The Panda and the Kangaroo: Australia-China Perspectives 1979-2012

by Professor John Hearn
CSC academic group:Education

Hearn and Panda

Professor John Hearn is Deputy Vice-Chancellor International of the University of Sydney and Professor of Reproductive Physiology in Medical Sciences at Sydney Medical School. He is Chief Executive of the Worldwide Universities Network.

The giant panda’s reproductive biology must have been designed by committee. The female’s mating season lasts for little more than one day a year, some time between March and May. Twins are normally born in September, possibly synchronised by the longest day of the year, and weaned in March. The baby panda is born tiny, blind and hairless. Only one of the twins survives.

In 1979, when I went with the first World Health Organisation expert group on fertility to China, I met scientists at the Institute of Zoology at Peking University. As a result I found myself with the World Wildlife Fund in 1982, high in the Himalayan bamboo forests in west Sichuan, advising on the development of the embryonic Wolong Panda Breeding Station and the wild and captive research programs for the panda.

Several scientists and technicians visited our laboratories at that time, and China’s subsequent focus on practical panda conservation has been a triumph. In the field, rigorous protection has been afforded to the pandas, with a result that the downward slide is turning and numbers are increasing.

At Wolong and in zoos around the world, the development of an artificial diet and “rotation” of twins feeding from their mother has resulted in an explosion in numbers of captive reared pandas. Panda diplomacy has become an established sign of the times – although the reintroduction of captive born pandas to the wild still poses intractable problems and serious challenges in behavioral adaptation.

My first forays into China came after spells at ANU and Sydney in the early 1970s when I studied the reproductive systems of kangaroos. Strange as it may seem, the panda and the kangaroo have a lot in common. Some macropodid marsupials (kangaroos and wallabies) also have a specific and narrow mating window, a surprisingly flexible gestation between a month and a year, and an amazing system of embryonic diapause that allows the embryo to remain free floating within the uterus until signalled to attach, apparently synchronised by the longest day or by climate change. At birth, the tiny, hairless and blind young must then crawl into the pouch to survive.

The similarities between these iconic animals serve as an unusual metaphor for the links between China and Australia as the two countries celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations in 2012.

quote The similarities between these iconic animals serve as an unusual metaphor for the links between China and Australia as the two countries celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations in 2012.

The rise of China during that period has been unparalleled in history. The transformation of Australia has been more nuanced, from a rather monocultural and isolated continent to a multicultural, energetic, entrepreneurial and successful middle-power nation.

Those 40 years have also seen the University of Sydney build a deep and lasting relationship with China, beginning with the “Gang of Nine” students who came here in 1979 and studied with (now Professor Dame) Leonie Kramer and others. Our research links with the China Nine Universities have flourished, especially over the past ten years, because Sydney is committed to long-term partnerships. We initiated our enhanced engagement program in 2005 with a Presentation Ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Our Confucius Institute opened in 2008 in partnership with Fudan University and is thriving. The new China Studies Centre opened in 2011, coordinating more than 130 academics working in and on China, and developing innovative degrees that will further strengthen the Australia-China bridge.

Our commitment to relationship building has produced startling results. A couple of years ago Thomson Reuters placed Sydney fifth in the world for joint scientific papers with China, and a report just published by Science and Research Minister Chris Evans reveals that we had more than 1700 joint research papers with China between 2000 and 2010 – i.e. far more than any other Australian University.

The research boom has been matched by an upsurge in student numbers, and since the arrival of the Gang of Nine in 1979, some 30,000 Chinese students have followed in their footsteps. The University of Sydney currently has a cohort of 5000 students from the mainland (PRC) and Hong Kong, and 15,000 alumni back in China. In 2012, we must construct and advance our future together to 2020 and beyond in education, humanities and social sciences, arts and culture, science and health.

There is certainly plenty to do. China and Australia share a number of challenges. Australia has no pretensions to be a dominant power, and looks to mutual friendship and prosperity through global cooperation in areas where national priorities coincide. In highlighting only a few – and even fewer names – of our knowledge partnerships with China in higher education and research, we find examples of the best and most enduring kind of diplomacy.

In Health and Medicine, the Sydney Medical School and the Health Division (and Engineering) have broad engagement with top universities and hospitals, ranging from basic research in cancer biology to the improvement of health systems and informatics. The newly-named Charles Perkins Centre for research into obesity, heart disease and diabetes is building engagement in public health with projects catalysed through the International Program Development Fund. Our Chancellor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, and Dean of Medicine Bruce Robinson, have championed research partnerships in China for decades. Our partners include Beijing, Shanghai Jiaotong, Fudan and Xian Universities.

The Science Division is broadly linked in areas from astronomy and astrophysics to information and nano-technologies – in fact, almost a quarter of our joint publications in the past decade have been in astronomy and physics. The Faculty of Agriculture and the Environment, with the emerging Sustainability Centre, is well engaged in Western China and elsewhere. A delegation led by Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, including the Dean of Agriculture, Mark Adams, and myself, will visit partners and government in May 2012. Wheat rust specialist Professor Robert Park was awarded the Chinese Friendship Prize for his remarkable work with Chinese scientists on the prevention of crop diseases. Our partners include North West Agricultural University, Lanzhou and Beijing Agricultural University.

In Education, the Dean Rob Tierney and Professor Anthony Welch have been engaged in Chinese education development for years, and have built enduring links with leading universities including Beijing Normal and Tianjin. The China Education Centre has been delivering programs since its inception in 1972.

In the Arts and Social Sciences, our academic staff led by Professors David Goodman, Hans Hendrischke and Jeffrey Riegel, have an unmatched record and a deep and fundamental knowledge of Chinese language, culture and society. These and 130 colleagues from across the University spearhead the new China Studies Centre.

The University’s membership of international networks, such as the Association of Pacific Rim Universities with 43 members and the Worldwide Universities Network with 19 members, provides us with concerted access and reach to China and the world. The three Chinese members of the Worldwide Universities Network, Zhejiang and Nanjing on the mainland and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, provide us with local roots to the incipient WUN Global Contemporary China Centre with 14 partner universities.

Some of the most exciting and potentially rewarding areas of development are the University’s partnerships with the Australian and Chinese Governments and with the various international agencies, to develop evidence-based policy options.

quote Some of the most exciting and potentially rewarding areas of development are the University’s partnerships with the Australian and Chinese Governments and with the various international agencies, to develop evidence-based policy options.

We work with an alphabet soup of organisations including ADB, World Bank, OECD, WHO and others. We present results and engage in debate at high-level conferences such as the Beijing Forum, the Boao Forum, as knowledge partners with the OECD Forum, and in 2010 at the Shanghai Expo.

Our Frontiers of Knowledge symposia, organised in equal partnership with our peer universities and academies in China, have resulted in many joint research and education projects, and we are proud of our International Leaders Program, which has hosted over 2000 Chinese senior and mid-level leaders (who often get promoted) in tailored courses ranging from University leadership to natural resource management.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of all these activities and achievements, in the somewhat structured chaos that we know and love as academia, is the flow of new staff and students who are able to pursue their own dreams and disciplines. The joy of our annual graduation and alumni receptions in China, celebrating the success of our students with their parents and grandparents, is unforgettable – and a great source of optimism for the future.

I am confident that whatever the course of future education policies and trends, our commitment as a University to our China partnership is permanent. But in order to forward our research and education partnerships, an important component of the Australia China accord being celebrated this year, we need to keep strengthening our relationships. We need to spend a lot more time in each other’s houses, laboratories and offices. We need to continue investing in Knowledge Partnerships. We need to encourage the exchange of staff and students, especially emerging researchers from both sides. And not least, we need to learn from our distinct histories and cultures to help solve the major challenges facing Australia, China and the world.