An Australian Experience: Meanderings from Oasis Down Under
My interest in Australia was first aroused by the writing of John Gunther in his "Inside Australia". This fascinating book was originally published in 1972 by Harper & Row, after the death of this famed American journalist and writer. His other earlier "Inside" books had been translated into the Chinese language, and, quite surprisingly, the Chinese translation of his latest work on Australia came out not long after the publication of the English version, making it possible for me to read the Chinese version in my high school years in the mid 1970s. It remains a mystery how, during the hectic and unsettling days of the Cultural Revolution, the translation of a travel book by an American writer proceeded unhindered. Even if one considers that Gunther's earlier books had entered China unopposed, there was no apparent urgency to complete the translation of this particular book of his. It is perhaps true to say that by the early 1970s life in China had settled down along a more or less "normal" course. The publication was not openly available in bookstores, but but considerable copies were printed, so that libraries could get hold of them. With this twist of luck, I was able to read all of Gunther's "Inside" series available in Chinese, drawn from the internal library of a research institute in Beijing, where my father worked. I grew quite fascinated about his travel series and descriptions of diverse continents of the world, including Australia.
The Chinese term for that "Inside" in the title, in fact, implies some dark secrets in the closet or inner circle stories outsider could not get their hands on. In the mid 1970s, many books were tacitly allowed by the authorities and found their ways to readers. Books with "inside" titles posed to entice. These books by Gunther, somehow, did not reveal that kind of intrigue or mystery in distant and seclusive societies, unlike those popular ones in the same period of time exposing political infighting and decadence of the Soviet Union. The book on Australia, however, infected me with fascinating ideas of an unexplored and idealised place where people sought a peaceful and tranquil existence and overcame multiple harsh conditions of the nature. These lingering impressions blended well with my college studies on politics and history, projecting a vague scenario of lasting modern longing for a utopia and real life practice finally coming into one. Australia seemed to be a modern entity bearing the marks of a Utopian society eagerly anticipated by early European thinkers. Its remoteness in geographical terms heightened the sense of reclusive refuge following an exhaustive global search for a desired destination. In reality, the images of Australia in China remained vastly different from the then prevailing ones of American imperialism or resurgent Japanese militarists. From that time on, Australia to me often popped up as an acceptable alternative when debates on future paths of the world and ideological divides were in rage.
Alas, dreams often get shattered and past impressions fade. During my stay of well over a full decade in Australia, I have gained ample first hand experience for making some of my own points of this country. Various observations have long been made by the people in the konw of the running of the country, and there are well established studies in related fields. Australia does have its own records of cruel practices in numerous areas, and its politics does not always look a pretty sight or sensible. Many past actions and policies remain controversial and regretable. Life in Australia can be mundane and unexciting affairs sometimes, while the country's economic performance or ranking has seldom been exceptionally spectacular or highly recommended among developed economies of today. When a former Federal Treasurer Paul Keating was awarded the title "World's Best Treasurer" by International Bankers in 1984, it was quite an honour and acknowledgement of achievement for an Australian politician. Overall, this is a medium sized Western country with domestic constrains of its own and constant longing for international recognition.
This mixed bundle only proves that this is a "normal" country. Of this, I mean the country develops its politics, culture and economy through stages, cannot escape internal and external threats, and is therefore not entirely an innocently perfect model or utopia readily lendable to others. Viewing Australia as a normal country in effect screens out some unrealistic expectations and personal bias. There is no need either to fantisise a model in the form and shape of Australia, or to stress the failings of this country as not worthy the tiniest of a model. Taking away ideological trappings and fervant worshipping of certain institutions or ideals, there remain the bare essentials for all modes of societies to properly handle existing contradictions and prevent major fault lines from breaking up. Australia passed these recurring trials and obstacles in pretty amazing manners, fitting well the label of a "quiet achiever". The virtue of the Australian experience is further illuminated at the turn of the new century as a likely choice of "the Third Way", in the face of tyranny of globalisation and unilateralism. In the critical area of sustanable development, as opposed to the maddening pursuit of wealth and material gains at hand, Australia undoubtedly holds enviable advantages and long term potential.
My perceptions of Australia have since come around in a full circle, from the idealised images based chiefly on curiority to reality checks based on life experience, and to the more recent idea of an oasis based on the combination of both. A research into contemporary Australia of over a century can take past writings, such as "Inside Australia" and "The Lucky Country", as path markers and ought to make more sense of those cycles of events, in light of hindsight and new realities of the 21st century. This change of perceptions is painful but healthy, since false romanising of any country as a model is to be kept at minimum, either for those eager to modernise at all costs or those feeling complacent for being in a "model" country. It is now a chance to instead highlight some of Australia's admirable characteristics over others in a world full of contradictions and confrontations. These include the advantages Australia has mainly in environment, political spheres, market economy, and resouces. These vital elements have sustained its vibrant economy and social cohesion. They are also key indicators of a positive future outlook of this country. (to be continued)