Opinion: The Chinese students primed to deliver soft power

Photo credit: David Beach
Tuesday 28 November 2023

By Julie Hare

A version of this article was originally published by the Financial Review.

Chairman Mao Zedong once said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun. If you have enough guns, you have respect. If you have money, you can buy guns, and respect.

Diplomacy can be hard – guns and money. Or it can be soft – the interaction of ideas on a human level.

This week, 30 high-achieving Chinese international students have been doing the rounds of Canberra’s national institutions – from Parliament House to the High Court, from CSIRO and the Portrait Gallery to the National Press Gallery – as part of the inaugural Stephen FitzGerald Scholars Program to deepen their understanding of how Australia’s democracy works.

“The idea is to have Australia explain itself more openly and forthrightly to the world and build on the really great assets that we have – our own democratic system and being a powerhouse in international education,” said Mark Kenny, a professor with the Australian Studies Institute at the Australian National University.

“If there is an understanding of both sides of politics, the relationship between the two countries can be improved and strengthened.”

Being high-performing students, there is a high possibility that individuals in the group will go on to become influential figures in industry, technology, science and government.

“China and Australia have different political systems. How do you keep that relationship stable? By having people who interact with each other so it’s not just about trade, but an enriched nature of understanding that flow from those people-to-people relationships,” Professor Kenny said.

On Tuesday, Yuxiao Zhang, 21, and his peers met House of Representatives Speaker Milton Dick, who explained his role and took questions, before they tucked into a morning tea of lamingtons and sausage rolls.

Mr Zhang will complete his honours year in marine and Antarctic science at the University of Tasmania next year before moving to a PhD.

His honours thesis is trying to understand changes in the Southern Ocean where subtropical waters meet Antarctic currents.

The program is helping him understand in greater depth the differences between the Australian and Chinese systems of government, while giving him an opportunity to speak to others about addressing climate change.

“This is the most urgent thing that human beings are facing,” he said.

Helen Yu, 24, is studying for a master’s of electrical engineering at the University of NSW. Her thesis is examining how electrical engineering curriculums need to adapt so graduates are work-ready when they complete their degree.

Inclusion in the program is giving her greater insights into democracy, but also hidden spaces in Parliament House – such as the speaker’s courtyard – which only a privileged few visit.

“It’s a chance to understand better Australia and how it works,” said Ms Yu, who plans to stay on and work on a post-study work rights visa once she finishes her degree.

Peter Cai, chief executive of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, said the 30 students were studying diverse specialisations and were well-placed to become leaders in their fields.

“An education in Australian means not only taking home a world-class degree but experiencing something you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

“This program enriches the scholars’ time here by helping them understand Australia better – something that bodes well for our future and theirs.”

The inaugural Stephen FitzGerald Scholars Program has been funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations. It is named after Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China under Gough Whitlam.

Julie Hare is the Education editor at the Financial Review. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, journalist and editor.

Updated:  18 January 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications