Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Great Australian foreign policy speeches: Rudd at Peking University

Great Australian foreign policy speeches: Rudd at Peking University
Published 18 Aug 2014 

Michael Fullilove began our series on great speeches about Australia's place in the world with a selection of ten speeches, here and here. Graeme Dobell's first pick in this series was Bob Hawke's APEC speech. His second choice was John Howard's speech on the US alliance and Australia's response to the 9/11 attacks, and his final choice is Kevin Rudd on China.

Kevin Rudd is a masterly communicator and a superb campaigner with a steely will to power. The controversy and the contest in the Rudd legacy are over his ability to govern and his role within the Labor Party. The commentariat is being elbowed aside by Rudd's former colleagues, eager to offer detailed accounts of his flaws. See the new effort by the former Treasurer, Wayne Swan, on The Kevin's abrasive style, policy gridlock and drift, vindictive and juvenile humiliation of people, unprofessional and unproductive behaviour and...and...and...

Enough! In Canberra, as in any capital, the saints are to be found in church, your dog is your best friend, and to locate the politicians look for the steam from the giant egos and the smoke from the eternal battles to decide and deliver.

Step by that spectacle to this column in praise of Rudd's ability to make a great speech. Note that Rudd is one of those rare Australian politicians who fought his way to two goes at being prime minister. Thus, he stands close to such giants as Deakin and Menzies – and to Billy Hughes, who headed both Labor and non-Labor governments.

Mentioning Hughes is a reminder of the line that with Billy in the party ranks, an MP never had to look to the other side of the House for the most dangerous plots and darkest treachery. Bastardry is no bar to being a top pol; judge 'em by what they deliver and...Enough, I say! On to Rudd's eloquence.

Michael Fullilove rightly lists Rudd's apology to Aborigines and the Stolen Generations in February 2008 as one of Australia's greatest modern speeches. That speech captured the spirit of one of the finest days I've seen in the parliament, expressing the emotion of thousands of people who flocked there to be part of it, in the chamber and the grounds outside.

The Rudd effort nominated as a great foreign policy speech took place only two months later in an address to students at Peking University. Rudd spoke truth to the new great power, and the fine words generated heat as well as light. He delivered it in Mandarin, and both the Mandarin and English versions can be found here. [fold]

Mark the Peking University speech as a key moment when China's ruling dynasty began to realise that Australia's new prime minister would not be their Manchurian candidate. Instead, his intimate knowledge of China gave Lu Kewen an ability to say dangerous things; that he was saying them in Mandarin doubled the menace.

Rudd was speaking as China prepared for its great international coming-of-age party – hosting the Olympics – and as Beijing cracked down hard on any attempt by Tibet to catch the Olympic limelight. Rudd put his hand right onto that scorching subject.

The Prime Minister recounted his own journey to discover China, the history of Australia's relationship with China, and then started to move on to dangerous ground by talking about the many difficulties facing China – 'problems of poverty, problems of uneven development, problems of pollution, problems of broader human rights' – and the great impact China was having on the rest of the world. And then he started to offer suggestions and criticisms.

First, on how the students of Peking University and China's coming generation should change their country:

I think that you – the young people of China, the generation that will see China's full integration into global society, the global economy and the overall global order – have an important role to play in the life of the world. The global community looks forward to China fully participating in all the institutions of the global rules-based order, including in security, in the economy, in human rights, in the environment. And we look forward to China making active contributions to the enhancement of that order in the future. It is a necessary task of responsible global citizenship. It is a big responsibility you have. You are the product of China today. And you are the representatives of China's tomorrow. You will be the ones who define how the world sees China. “Harmony” was the dream and hope of that great Chinese thinker and activist Kang Youwei. The Hundred Days reform movement, like Peking University, also marks its 110th anniversary this year. Kang proposed a utopian world free of political boundaries. China has variously articulated its approach to development as one of “peaceful rise”, “peaceful development” or more recently that of a “harmonious world”. In 2005 the then US Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick spoke for his part of his concept that China would and could become a responsible global stakeholder. As I said last week in a speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington, it is worthwhile thinking about how to encourage a synthesis of these concepts of a “harmonious world” and the “responsible stakeholder”. The idea of a “harmonious world” depends on China being a participant in the world order and, along with others, acting in accordance with the rules of that order. Failing this, “harmony” is impossible to achieve. “Responsible stakeholder” contains the same idea at its core – China working to maintain and develop the global and regional rules-based order.

Tibet and the Olympics:

This year, as China hosts the Olympics, the eyes of the world will be on you and the city of Beijing. It will be a chance for China to engage directly with the world, both on the sports field and on the streets of Beijing. Some have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of recent problems in Tibet. As I said in London on Sunday, I do not agree. I believe the Olympics are important for China's continuing engagement with the world. Australia like most other countries recognises China's sovereignty over Tibet. But we also believe it is necessary to recognise there are significant human rights problem in Tibet. The current situation in Tibet is of concern to Australians. We recognise the need for all parties to avoid violence and find a solution through dialogue. As a long-standing friend of China I intend to have a straightforward discussion with China's leaders on this. We wish to see the year 2008 as one of harmony, and celebration – not one of conflict and contention.

A true friend offers unflinching advice:

A strong relationship, and a true friendship, are built on the ability to engage in direct, frank and ongoing dialogue about our fundamental interests and future vision. In the modern, globalised world, we are all connected; connected not only by politics and economics, but also in the air we breathe. A true friend is one who can be a “zhengyou”, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship. In other words, a true friendship which “offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint” to engage in principled dialogue about matters of contention. It is the kind of friendship that I know is treasured in China's political tradition. It is the kind of friendship that I also offer China today.

Beijing did not want a Kevin Rudd who offered unflinching advice. China eventually hammered Rudd and Australia to make the true friend shut up and get back in line. China's diplomatic version of the death of a thousand cuts was brought to an end with a 'ceasefire' agreement in October 2009. Here is the text of that deal and the translation I offered at the time.

In all the things that Australia and China will do together in the future, there will be a lot more diplomatic exchanges about respect and mutual interests. Much rarer will be the Australian leader who stands up and speaks as directly as Kevin Rudd did at Peking University. For all the pain it caused, it is a great speech.

You may also be interested in