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A thought provoking reflection written by Sydney Uni student Bin Wang.

Bin attended a Sydney Ideas event and found that mediated platforms can strengthen mutual understanding of other cultures and countries.

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On many occasions I have walked the hallways of the venue where “Sydney Ideas” and the “China Studies Centre” have co-hosted activities, but tonight’s event was kind of unique. For Sydney Ideas, the event commemorated its 10th anniversary along with the China Studies Centre. I was invited to write a personal reflection and this made it a very special night for me.

I went there with my friend, William, another veteran attendee of Sydney Ideas. He is also the translator of a best-selling book Myself and China, written by an Australian author Ross Terrill. Mr. Terrill wrote it specifically for Chinese readers and did not even publish its English originals. In its promotional blurb, it reads “this book offers a penetrating reading of China in the eyes of foreigners”. This is no exaggeration.

Many Chinese people indeed have learnt a lot about their country from people who are so-called foreigners. They read books by Australian writers, arrive in Australia to study from our professors, and listen to Sydney Ideas speakers who articulate their illuminating views. I think no Chinese person could boast they fully understand China, and likewise no Australian would believe they could understand China from a single book, an introductory course, or a stimulating event. They all humbly come to Sydney Ideas to gain some new knowledge.

That motive aside, there could be one difference that sets some of the Chinese audience, at least myself, apart from my Australian peers. Every time attending China-related events, I not only aim to acquire new information about China, but try to contemplate how Australians might respond to those issues being addressed. Perhaps a bit overstated, amid many talks, my mind actually splits into two in that I think for myself as a Chinese person while also fathoming the thoughts of Australians.

This tends to bring about mixed sentiments on my part, and tonight it seemed to be especially so because of the wide range of topics each speaker covered. When Professor Bath and Professor Hendrischke mentioned the positive progress of the Chinese economy and politics, I harboured a feeling of delight; when they acutely pointed out the problems in China such as corruption and widening inequality, I felt a sense of ambivalence. Simultaneously, I wondered, what would the Australian audience think, will they be less emotionally attached to these topics, and did they take the speakers’ points differently? Perhaps they would pay more attention to those practical things, say, the opportunities opened up by the new Chinese investment policy. Or will they still be concerned about China’s real estate investments in Australia, which is a topic often covered in Australia media.

I also speculated what kind of questions they might raise in their mind when Prof. Riegel, Prof. Guo and Dr. Whiteman shed light upon various aspects of Chinese society and culture. What do they think of the Chinese way of reactivating the past, and of the cultural memory of national humiliation embodied in the pillage of the Old Summer Palace by imperial powers in the nineteenth century? Would they understand the peculiar Chinese nationalism that used to pit the vision of a strong nation against its own cultural traditions like Confucianism? How might they interpret China’s reassertion of confidence in its political power and cultural values?

With all these self-imposed queries in mind, I know it is utterly insufficient to only seek answers through questions raised in the Q&A. I should have chatted with them and got to know more about their insights, but this kind of interaction has only occurred occasionally in the previous sessions I attended. I blamed myself for being coy. Nevertheless, in my fifth year in Sydney I had eventually known slightly more about Australian history and a little about how average Australians think of China and Chinese people.

Four years ago, I read Ross Terrill’s book concerning Australia, in which two chapters give an account of Gough Whitlam’s historical visit to China in 1971. I had since known this great man and when he passed away I paid tribute to him on Facebook along with my Australian friends. I had realized that, there should be more books about Australia for the Chinese to read, just as there should be more books about China for Australians to read. Here when I say books, I mean all the mediated platforms that could strengthen our mutual understanding.

In Australia, my first thanks should go to Sydney Ideas and the China Studies Centre. At events like this one, Australians, Chinese, and people from other parts of the world could gather together to pursue their shared interests in Chinese politics, economy, society and culture. Tonight, Prof. Guo passionately encouraged some audience to study Chinese and Prof. Bath confessed that her son is already learning Chinese and hoping to stay in China.

It is in places like this where the seeds of a bright future have been sewn. Among the speakers and audience of Sydney Ideas, and likely among the children of them, there will be young Australians who undertake the endeavour to study China and Chinese. In the coming decades they will become talented scholars, brilliant writers, and visionary statesmen of this country, who will return to give talks on their understanding of China in Sydney Ideas.

Before the talk, Dr. Whiteman told me that he was impressed by the chosen photo of the event, so was I. The photo portrayed a bumpy country road where vehicles drive outbound. A little girl, looking back and smiling to the photographer, sits at the back of her mom’s bicycle moving on road. In Chinese culture the image of the road conjures up connotations of hope, ever since Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, wrote: “in the world there is no road to begin with, but when many people walk through, a road is made.” For the little girl, the road leads to a fascinating world outside. For Australia, a broad way, paved by Australians like Whitlam, has crossed the pacific, and will only get two countries close today and closer tomorrow.

If you missed the Sydney Ideas talk: Understanding China today and tomorrow please find a link to the podcast here.


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