China connections

Dr Michael Spence

For many good reasons, the eyes and ears of the world are currently turned toward China.

Thirty years of dynamic development has turned China into a thriving economy. In that short period the country that was once regarded as a threat is now our most important export partner, one which is investing heavily in its education and university sectors.

Trade is growing so rapidly that China will soon eclipse our third, fourth and fifth next largest markets combined. Of course, China is also the source of many international students. In fact there are more Chinese undergraduate students in Australia than in the US.

There are those who warn of a possible downside to us being too close to the great dragon. But the University cannot be accused of being a new or fair weather friend. Our relationships and links with China are long-standing and exist on a number of different levels. Our deep and historic ties go back nearly 100 years and we now have more than 10,000 alumni in China. We were the first university in Australia to teach Chinese language and culture, and one of the first in the world to welcome Chinese students after the Cultural Revolution. In that time, we have observed transformative change in China and its impact on the world. But we are not just an observer.

Today we are one of the world’s universities most engaged with China’s next generation: with 5000 Chinese students on campus and many exchange and research collaborations involving some 90 of our leading researchers across all the University’s academic activities.

Our partnerships are in areas such as medicine and public health, engineering, finance, culture, music and education. In Shanghai we have close links with Fudan University where we have established the Sydney-Fudan Master of Education program, and with Shanghai Jiaotong University where we have established a curriculum development program for clinical and basic medical science teachers. At Nanjing University our experts from the Australian Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis are working with their Chinese colleagues who are the world leaders in spintronics research, collaborating to produce the next generation of computers and electronic devices.

We have also provided top-level executive training to Chinese government and business leaders for many years.

A number of our recent visitors, such as Mr Wang Yingfan, a member of an influential government think-tank, the Foreign Policy Advisory Group; and a group of senior officials from the western province of Sichuan where we have research and education links with Sichuan University, illustrate the depth of our connections.

On my recent trips to China I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest shown in Australia and in our University. On two occasions, in both Shanghai and Beijing, I’ve received extensive prime time TV coverage. It is hard to imagine a mainstream network here devoting time to a visiting university president.

It was against this background that we took our strategic decision to become a sponsor of the Australian Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. It is entirely appropriate that we are the only university to be a gold sponsor, alongside major companies such as RioTinto and ANZ, as this represents a continuation of our long-term relationships and partnerships with China, for the benefit of both our countries.

In the Australian Pavilion over the six months of World Expo we are hosting a series of academic symposia, roundtables with government and business, and contributing some of our leading musical performers from the University’s Conservatorium of Music for the Expo cultural program.

As a further sign of our long-term commitment to China and to build enhanced, cross-disciplinary partnerships into the future, in 2011 the University will establish a China Studies Centre. This is an important initiative involving major Chinese, Australian and global partners and it was recently endorsed by Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in a speech at Fudan.

The China Studies Centre is another major commitment for the University, but one which I believe will pay great dividends. As well as being a hub for cross-disciplinary education and research, it will provide a network for deeper and broader engagement with government, business and civil society, with a focus on China beyond Beijing. Importantly it will provide a voice for commentary, dialogue, informed discussion and outreach to Australian and Chinese societies, to help each know the other better and to prosper together.

Unless we come to a better understanding of one another our relations with China risk being seriously undermined by misperceptions and neglect.

We need to think strategically about the country that is more likely to determine our prosperity and national security than any other in this century.