Thursday, 19 May 2011

Parting Shot

Outgoing ambassador Geoff Raby
When Kevin Rudd was elected Australian Prime Minister in 2007 there was a lot of hope Down Under that he would greatly enhance China-Australia relations thanks to his fluency in Putonghua, having studied it at Australia National University and then was a political counsellor at the embassy in Beijing in the 1980s. He even had the Chinese name Lu Kewen (陆克文).
But in fact the opposite happened, and the lowest point occurred when Stern Hu of Rio Tinto was arrested in July 2009 for bribery and espionage and was convicted and sentenced to jail for 10 years. At the time many complained that Rudd seemed to do nothing about the case.
And although Rudd is back on the political scene as Foreign Minister, Australian Ambassador to China Geoff Raby has criticized his masters who speak Chinese but "do not understand how China works".
Raby's term as ambassador ends August 5 but he made no qualms of saying "one of the biggest challenges has been managing my own team [including] politicians and officials".

"To speak Chinese is not to know China," Raby told a gathering of over 400 high-powered executives in Beijing on Wednesday.
"Many examples can be found of people who speak Mandarin to a high level but who do not understand how China works," he said. "They may have learnt their Chinese shut up in their study reading the Analects."
According to a report from the Sydney Morning Herald, a Rudd supporter retorted, "It might be worth the while of the now unemployed ambassador to shut himself up and read the book [the Analects]."

Raby told the Australian Institute of Company Directors that while learning Chinese was "immensely valuable", it was neither necessary nor sufficient for understanding China.

Instead he criticized Australia's inability to cope with China's rise, and the lack of importance it had in national foreign policy.

"China now matters more to Australia in terms of trade than it matters to any other major country," he said. "So when we talk about acting with like-minded countries, in respect of our trading relationship we are today very much alone when dealing with China."

He advised Australian executives and officials need to know China on its own terms "whether we like it or not".

And he also slammed major Australian companies for being based in foreign-friendly Shanghai than Beijing where decisions are made.

"If you establish your head office in Shanghai, effectively you have tattooed on your forehead - 'I don't understand China'," he said. Raby also expressed surprise at the number of top executives and senior officials who have never visited or rarely visited China.

It's interesting seeing Raby make such stinging remarks about his employers but perhaps he's had enough of dealing with his "team" than Beijing officials themselves who can create their own circus at times.

His comment about understanding China without knowing Chinese is really interesting -- the Chinese have a preconception that one does not know China at all unless you know the language, but then it's never enough even if you are fluent. While I believe it's crucial to visit the country and see it, warts and all, one can pick up on things without knowing the language to a certain degree.

I do agree with his suggestion that head offices must be in Beijing -- every single decision comes out of Zhongnanhai, and even acquiring a business license must be done in the capital. So there really is no point in having headquarters in Shanghai -- you might as well be based in Inner Mongolia.

Raby was well liked in Beijing particularly by expats who felt he had a very good grasp of what was going on in China and also had a passion for books on the subject. One wonders who will replace him...

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