Before serving as Australia’s Consul-General to Hong Kong, Jocelyn Chey made the bold choice to learn Mandarin at university.
Arriving from Europe with her parents as a teen in 1954, she’d made her mind up to learn an Asian language. But unlike today, she says few people thought there was any value in studying China.
“China was still behind the bamboo curtain, it had a very backward economy and people used to say to me that learning the language would never be any use,” Professor Chey, who served as Consul-General from 1992 to 1995, told the ABC.
Opportunities to visit China were rare and the language was of little use, as the proportion of overseas Chinese in Australia was far less than it is today.
In the decades since, China has developed rapidly, becoming Australia’s largest trading partner and the world’s second-largest economy.
But China’s rise has not been met with a relative rise in young Australians engaged in China studies.
A deficit of students studying China has been identified at university level, with a survey of academics conducted by the Asian Studies Association of Australia stating: “We have seen the gradual hollowing out of the deep language and cultural expertise on China in Australia.”
This is an especially troubling development given the continuing decline of Australia and China’s diplomatic relationship, with Beijing insisting that Australian missteps are to blame.
Politics making a tricky subject harder
With a career in Australia-China relations spanning decades, Professor Chey has watched this trend play out and says although things have changed from when she began studying China, young Australians learning Mandarin today face a new set of challenges.
“It’s like pushing a great weight uphill, very slowly, and it keeps rolling back again,” she said.
Tiana La’shunda Marius, 21, said she was unable to fit a second language into her schedule at high school, so when she saw her university course allowed her to study two languages, she jumped at the opportunity, signing up for both Japanese and Mandarin.
Ms La’shunda Marius started her degree with the hope of visiting China to study, but with her first semester of university behind her, those plans have been thrown into confusion.
On top of international travel bans created to manage the spread of the coronavirus, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently updated its travel advice, warning Australians are at risk of arbitrary detention if they travel to China.
In a survey, the Asia Studies Association of Victoria listed “growing negative sentiments towards China” and “a lack of clear pathways and job opportunities” as key factors contributing to declining numbers of university enrolments in China studies.
Ms La’shunda Marius said not being able to visit China made learning Mandarin even more challenging, and hoped politics would not get in the way of her plans.
“It’s really difficult to say because relationships between countries can change so quickly, it may affect me,” she said.
“It sucks that political issues can affect regular people.”
‘The challenges spur me on’
It’s a long way from Ballarat to Beijing, but that hasn’t stopped Chris Milne from dreaming of resettling in China long term.
The 22-year-old now is in his second year at university, and was one of a very small number of Australians willing to tackle Chinese language at year 12 VCE level.
“VCE Chinese is a competitive process where your score is ranked with Chinese background students, it certainly wasn’t easy,” he said.
Australia’s Chinese population has been growing steadily since the 1970s, with the 2016 Census recording more than 1.2 million Australians of Chinese ancestry.
The influx of Chinese background students taking Chinese language classes in Australian high schools has meant some classrooms have a mix of students with very different proficiency levels, creating an unlevel playing field for non-background students.
Chris said his passion for China studies wasn’t dented by his experience doing VCE Chinese, but he could understand why some would be put off by the process.
“The challenges spur me on,” he said.
“But that can be difficult to see when you’re setting yourself up for a much more difficult high school experience.”
Despite efforts to make the VCE Chinese program more balanced, fewer students appear willing to give it a go, with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority recording a 23 per cent drop in enrolments between 2013 and 2018.
Jixing Xu, the president of the Chinese Teachers Association of Victoria and head of the Chinese language program at Scotch College, said while the system isn’t perfect, it was improving.
“Students only have around two or three hours of classes a week, so it’s very hard to learn the language,” he said.
“But now in Victoria we have four different Chinese streams, and I think it meets the needs of most non-background students.”
‘Obsessed with everything’
Theo Stapleton said he couldn’t speak a word of Chinese when he was accepted to study in Beijing under the Australian Government’s prestigious New Colombo Plan scholarship, but decided he was going to make the most of his time there.
“I started with the language and then became obsessed with everything.”
In just 17 months, Mr Stapleton passed his HSK 6, the highest level of Chinese language proficiency for non-background speakers.
And unlike most students who returned to Australia when the coronavirus pandemic worsened at the start of the year, Theo decided to stay on in China, and said even the worsening diplomatic relationship wouldn’t change his plans for the future.
“If anything, it’s probably sort of hardened my opinion of the importance of being here, because at a time where tensions are rising, we really do need people who have that cultural fluency,” he said.
Just like Mr Stapleton, Swinburne University Professor John Fitzgerald first travelled to China on an Australian government Scholarship, back in 1976.
“Back then when we talked about China and the Chinese language, we were talking about another place, now we’re also talking about Australia,” he said.
Professor Fitzgerald has since focused much of his research on China, balancing criticism of the Chinese Communist Party with a love of Chinese language and culture.
He said Australia’s relationship with China should not have any effect on whether Australians pick up China studies.
Professor Chey is less confident tensions will not affect student enrolments, but hopes young Australians will continue to take on the challenge.
“Understanding China is so important to Australia’s future, but it also helps you to develop as a person, you’re not just studying a language, you’re learning to look at the world in a different way.”
By Oliver Lees