officially that there were three cases of SARS. By the end of that week there were 3,000. The government ‘fessed up that they had been covering up. That was an immediate crisis for the new leadership. The president and premier put their political necks on the line over SARS.

“Four months later, they declared that the crisis was indeed over. I think in China it [the handling of the crisis] got them quite a bit of kudos politically.”

Mr Thomas said that while the communist political system was still basically the same, there was a new style of leadership in China.

It is one that is more outward looking, with China working to strengthen bilateral trade and regional relationships.

Dr Thomas said the Chinese government had an ongoing commitment to opening up China and “at least a spoken commitment to continue to reform various aspects of the economy as it moves towards a greater market orientation”.

In so far as Australia-China bilateral relations are concerned, Australian governments’ role remains crucial.

“Our political relationship is extremely important in terms of the whole of our economic and trading relationship with China,” Dr Thomas said. “The rise of the Chinese has consequences well beyond our own region.

“We are living through the emergence of the rise of this second [after the rise of the US] great power.”


David Irvine

Tenure: 2000 – 2003

Current: Director General Australian Secret Intelligence Service

David Irvine’s tenure in China was characterised by an Australia-China bilateral relationship that grew substantially across the board.

“Both countries worked hard to exploit the complementarities that exist between us,” Mr Irvine said. “As a result, bilateral trade grew rapidly, to a point where China became Australia’s third largest export market.”

It was during this time that the single largest export deal ever concluded by Australia was signed with China to purchase liquid natural gas from Western Australia’s North-West Shelf.

Mr Irvine said this was not only a “tremendous outcome” for Australia, but also a great result for China.

Mr Irvine said tourism and education also increased during his tenure, paving the way for the “development of friendships and mutual understanding.”

And the rapid pace of change within China left a major impression.

“I first served in China in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese were tentatively embarking on Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening up to the outside,” Mr Irvine said.

“My second posting to Beijing, nearly 20 years later, gave me a fascinating perspective on just how far the Chinese people had travelled. The pace and scope of change in China made a deep impression on me.”

“As a result, China is now realising its potential as a major regional and world power – with an economic footprint that promises to grow larger year by year.”


Richard Campbell Smith

Tenure: 1996 – 2000

Current: Secretary of Department of Defence

The 10-year commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Hong Kong handover and the 50th year celebrations of the Communist leadership were among the hugely significant events in China’s modern history that occurred during the tenure of Richard Campbell Smith.

These events signalled a coming of age for China in many ways, and the world’s media turned to watch.

It was also during this time that China was stating its case for entry into the World Trade Organisation.

The emergence of China as an economic powerhouse was being realised at a frenetic pace.

“You can’t fail to be impressed by the rate of change. It is palpable because you see the changes, you can count the new cars on the road,” Mr Smith said.

And by the end of his tenure in China, business opportunities in China “had just exploded”, he said.

Mr Smith said indications of consumer wealth and spending, such as McDonald’s, began to appear across many of the urban centres.

“There was one [McDonald’s] when I went to China. There were 33 when I left,” he said.

Mr Smith said doing business in China has also changed, and had continued to do so, from the “rough and ready” environment many perceived it to be to a market that offers many opportunities, provided they are approached in the “right” way.

“What the Chinese really appreciate is a consistency of messages,” he said.

Mr Smith also advised business to start small in China and to select the right partner.

Michael Lightowler

Tenure: 1991 to 1995

Current: Retired

While official contacts played a significant role in restoring relations with China following the Tiananmen Square massacre, Australian business also played a major part, according to Australia’s ambassador to China from 1991-1995, Michael Lightowler.

Mr Lightowler arrived two years after Tiananmen, a time when the fallout was still very noticeable for the foreign community in China.

“Foreign business hadn’t rebuilt in China and confidence hadn’t taken up again,” he said.

One of Mr Lightowler’s roles was to develop that commercial relationship.

“It had substantially increased by the time I left, but I don’t claim credit for that,” he said. “The Australian business community can claim responsibility.”

Mr Lightowler said that, after Tiananmen, there was a second phase of investment led by major Australian companies such as BHP and ANZ, and a number of smaller manufacturing concerns.

He said the key factor that contributed to the re-development, effectively sparking the changes taking place today, was the Chinese Government’s commitment in 1983 to a policy of high economic growth and opening up to market forces.

A significant inflow of foreign investment and the establishment of offices by range of large and small foreign companies, especially Australian companies, was the result.

China welcomed this investment, Mr Lightowler said, and matched it by sending senior Chinese leaders to Australia, further cementing the two-way investment relationship.

David Sadleir

Tenure:1988 to 1991

Current: Retired

With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to identify the problems in China that led to one of China’s modern watershed events, the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“By the time I came there in 1988 after 10 years of economic reform the country was already booming, developing very rapidly, and this was part of the problem that led to Tiananmen,” former Ambassador to China David Sadleir said.

“In the big cities you were getting growth rates of 20 and 25 per cent. In fact Guangzhou was growing at rates of up 75 per cent a year.”

The reforms started by getting rid of the communes to make China more efficient.

Some workers stayed on the land but many set up their own enterprises.

“There were little controls … and this was of course a complete breach with the communist past,” Mr Sadleir said.

“As a result the natural commercial and manufacturing talent of the Chinese was released and in 10 years [1977 to 1988] it was the biggest movement of people in world history up to that time – 80 million people, he said.

But much of the growth was laissez faire capitalism, which led to a contrast of wealth, and massive inflation in parts.

Students also saw corruption blossoming.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, Mr Sadleir ordered an evacuation of all unnecessary staff.

He stayed behind to assist with containing and managing relations after the massacre.

He said Australia was able to play a leading role negotiating with China post-Tiananmen, particularly on human rights, because of the countries’ previous close relationship.

Ross Garnaut

Tenure: 1985 to 1988

Current: Australian National University, Economics professor Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Lihir Gold chairman, Lonely Planet chairman

Leading economist and ambassador to China from 1985 to 1988, Ross Garnaut, says China has come a long way since the 1980s, surpassing the expectations of many pundits.

“Looking back at my own writings on Chinese development and China-Australia relations in the 1980s, I too am struck by how much the reality that has revealed itself as history has exceeded my stated expectation for it,” Professor Garnaut said.

Mr Garnaut was sent to China in 1985 after the then ambassador, Richard Argall, fell ill.

He arrived as the country’s leaders were in the throes of developing economic reforms to move from a communist centrally planned economy to what was referred to at the time as a ‘socialist market economy’.

It was an emerging phenomenon that he was already familiar with, having been seconded from the Australian National University to then prime minister Bob Hawke’s office to help reform and internationalise Australia’s own economy.

The Chinese leadership, then led by the then premier Zhao Ziyang and the general secretary of the Chinese Communist party Hu Yaobang, had developed a very close relationship with the Hawke Government and would talk openly about possible reforms.

One of the key decisions just before Professor Garnaut’s appointment was the Western Australian-based Channar iron ore joint venture.


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