Chapter 7aa

Post Pingpong Visits to China

With Whitlam elected as prime minister in November 1972, diplomatic relations with Beijing were quickly established.

In the space of little over a year I would end up making three more visits to China.

One was to cover the opening of the embassy there (with Stephen Fitzgerald sent as ambassador), and then staying on to cover trade minister (and later deputy prime minister) Jim Cairns leading a group of top Australian businessmen on a trade mission to China in May 1973.

The next was to cover Gough Whitlam’s historic visit to China as prime minister in November 1973.

The last was to cover a trade exhibition opened in Beijing by Jim Cairns in October 1974.

The visits did little to teach me about Australia-China relations, which were still very limited in those days.

But they did teach me a lot about China, and about Australian politics.

Jim Cairns in China

As I mentioned earlier, I had had dealings with Cairns back in the anti-Vietnam war days.

This time too he remained as flaky as ever. He was hard man to get to know properly.

He was determined to see China as the leader of some great liberating revolution in Asia, despite the shambles of the still lingering Cultural Revolution visible on every side.

For the 1974 trade exhibition he had persuaded many Australian firms to spend a lot of money to bring their goods to China for display.

He even brought a model airplane – the Australian-produced Nomad.

But the Chinese did little to help him.

They gave little sign of realizing the political capital he had expended in organizing the exhibition.

They not only bought almost nothing. When the exhibition ended I got a minor scoop by discovering how the Chinese were insisting the exhibitors had to take all their goods back to Australia.

Failing that, they had to hand over their exhibits to China for free.

In some cases even the exhibitors, who had spent so much bring their unsold goods to China, now had to pay good money for their disposal.

Needless to say, neither Cairns or the embassy was impressed by my story, and its implications.

Later Cairns was to make sure that I was not included in the press coverage for his next overseas trip (to Hanoi).

(He took with him the rightwing Michael Richardson of The Age instead.)

Fitzgerald was even less impressed, since it undercut badly his claims that Australia had a great trade future in China.

Which it was to have eventually, but not by selling Nomads.

During the Cairns visit I ran into a precursor of that future - an old contact from my Hammersley and CRA visiting days, Tom Barlow (who was later to head Hammersly).

He did not want to admit it, but he was in Beijing to arrange the first contract for export of Australian iron ore to China.

That too had given me quite a good story, even if at the time none of us realized just how big the story would become.

I had pestered Barlow into giving me the name of the hotel he was staying at so I could arrange a follow-up talk (he had been trying to emulate Kissinger-style secrecy and keep journalists at bay).

But when I tried to contact him at that hotel I was told insistently – in Chinese - that there was no Barlow there.

I knew Barlow quite well and did not think he would deliberately have given me the wrong hotel name. So I persisted.

It took me some time to realise that Barlow in Chinese means the eighth floor (baa low), and the hotel only had five floors!

The May 1973 Jim Cairns visit had been little better in terms of cementing a China-Australia relationship.

He had with him the cream of the Australian business community. But the Chinese showed little sign of excitement.

After Beijing we all set off on a Potemkin-like tour of China.

As we wandered round factory after factory it was obvious to all of us that the Chinese were far more interested in handing out Cultural Revolution slogans than in serious manufacture.

We visited a factory allegedly making transformers somewhere in the countryside outside Shanghai.

After we got into our cars for the trip back to town, I decided for toilet reasons to go back to the factory - something I could do fairly easily because my car was the last in the the carefully-regulated car queue.

A few minutes earlier the factory had been a scene of concentrated industry, with workers too busy even to glance at us foreign visitors as we wandered through.

Now, just a few minutes later, it was deserted.

It had all been a purely show performance.

As we traveled around China I had to share a car with the journalist Mungo McCallum, in those days a fairly keen leftwinger and later a devout Whitlam admirer.

(The protocol-minded Chinese had insisted that we always sit in the same car, and that the car should always be in the same position - at the back of the car queue.)

I recall Mungo's indignation when I described the crowds brought out in the streets to welcome us in Hangzhou as Cultural Revolution 'serfs.'

He thought the Revolution had been a great idea, and that the welcome was genuine.

A lot of other leftwingers back in Australia had been equally gullible, though I suspect Cairns was more savvy.

The Chinese showed little sign of realizing Cairns’ political significance as head of Australia’s embattled leftwing in those days. (Whitlam was still much more interested in keeping his credentials as a centrist, even as the disaster in Vietnam was unfolding).

At the formal reception for us that evening in Hangzhou, Cairns had to play second fiddle to a much larger reception in the next room, for a bunch of rightwing Chilean admirals, some of whom were no doubt already plotting the overthrow of the Allende regime at home.

Earlier in Beijing I had seen US air force people, some possibly fresh from napalming Vietnamese villages, being welcomed for some reason at the hotel where we had been staying.

In those days China was desperate for any recognition it could get. It did not look too closely at the blood on peoples’ hands.

A Cambodian Connection

One useful thing to come out of the Cairns May 1973 visit was a move to open contact with Cambodian government in exile.

On the 1971 ping-pong visit to Beijing I had got to see Sihanouk, then already in exile from his native Cambodia where the US had installed the puppet Lon Nol regime.

(Who today even remembers the names of people like Lon Nol, Nyguen Ky and a host of other military types the US had tried vainly to install as leaders in Indochina?)

(The US is unique in many ways. One of them is that it does not even bother to pretend to preserve the façade of its puppets when their CIA-installed regimes collapse.)

Sihanouk had invited me and some others to the very comfortable house the Chinese had given him. He had shown us a film of the then emerging Khmer Rouge guerrilla armies.

He was relying on them to overthrow Lon Nol and bring him (Sihanouk) back to power.

As I looked over faces of the young, dedicated, guerrillas, many female, lined up in the jungle I was reminded of the photos Burchett had shown me some years earlier in Moscow of the emerging Vietcong armies in the South Vietnam jungles.

For me the honesty and truth of a revolutionary army can be judged by the willingness of women to volunteer for it.

By that standard the Khmer Rouge, in their early stages at least, had to rank high.

(Later, I was to be made very aware of the dreadful B 52 US bombing raids these young people would have to suffer, simply to return control of their own country to their own hands.)

During the Cairns visit I set out to renew the Sihanouk contact.

I was able to arrange for Cairns to meet with Penn Nouth, prime minister in Sihanouk's government in exile.

With my trusty Polaroid camera in hand I was also able to get a good photo of this historic meeting. It went directly on to the front page of The Australian the next day.

(An irony of China in those days was that it was much easier to send photos abroad than text. The former could move uncensored.)

By my standards at least it was a good story, though my newspaper colleagues were not so admiring.

(A constant problem for me in China was the attitude of other Australian journalists. They did not appreciate, for example, my being able to use by contacts with Sihanouk and Cairns to get the Penn Nouth story.)

(They saw it as quite unfair.)

(I recalled the UPI photo manager who said he hired photogs not on the basis of camera ability but by the political sense to know where the story was and to be there at the time to point the camera in the right direction.)

(Maybe it is time to hire journalists on the same basis, rather than on ability to write colorful beat-ups.)

(My other problem was the virtual contempt they had for anyone of their group, myself included of course, who spoke any Chinese.)

(That too seemed unfair to them. As well, one detected a racial factor – that it was un-Australian to be out there yabbering away in a language no dinky-die Australian would ever want to learn or speak.)

(I got especially annoyed when in a superior tone of voice they would ask you to interpret something for them, as if that was your job to do so in the first place.)

(Please note, Brian Johns. Later of ABC fame, he was one of the worst offenders in China.)

Opening contact with the Sihanouk regime should have been a top priority for any progressive regime in Australia anxious to see stability and democracy in Asia.

But Canberra was not impressed by this Cairns initiative.

To its eternal discredit, the Whitlam government, with the rightwing Lance Barnard as deputy prime minister, was insisting that the US puppet, Lon Nol, was the sole legitimate ruler of Cambodia.

Cairns received a formal reprimand for seeming to flout the government policy of not recognizing any aspect of the Sihanouk regime.

(Earlier in Tokyo I had seen Barnard turn quite hostile when someone suggested that Australia’s support for the Lon Nol regime was misplaced.)

(How do the intelligence agencies and other uglies get at these rightwing ALP types, and why do they succumb so easily, and remain dumb for so long? Later in Canberra I was to run into the same problem with Whitlam over policy to Japan.)

I also tried to arrange for Cairns to visit Sihanouk. That plan was killed by direct order from Canberra.

Ironically, Whitlam, on his November 1973 trip to Beijing just six months later, was to gain media bouquets for going out of his way to call on Sihanouk.

The rivalry and jealousy between Whitlam and Cairns was to do a lot of damage to ALP foreign policy formation over the years.

Australia’s Non-China Policy

During the Whitlam 1973 visit I was to see more of Canberra's still lingering conservative wisdom.

Eric Walsh was traveling ahead as PR for the mission. He showed me the confidential briefing for the visit which, unbelievably, was reciting the usual rightwing platitudes about Chinese aggressive intentions in Asia, as if there had been no change of government in Canberra.

(I was to discover much more of the same during my 1975 stay in Canberra, of which more later.)

That gave me quite a nice story, and considerable hostility from the Whitlam camp, including Fitzgerald, who as ambassador was trying to pretend that Australia was a good friend of China.

Whitlam had brought his newly-appointed Foreign Affairs chief, Alan Renouf, also trying hard to pretend to be progressive minded.

Renouf promised me all kinds welcome if I ever wanted to come back Canberra and into his Department.

‘Greg, we need people like you.’

Two years later when I did get back to Canberra, he went out of his way to make sure that I never even got near his Department.

(Renouf was a devious personality.)

(His previous posting had been Washington, where he had played a key role in making sure Canberra got militarily involved in Vietnam.)

(But the moment Whitlam was elected he commenced a not very subtle campaign to persuade the ALP that he was a progressive and a longtime admirer of the ALP, even if diplomatic duties had forced him to be silent at times.)

(Whitlam seems to have been taken in by this toadyism, foolishly, because it was to do much damage to Whitlam’s foreign policies later.)

Deng Xiaoping and other Non-scoops

One day during the Whitlam 1973 visit we all went off to see the famous Coal Hill gardens on the northern outskirts of Beijing.

A small man wearing a cloth cap and a happy smile was showing us round.

Everyone thought he was the head gardener.

I looked a bit harder and realised it was none other than Deng Xiaoping, on yet another of his attempted comebacks from Cultural Revolution exile.

I asked him just that: "Are you Deng Xiaoping?"

He giggled agreement.

I felt certain I not only had quite a nice story to report for my paper, but also a worldwide scoop.

China-watchers around the globe were using Deng’s return to grace as a measure of China’s return to sanity after the Cultural Revolution madness.

Sadly my story was cut to pieces by sub-editors in Sydney who, like the large group of Australian media people on Coal Hill, did not have the slightest idea who Deng was.

In fact, Deng had been prominent in the mid-sixties when, together with Zhou Enlai, he had tried to move China to more moderate policies.

He was to become even more prominent later.

Deng Xiaoping with the Whitlam delegation, November 1973, at the Forbidden Palace, Beijing

I also thought I had got quite a good story by tracking down and interviewing a defector from the former Taiwan Embassy in Canberra, Wang Wei-ping.

The defection had been big news in Australia, and much of Asia at the time.

But once again the sub-editors managed to get it wrong.

I had tried to save cabling costs by sending the defector’s name as Weidashping. I assumed they would realize the ‘dash’ was a – and not a name.

But sure enough, the story in the paper the next day had me talking with a Chinese gentleman called Wang Weidashping.

Such were the joys of writing for The Australian in those days.

(One of the worst of their sub-editorial boo-boos came during a Japan-Australia talkfest in Kyoto in 1974, where the head of the Australian delegation, Sir Edward Warren, went out of his way to tell me how he was going to be given the high Japanese award of the Sacred Treasure.)

(The story appearing in the paper the next day said he was going to be given the high Japanese award of the Secret Pleasure.)

Back to Australia, temporarily

The four-day Whitlam visit had been a tumultuous affair. To cap it off, a RAAF VIP plane had been laid on to take him and all the rest of us back to Australia.

The plane would attempt something never before done - fly direct from Beijing to Canberra in one hop.

That would not be easy.

The plane needed much fuel to cover the distance, the Beijing runway was short, the journalists’ baggage was very heavy, and some of the journalists also were very heavy.

In the gathering dark of a late autumn evening, we just managed takeoff (I think I was the only one who noticed how close it had been). The celebrations were already underway.

For the rest of the night as the party roared on, China and the rest of Asia slipped away beneath us. No one, not even Whitlam, pretended to try to sleep very much.

It had been a prime ministerial visit to top all prime ministerial visits.