AustCham Shanghai: Gough, We Have Come A Long Way!


AustCham Shanghai Chairman, Peter Arkell reflects on the changes for Australian business in China since the two countries established diplomatic relations 40 years ago.

Gough Whitlam has been one of those remarkable characters from whom I have had personal benefits. I was serving my National Service 40 years ago when his election win pulled down the curtain on conscription on the Monday following the polls. December 2012 marks that 40th anniversary for me, but also, the commencement of diplomatic relations between China and Australia.
The marking of the 40th anniversary of Australia-China diplomatic relations gives an opportunity for reflection of where we have come from, and where we have reached as an Australian community in China and more particularly, Shanghai – because, like the China story itself, the Australian community here has grown amazingly in those four decades. It may have been a slow simmer in its beginnings and for some time afterwards, but it has risen to the boil in the past 10 or so years.
We are blessed to have among us a number of Australians who have been here for decades. My Thirty Years in China is a compilation of personal stories by 13 foreigners about their lives in China from 1978 – 2008. Among them are the stories of Australians, and others. It is well worth the read to get a personal glimpse of how living and doing business here has changed over the decades.
But these pioneers were not alone. A Canadian mate tells me of the days in Shanghai when “all 10 expats living in Shanghai” would meet on the weekend at the home of the boss of BP. That is a far cry from the 300 who make it to the Aussie Drinks in Shanghai on the last Friday of the month these days.
There is such a rich community in Shanghai now. Any AustCham Shanghai gathering will have a terrific blend of greatly experienced professionals, expat and Chinese, supporting those who are relatively recent arrivals.
Alan Kohler hit the nail on the head, when he told the audience of the 2011 Westpac Australia China Business Awards that being his first trip to China he was probably the most knowledgeable person on China in the room, “because I haven’t been here long enough to know what I don’t know.”
And sometimes, those who have been living and working in China for years, forget that they are becoming more aware and tuned in to the ways of doing business in China. Perhaps it comes through some sort of osmosis, and hard knocks, working in an environment that is so vibrant. Clearly we learn a lot from those among us who have been here for the long haul and whose experience is built on solid experience.
But there are others in our community who also bring a depth of experience that is invaluable. Susie, a young Shanghai-born woman who studied accounting at Latrobe University now operates a coffee shop not far from the AustCham Shanghai office. Susie is equally a Shanghai citizen and a member of our Australian community, and people like her add so much depth to our appreciation of the workings of China and importantly, the pulse of the business environment in Shanghai and China more broadly.
So, with a community that has such depth of experience in China, it is surprising to watch or read reports on doing business in China that are from people who are observers of this market from abroad. Many of whom may not even have the two days’ experience that made Alan Kohler such an “expert.”
There are times when I am watching the Australia Network in my lounge room at home in Shanghai and will hear a commentator providing an in-depth China analysis and wonder if they are describing some foreign place far from where I live. Their description and my experience bear little resemblance to each other.
But, back to Gough. It must have been awesome being a part of that breakthrough diplomacy. He was first among many of our political leaders to have passed through China, including every prime minister since his first visit to China as Prime Minister in 1973. Who would have envisaged the contribution the Australian community in China would eventually make in the 40 years that followed?
Today, there is a vibrant and successful Australian community in Shanghai, and throughout China that owes a lot to that first mission. Thanks Comrade. 

Chamber News
The Chamber hosts a number of great Industry Working Groups, including finance, education, agribusiness, and there is the Shanghai Enterprise Collective that is a wonderful group of entrepreneurial Australian business people competing in the world’s hottest market.
Recently the AustCham office hosted a group of Macquarie University business students. Their curiosity about business here and their keen interest in learning from those who are doing business in a variety of enterprises in a range of cities across China, is a great example of learning first hand about business in China. It is to be hoped that business leaders, politicians, students and more will take the time to listen to the expertise that resides in China rather than listen to the analysis of those with limited China experience. The AustCham office in Shanghai is a great place to start.
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