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‘New conversation needed’ on China studies in Australia


Lack of coordination and chilling effect of security concerns hamper bilateral understanding, academy says

Australia’s “strained” relations with China require a new approach to using the knowledge of university researchers and experts, a report from the Australian Academy of the Humanities has said.

A decline in knowledge and understanding of China began around two decades ago, the report says, and there are “critical gaps” in the way universities study and interact with various aspects of the Chinese nation. These include a decrease in universities offering honours-level China studies and a trend away from specific China-focused studies towards more general subjects such as international relations.

“There is an urgent need for a new conversation about building an Australian China studies profession,” the academy said on 9 March, adding that the only way to reverse a “decline in sovereign capability” is to provide incentives for students and teachers to bolster capability in Chinese language and basic knowledge.

“There is an argument for a university-led national overview of course provision to share successes, explore possible synergies and to monitor the needs and opportunities for collaboration,” the academy said.

It also warned that the increasing security focus on Australian-Chinese relations could be “dissuading some students, early career researchers and young professionals from further developing their China knowledge and expertise”.

Too few Chinese Australians are entering and succeeding in the Australian public service, in part because they lack formal language qualifications despite speaking Chinese fluently. More cultural understanding is needed to improve the hiring situation, the report says.

Wrong direction

China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australia produces the fourth-highest number of English-language research papers on Chinese topics.

However, research for the report found that advanced China teaching was declining. “The trend is running in the wrong direction, posing a risk to Australia’s research workforce renewal.”

Australian Research Council funding is declining and there is a lack of special research initiatives in the field, the report says.

“The absence of a strategic focus on China is striking,” it concludes. The academy also found that government and industry had only “limited uptake” of the research done in universities on China-related topics.

The report traces Australia’s “knowledge capability” in China studies back to the 1973 thawing of relations, when Australian students went to Beijing to study.

The academy’s key recommendations include developing a formal China knowledge programme to take advantage of Australia’s strong research base; attracting academics with Chinese-speaking backgrounds; and building a strategy around culture and language, basic understanding, spending time in China and understanding Australia’s national interests.