Inside Story

Whitlam in China

Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971 was a turning point in relations between the two countries. But luck also played a part in this audacious mission

Billy Griffiths 22 October 2014 3190 words

“A stroke of genius”: Gough Whitlam speaking to journalists after his return from China in mid 1971. National Library of Australia

Emerging as opposition leader in February 1967, with Labor still reeling from a crushing electoral defeat, Gough Whitlam fronted the press and defined the type of leader he wanted to be: “I want you to know what I’m for, not what I’m against. What I’ll do, not what I’ll undo or what I’ll resist.” On that day he sketched the first outlines of what would become known as “The Program,” and he appointed himself opposition spokesman for foreign affairs, a forceful statement of his internationalist vision.

As opposition leader, Whitlam sought to present the Australian people with a powerful vision of a viable alternative government. He goaded his party into action, deriding the oppositionist mentality that equated defeat with ideological purity and daring his colleagues to unite behind him; daring them to govern. “Certainly,” he declared in a charged speech to the Victorian executive of the Labor Party, “the impotent are pure.”

By 1971, Whitlam led a re-energised and reformed party and was riding a wave of popular support. The 1969 election had seen an enormous 6.5 per cent swing against the Coalition government, an emphatic sign of the public’s desire for political change. It was in this climate that he took the greatest risk of his political career: he sought to travel to China.

I am still struck by the audacity of this decision. Here was an Australian opposition leader seeking to travel to China before any other Western leader; aiming to make high-level political contact with the most populous communist power in the world in the midst of the Cold War. In many ways it seemed like political suicide. Whitlam had a lot to lose and little to gain from such a visit. And yet he did it anyway.

The 1971 visit to China was not an exercise in political opportunism; it was a bold expression of Whitlam’s foreign policy vision, which prioritised regionalism and internationalism over ties with “great and powerful friends.” As early as 1954, Whitlam endorsed recognition of the People’s Republic of China; he was the first member of parliament to do so. His campaign had been long and consistent and it was driven by his passion for reason and his contempt for ideological distortions in international affairs. It simply did not make sense in his ordered, legalistic mind that Australia would ignore the political existence of a quarter of the world’s population. Whitlam hoped his 1971 visit would mark the end of Australian thinking about China in terms of red and yellow perils.

Ultimately, it was a coincidence that lent much of the drama to this episode. A matter of days after Whitlam shook hands with Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People, the US president’s envoy, Henry Kissinger, secretly engaged in the same diplomatic ritual. Whitlam had the good fortune to find himself at the epicentre of a seismic shift in America–China relations. The coincidence, in the words of Bill Hayden, recast “a disaster in the making” into “a stroke of genius.”

But the Kissinger visit, however beneficial it was for Whitlam politically, also tends to overshadow the substance of his visit. What was a bold piece of foreign policy in its own right – an irresistible vignette of Whitlam’s time as leader – has become remembered primarily as a case of fortuitous timing.

The Australian delegation to China flew into Peking near midnight on 3 July 1971 through “a prolonged and spectacular thunderstorm.” It was the week before Whitlam’s fifty-fifth birthday. The motley crew of Australian politicians, journalists and academics bewildered their Chinese hosts. Their tendency to communicate in rhyming slang compounded the confusion already caused by the Australian accent, “a thing of terror” to Chinese ears familiar with English spoken by Americans.

Whitlam, with his “boundless energy” and insatiable intellectual curiosity, gave the expedition a sense of occasion. “His mind is like a beam whose ray must cast itself somewhere,” Ross Terrill wrote in 1971. “Between talks with Chinese leaders, he plunged into social or historical investigation, now with a question and now with an answer to someone else’s question, but at all times engaged with China as if no other country existed on earth.” He devoured the books on Chinese culture that his China adviser Stephen FitzGerald supplied him with and approached all aspects of his travelling experience with great enthusiasm, whether he was explaining the details of Chinese dynasties to the accompanying journalists or downing the explosive rice wine, mao-t’ai.

The journalists shared his sense of adventure and their presence proved crucial to the success of the visit (although, as Terrill observed, “it puzzled [the Chinese] that Australian papers sent political correspondents, not foreign policy or Asian specialists”). Importantly, the stories that filtered back to Australia gave the public rare insights into a forbidden and unknown land. Very few Australians had travelled to China. And although the delegation had a political edge, its members were aware of the rare opportunity afforded to them and were intent on learning as much as possible about the land and its culture.

Their Chinese hosts were attentive to the wants and needs of the Australians and catered to these where possible. The Australian enthusiasm for the local beer, for example, did not escape the eyes of the Chinese, who soon began to serve it at every occasion, including breakfast. As FitzGerald later wrote, “the Chinese went out of their way to provide everything that was essential to the success of the visit, in the ALP’s terms as much as their own.” This was never more evident than on the evening of Monday 5 July.

After a morning of talks with Bai Xiangguo, and just before lunch, the Australians were asked by the spokesman for the People’s Institute to “please remain in the hotel”: there would be an “interesting film” that evening. He did not explain why, but they would need to be formally dressed for the occasion. The hours passed and no further information came until late in the afternoon, when the official returned. The film was off. “Sometime in the night,” he announced, barely able to suppress his excitement, “you will be taken to see the premier.”

It was a coup for the Australians and they immediately peppered the official with questions. The meeting, he divulged, would be held privately in the Great Hall of the People, and probably not until quite late. Zhou Enlai, at the age of seventy-three, had a formidable reputation, both as a worker and an intellect. A night owl, he worked most days until four or five in the morning. Midnight meetings were common practice.

The summons came earlier than expected. At 9 pm the Australian journalists left the hotel, and the official delegation followed soon after. They were driven to the front steps of the massive stone structure of the Great Hall of the People, which even today emanates a powerful sense of grandeur. It looms tall above the vast, empty expanse of Tiananmen Square and is flanked on one side by the impressive doors of the Forbidden City. Whitlam was led past the Red Army guards and through the high-ceilinged lobbies to the sparsely furnished East Room. There, he found the small, slim figure of Zhou Enlai.

The premier greeted the Australians individually in English. Then, after the customary photographs with the delegation, he surprised the travelling pressmen by inviting them to stay and “bear witness to the fact that the people of China want to be friends with the people of Australia.” His words transformed the supposedly “private” meeting into a public performance, staged in front of Australian and Chinese press and a dozen television cameras. Zhou was issuing a challenge to the Australian opposition leader.

Whitlam’s initial unease was palpable. “The political risks became intense,” Whitlam later wrote, recalling his nerves. The twenty Australian and Chinese journalists joined forty officials who were already in the room, sitting expectantly in a horseshoe of cane chairs. Whitlam took his seat next to Zhou Enlai at the centre of this scene. Beside him sat the official members of the Labor delegation; beside Zhou sat many of the ministers and senior aides the Australians had met since arriving two days earlier.

The 105 minutes spent in that grand room with crimson carpets and opulent chandeliers defined the political outcome of the visit. It is the centrepiece of this drama. And this is precisely because the Chinese chose to make it so. Why, we must wonder, did the Chinese grant such a high-level meeting to a visiting delegation from the Australian opposition?

The timing is one reason. The publicity of the event and the obscurity of his interlocutor gave Zhou Enlai the opportunity to broadcast internationally his views of the contemporary world situation. In the unfolding discussion, Sino-Australian relations took a secondary position on the agenda: Zhou meant for his statements to be heard in Tokyo, Moscow, and, especially, Washington. Then there was the importance China now attached to relations with “small powers,” like Australia. The new outward-looking foreign policy that China had been cultivating in 1970–71 was focused largely on building ties with “small powers,” or the “second world.” It was only through the increased international participation of “small powers,” Zhou reasoned, that the dominating and dangerous bipolar environment that had been created by America and Russia could be defused.

Leaning back in his wicker chair, Zhou sat relaxed and at ease in this public environment. His arms rested limply beside him, becoming animated at intervals for effect: there was little wasted motion, either in his words or his actions. Whitlam, at a comparatively gargantuan six feet four, sat stiffly beside him, leaning forward in the chair, his hands clasped: a giant hunched in concentration. The exchange was polite but blunt. Whitlam’s direct style suited the premier’s own.

Having led most of his discussions with the Chinese so far, Whitlam allowed himself to be guided by Zhou Enlai. After all, he did not want to be presumptuous; his host had a famously penetrating intellect. For forty-four years Zhou Enlai had been a member of the inner circle of the Chinese Communist Party – even longer than Mao. The breadth and depth of his experience and knowledge was unparalleled in China. On the world stage he was feared and respected. “His mind ranged back and forth over issues over time,” Stephen FitzGerald told me in 2011. “He had a context for talking about international issues which was enormous. It was analytical and pretty unusual.”

FitzGerald paused for a moment, and then in a soft voice he continued. “Gough has a similar kind of mind. It was apparent to some extent in that meeting but it became more apparent when Gough became prime minister. If Zhou talked about great power relations going back into the forties, Gough was also with him on that instantly.”

Whitlam’s initial discomfort quickly passed. The conversation was both a high-stakes game and a rich historical discussion. Zhou’s main goal was to draw Whitlam into denouncing Australia’s alliance with America under the ANZUS treaty. Several times he manoeuvred the discussion so that the two men found an area of agreement, then he would passionately assert China’s view and pause to hear Whitlam’s own – daring him to disagree.

On one occasion, the premier drew a comparison between Australia’s relationship with America and China’s pact with Russia (the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Aid). In recent years, China’s dealings with its ally, the Soviet Union, had turned sour through mutual suspicion and doctrinal divergences. Zhou still felt betrayed and he warned Whitlam against trusting unreliable allies, asking, “Is your ally very reliable?” Whitlam was careful to reject the parallel: there had been no similar deterioration in relations between Australia and America. Zhou Enlai threw up his arms. “But they both want to control others.” He beat his wicker chair for emphasis. “Our socialist country will not be controlled by anyone.”

Zhou’s deep sensitivity about China’s dignity as an independent power was shared by many of the Chinese that the Australians had met. To Zhou, expansionism was a dirty word. The events of the last two centuries, since China had been dethroned by the West as the dominant world power, weighed heavily on his mind. China’s recent split with the Soviet Union had only served to intensify the general distrust of Japanese militarism and American imperialism. These three powers – Russia, America and Japan – were the driving concerns of Chinese foreign policy and were regularly touted as the three international evils in the pages of the propaganda newspapers. As one Chinese official advised Whitlam on the trip, “To understand the Chinese you must understand their history.”

“Yours has been a bitter experience,” Whitlam sympathised, “and I understand your feeling.” But he warned Zhou about fearing American imperialism. “I still deplore the destructive style of John Foster Dulles, but his soul does not keep marching today,” he said. “The American people have broken president Lyndon Baines Johnson and if Richard Milhous Nixon does not continue to withdraw his forces from Vietnam they will destroy him similarly. The Australian people have had a bitter experience in going all the way with LBJ. They know America made [Prime Minister Harold Holt] change his policy and they will never again allow the American president to send [Australian] troops to another country.”

Within this comment we can see the signs of how Whitlam would redefine the America–Australia relationship during his prime ministership. We see his belief that Australia had its own national interests and could act independently on that basis. We can also see the confidence with which he felt he could criticise the US government as an equal in the alliance. Moreover, by doing this from China, he emphasised the priority he placed on developing a regionalism that was not dominated by the great powers. In Australia, Whitlam was lambasted for this comment, but Zhou received it well: “Such a very good appraisal of the American people.”

On one final point in the meeting, Whitlam pondered aloud whether, with better policies and a closer Sino–Australian relationship, the destruction and slaughter in Vietnam could have been avoided. He was cut off by Zhou, who, having run China on a day-to-day basis for more than two decades, would not accept such abstract speculation. With a grand gesture, he proclaimed, “What is past is past,” before adding more encouragingly, “and we look forward to when you can take office and put into effect your promises.”

“The Zhou–Whitlam debate,” journalist Bruce Grant wrote at the time, “is one of those unexpected dramatic events that make or break political reputations because they capture the public imagination. It will become a part of Australian political folklore and Mr Whitlam is the beneficiary.” Grant’s words typified the sentiment felt by those Australian journalists who had witnessed the spectacle. There was a general sense that “Mr Whitlam [had] held his ground well in a testing situation with a brilliant political debater and negotiator.” One journalist called it “a virtuoso political performance,” “a masterpiece in diplomacy, public relations, mental agility and sheer tactics.” The only Australian in the room who was perhaps a little disappointed with the meeting was the shadow agriculture minister, Rex Patterson, who was annoyed that Whitlam had not seized the opportunity to ask the premier about wheat.

The public setting had proved ultimately to be a blessing for Whitlam, who thereafter could not be credibly accused of backroom dealings with the Chinese. It had also unexpectedly afforded him the extraordinary opportunity to display his credentials, as an opposition leader, on the world stage. That Whitlam had not only engaged equally with one of the world’s most formidable statesmen, but even challenged Zhou Enlai on some issues, deeply impressed the accompanying journalists. Here was a leader who gave Australia international presence.

The prime minister, William McMahon, openly ridiculed Whitlam’s visit to China. “It is time,” he raged, “to expose the shams and absurdities of [Whitlam’s] excursion into instant coffee diplomacy.” Invoking Robert Menzies’ traditional rationale for the Vietnam war (to “stop the downward thrust of China between the Pacific and Indian Oceans”), he continued, in mock disbelief, “He went on playing his wild diplomatic game, knocking our friends one by one until he was virtually alone in Asia and the Pacific, except for the communists… I find it incredible that at a time when Australian soldiers are still engaged in Vietnam, the leader of the Labor Party is becoming a spokesman for those against whom we are fighting!”

As for Whitlam’s late-night meeting with the Chinese premier, McMahon declared, now famously, “In no time at all Zhou Enlai had Mr Whitlam on a hook and he played him as a fisherman plays a trout.”

Three days after McMahon’s trout speech, Nixon announced the news of Kissinger’s secret visit to China and his own intention to travel to Peking before May 1972. He hoped that his visit would become a “journey for peace,” stressing his “profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.”

The announcement rocked the international community. The news had particular and peculiar impact in Japan and Australia. Whitlam, who had completed his tour of China, heard the broadcast from Tokyo and quickly called on the prime minister of Japan, Eisaku Sato. With tears welling in his eyes, Sato confided to Whitlam his despair and humiliation. Through a technical glitch, he had not been informed about the change in American policy: “The journalists told me about it.”

A similar response was being stirred in Canberra, with an irate McMahon feeling embarrassed and betrayed by the initiative. He had known of the policy shift only a few hours in advance. The lack of consultation made a mockery of Australia and America’s “candid” relations. McMahon sought to deflect his emotional wounds onto Whitlam, announcing weakly to the Australian press: “It makes an awful farce of Whitlam’s visit. Whitlam did not even know that Kissinger was there. That’s how much the Chinese trust him. It makes a mockery of the man.”

But Whitlam felt neither mocked nor snubbed. It was a moment of “extraordinary vindication.” As the Chinese official who broke the news cheekily commented, “Perhaps your prime minister won’t be talking anymore about trout.”

The forty-three years since Whitlam’s first visit to China have been transformative for the Sino-Australian relationship. China has moved rapidly from the periphery of Australia’s foreign policy vision to the centre. But beyond this relationship, Whitlam’s 1971 visit inaugurated a fundamental change in the way Australia relates to Asia.

We all know the incredible whirlwind of change that was the Whitlam government. But Whitlam reflected most on an initiative he enacted from opposition. He described the 1971 visit to China as the most “exciting and exacting of his career.” •

This is an edited extract from The China Breakthrough: Whitlam in the Middle Kingdom, 1971 (Monash University Publishing, 2012).