Federal Politics


Future choice to strive or struggle

Since the launch of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper last month, there has been enough negative press to sink a small dinghy, with headlines such as ''Vision but little detail in the Asian paper'', ''Meaningless promises, replete with pure spin'', ''Dark side of the White Paper'', ''White paper fails to deliver on energy'', ''Vision of region too optimistic'', ''This Asian century is so last century'' and ''Vision clouded on China and US''.

To lighten the atmosphere a little, here is a positive, and personal, story about how a little bit of vision can go a long way.

My story begins in 1988, when, thanks to some dedicated and enthusiastic teachers and parents, Hawker College offered a school trip to Japan. As a 17-year-old studying maths, physics, chemistry and English, I knew little about and had little interest in Japan. But my parents had recently visited the country and, enthralled by what they had seen, generously offered to foot the bill. I went, and I loved it.

Applying for university some months later, my mother continually ''encouraged'' me (in that way that only mothers can) to study economics and Japanese. I'm not sure why she fixated on this combination but I have no doubt that it was connected to then prime minister Bob Hawke's own vision of Australia in Asia, on which the new white paper vision so clearly builds. I think she was convinced that an Asian language would not only make me rich but that it would open doors that I never knew existed. For once, I listened.

In 1991, in the middle of my Economics degree (majoring in Japanese) at the ANU, I spent a year in Japan and it was there that I heard about the Kobe Steel scholarship, offered annually to an Australian for two years of postgraduate study at St Catherine's College, Oxford. One of the pre-requisites was a demonstrated interest in Japan.

The next year, I applied for a Treasury cadetship to fund my honours degree. At the time, former treasurer and newly appointed prime minister Paul Keating was intent on diversifying the skill set at Treasury, and my Japanese language knowledge helped me secure a position in the newly established Asia section. I started work there in 1993 and was asked to monitor the Chinese economy (along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei), because Japan was too important for a new graduate, Japanese-speaking or not.


In any case, this new position must have looked quite nice on my CV, because in 1994 Kobe Steel awarded me the scholarship and off I went to Oxford, where I spent the next eight years, completing a doctorate on the Chinese economy, teaching undergraduate economics, slowly trying to learn Chinese and enjoying fabulous work/study stints at the World Bank, in Washington DC, the World Institute for Development Economics Research, in Helsinki, and the People's University, in Beijing.

I returned to the ANU in 2003, because it seemed the best place in the world to pursue an academic career focused on the Chinese economy, and I am still based there, at the new Australian Centre on China in the World, hopefully playing a small role in strengthening Australia's understanding of one of the most fascinating and complex countries on earth.

I couldn't have conjured up a career path that would have suited me better, even if I could have been far richer! And for that, I have to thank the visions of two former prime ministers and, of course, my mum.

After the press conference, Julia Gillard was asked ''How are we going to get students interested in studying Asian languages?'' She responded that it was up to all of us - the prime minister, teachers, parents and friends - to inspire young Australians to seize the opportunities that lie in waiting in this Asian century. And on that point, regardless of the details, I couldn't agree more.

I think the Prime Minister and her white paper team should be congratulated for presenting the nation with an excellent vision and a simple choice: to remain a culture of ''cruise and snooze'' stuck in a Euro-centric past or to become one of ''strive and thrive'' in an Asia-centric future.

I certainly know what choice I'll be encouraging my own child to make. But, no matter what either the Prime Minister or I say or how much we plan or spend, that choice will ultimately be his.

Jane Golley is associate director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University. This article was written for The China Story Journal. www.thechinastory.org