China today

Opening-up: The view from down under

2018-07-12 10:13:00 (Beijing Time)


Australia's first ambassador to the People's Republic of China reflects on decades of transformation

Editor's note: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of China's reform and opening-up policy. China Daily talks to some people from overseas who have experienced or witnessed the important drive.

When Stephen FitzGerald arrived in Beijing to take up his post as Australia's first ambassador to the People's Republic of China in April 1973, he was entering a country on the threshold of monumental change.

It was a transformation that in the space of 40 years would see the economy grow at breakneck speed, deliver unprecedented economic growth, lift some 700 million people out of poverty and see the country become one of the most powerful nations on earth.

The China of 1973, however, was vastly different to the China of today.

At the time it was coming to terms with the full impact of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

It was a time when the founding father of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong, was in poor health and a bitter power struggle was being played out behind the scenes by the "Gang of Four".

It was also the year that saw the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged and stripped of his Party posts between 1967-69.

Deng was widely tipped to succeed Zhou Enlai as premier but he was purged again following Zhou's death in January 1976.

It was not until Mao's death in September that year and the consequent fall from power of the "Gang of Four" that Deng was rehabilitated.

For the next two decades, Deng set China on a course of change that would eventually propel the country to the forefront of the world stage as an economic and political power.

Looking back over the past 40 years, the mild-mannered former Australian diplomat said the transformation of China has been "nothing short of staggering", and Deng's reforms have had an impact on all levels of Chinese society.

"If I were to pick an area where the impact of those reforms has been the greatest I would say in the fields of science and technology," FitzGerald said.

"It took time for China to shake off the excesses of the 'cultural revolution', when universities and schools were closed, and teachers purged.

"It wasn't a question of not having the students ... China didn't have the teachers for these subjects.

"So began a program of sending the best and brightest out to study science and technology. These young men and women didn't go to ordinary universities either, they went to the best."

FitzGerald said that program has paid enormous dividends.

"Science and technology have taken off in a most extraordinary way," he said. "I doubt if many people outside of China fully understand just how far China has come in these subjects.

"And let's not forget they are pouring huge amounts of money into science and technology, into research and development, artificial intelligence, and the list goes on."

FitzGerald recalled a conversation he had with the head of a major engineering university in Beijing some 20 years ago.

"He told me then that the money was not only coming from the government but from overseas Chinese as well," FitzGerald said. "He said the university was getting so much money it just could not spend it."

China has always valued education and puts a great deal of resources into educating its people, with the benefits clear today in modern China, he said, adding that developing Asian nations could learn a great deal from China's focus on education to aid in the development of their own countries and economies.

FitzGerald said China lifting 700 million people out of poverty is another achievement since opening-up that it gets little recognition for.

After leaving the foreign service, FitzGerald worked in several government and nongovernment positions which saw him back in China. On the question of poverty reduction, he saw it first hand while working for AusAID.

"This has been an incredible achievement," he said. "One of the most remarkable achievements of modern times.

"Deng's opening of China, however, should not be seen just in purely economic or political terms. It should also be seen as an opening of the mind."

For FitzGerald and his team, the three years in China were instructive. The dispatches the Australian embassy sent back to Canberra were, as history has shown, way ahead of their time.

While some in the foreign affairs bureaucracy in Canberra poured cold water on the views expressed by the mission, many of the things FitzGerald and his team relayed back to Canberra, such as the opening-up, are today known to have been spot on.

"You could feel change was coming to China," FitzGerald said. "I received a message from Washington, after I left Beijing, which said our reports on China ... the analysis and comment ... were by far the best coming out of Beijing at the time."

Before his appointment as ambassador, FitzGerald had accompanied the then Australian opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, to China in July 1971. The trip paved the way for Australia's recognition of the People's Republic of China on Dec 21, 1972, shortly after Whitlam was sworn in as prime minister on Dec 5.