Learning Chinese could help Australians boost their career prospects but they need to make sure they learn the right kind of Chinese, according to former premier Kevin Rudd who is now Foreign Minister and in charge of the department’s Chinese section.
In a speech he told how he was a farmer’s son who went to university in Queensland and learnt how to speak Chinese. He went on to be a career diplomat specialising in Chinese and was a First Secretary in the Australian embassy in Beijing where he found himself the butt of jokes.
‘When I went to the embassy in Beijing to work they thought I spoke terrific Chinese because I was taught at the Australia National University to speak Chinese in a way in which it sounds a bit like BBC Mandarin,’ he explained.
‘You’re taught to speak Chinese with this impeccable pronunciation. So when Chinese folk hear me speak Chinese it’s a bit like hearing someone from a PG Wodehouse novel. Oh, I say Jumbo, why don’t we pop down to the club to play a spot of polo?’ he told his audience.
‘Which is why most Chinese just fall about laughing when they hear me speak Chinese. It’s like a lurch back three quarters of a century,’ he added.
He told another anecdote of how when he arrived in Beijing the new ambassador, Ross Garnaut, insisted that he become his interpreter. ‘I said, Ross, I’m not an interpreter. He said, no, everyone says you’re a terrific interpreter and stop being modest. I’m not being modest Ross, I’m not an interpreter,’ explained Rudd.
‘He insists and takes me in his limousine to his first meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Have you ever had this funny feeling when you’re heading off in a car somewhere to do something and to perform when you know that you’re about to really stuff up? It’s happened to me, it may not happen to you. ‘
He said he was terrified and ‘the Chinese interpreter looked at me, I look at him, and he knows that I don’t know what I’m doing. The ambassador began with the unremarkable observation that Australia and China currently experienced a relationship of unprecedented closeness, and I thought that was a pretty clumsy expression. And so I thought, it needs to be improved.
‘I rendered this into what I thought was impeccable semi-classical Chinese. Then there was a pause, and then I notice an array of expressions on the Chinese side… they erupted into fits of laughter. Garnaut looks at me and says, that wasn’t meant to be funny,’ explained Rudd.
‘Apparently what I’d said in Chinese as I’d sought to translate this unremarkable expression, Australia and China are currently experiencing a relationship of unprecedented closeness. What I actually said was Australia and China are currently experiencing mutually satisfactory orgasm. That was the last time Garnaut ever asked me to interpret for him.’
He wants on to talk about Australia’s future place in the world as the country faces the challenges of global financial instability. ‘Some of us think this has all just gone away. It hasn’t, it’s still there because there’s a core reason for this, and that is that the complexity, the inter-connectedness and the sheer volume of private capital ricocheting through private financial markets is so large that the capacity of individual nation states to effectively monitor, regulate and control those movements is, frankly, beyond the capacity of any singular nation state, and that’s why it has to be done internationally,’ he said.
Another big challenge is China. ‘In the next decade, for the first time in a couple of hundred years, the global economy will be dominated by an economy which does not belong to the West or does not belong to a democracy. This is a big change. And therefore the challenge that we face in ensuring that this is accommodated peacefully in a rules based order within our region and for the world at large to preserve the prosperity and peace we’ve enjoyed for the last half century and can enjoy that for the next half century is then guaranteed,’ he added.
The rise of India will also be a challenge along the wider dynamics of the Indian Ocean. ‘Australia is an Indian Ocean country. We have a deep interest in the future of that zone. And therefore the challenge again is to make sure we have a rules based order for the future which ensures that the rise of new economies is accommodated peacefully and in a manner which is consistent with the world’s prosperity and the prosperity of all,’ he concluded.