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Ignorance in the Asian Century

By Reg Little - posted Tuesday, 14 May 2013


The Gonski and Asian Century Reports will stand for all time as memorials to the ineptitude of well meaning but incompetent Australian government in the early 21st Century. Both reports were long overdue but both failed to enlighten about the civilizational shift reshaping education and Asia today.

Australia seems to have learnt nothing about Asia over the past half century of talking about it in infinite forms of government self-congratulation. We are rapidly approaching a moment in world history when the troubles of the American and European economies and currencies may change Australia overnight. Chinese civilization is likely to emerge at the centre of global finance, technology and much else. It has the capacity to reinvent itself with a vitality that quickly transforms a failing Anglo-American global order with the energies of a Middle Kingdom reborn. This will be inspired by a unique thought culture shaped by classics that the West has done its best to ignore and denigrate.

The English speaking world is still in denial that fundamental to the peaceful rise of China, and Asia, has been a drive to world class educational excellence. The rigor, quality and frequent superiority of education in Asia defies the comprehension of almost all Western media and academia. These hard working opinion leaders are forever preoccupied rehearsing the inadequacies of rote learning and discounting the outstanding performance of Asians in many of the world's best universities.

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These media and academic professionals have no time, or inclination, to discover that Asian graduates are now not only masters of the full range of Western disciplines but have also a profound understanding of their own culture and history. As a consequence, educated Asians inherit a thought culture that is more practical, flexible, fluid, holistic and strategic than allowed by the West's dedication to the abstractions and 'truths' of rational economics and related belief systems.

As a consequence the West's economists, for instance, have spent the past half century promoting theories designed to serve an imperial order. In the process, they have rationalized the off-shoring of much of the West's technology, manufacturing and employment. They now appear to be overseeing the off-shoring of the West's gold and silver. This can only hasten the demise of the US Dollar as the global reserve currency. And this has all been assisted by subtle, obliging and educated Asian graces.

The English speaking world is locked into meaningless abstractions like Communism and Capitalism when trying to comprehend the peaceful rise of Asia. It is almost forbidden to remark on similarities shared by administrative strategists in Japan, Korea and China. Even less is there any disposition to look at ancient texts and their wisdom in seeking to understand contemporary strategic policy.

Australian understanding of the character of China's rise today is unbelievably shallow. The latest trends in Chinese early education defy the imagination of even Asia-literate Australian leaders. Six years ago there appeared the first private school teaching the Chinese classics by rote to children from the age of three. Today there are reputed to be over one thousand similar schools, with more than three hundred in Guangdong Province alone. This entrepreneurial response to demand outside the formal government education system reflects a deep-seated popular understanding of China's traditional values, culture and wisdom. As in the past, China's most recent dynastic decline has not seriously weakened its sense of civilization or dedication to mastering the classics. Even as two centuries of Anglo-American global order seems likely to ensure this civilizational revival will impact the whole global community, neither the Gonski nor Asian Century report bothers to take note of it.

Initially, change will probably be felt most acutely by the movement of global financial activity from centres in London and New York to those in HHHong Kong and Shanghai. A brief respite for English speakers in Hong Kong will quickly be overtaken by the belated recognition amongst the better Western operators that the ruling thought culture has changed. The Lunyu, Daodejing, Yijing and other classics, together with Chinese historical experience and wisdom, will shape the ruling culture..

Sadly, few Australians understand the degree to which their national strategic thought continues to be defined in declining North Atlantic capitals. Even the most highly qualified Australians are still imprisoned in wishful Anglo-American exceptionalism. They are captives of the intellectual apartheid that once helped construct Anglo-American order but that now only obstructs the defence and preservation of what is left of it. They can see little to learn from China's resurgent civilization.

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As a consequence, a body like the Australia China Council dedicates its resources and energies to educating Chinese about Australia – a pretty show by a minority culture. It makes little or no serious effort to correct the appalling neglect of Chinese classical tradition and education in Australian learning institutions. Moreover, this body seems ignorant of the degree to which the administrative and commercial elites of all East and South East Asia nations are deeply shaped by Chinese classics.

The extent of the threat to Australian interests begins to reveal itself when one starts to explore the manner in which relationships in the region are being restructured. English language interpretations invariably focus on surface conflicts that are easily identified. They neglect longer term concerns and calculations. These are often hidden by strategists mindful of the obstacles to achieving difficult goals and informed by the region's unrivalled Chinese strategic culture. The strategic skirmishes of China and Japan seem to have already left America's Asian pivot disorientated and floundering.

Could the strategic thought culture of the region, which has facilitated peaceful rise in Asia and a little less peaceful decline in America and Europe, now be deployed to make Asia too hard for a weakened America? It is not easy to see Australia managing these strategic arts more skilfully than its traditional allies in the northern hemisphere. The Gonski and Asian Century reports do nothing to identify or address the limits in Asia of Australia's existing thought culture.

If it fails to undertake a major examination and evaluation of this problem, an incoming Abbot government will be limited to more Gonski and Asian Century reports. National ignorance of Chinese thought culture will misconceive Australian interests in a world increasingly shaped by it. Of course this might be avoided if an innovative technology like fracking, rescues rather than destroys American and European economic and financial fortunes.

Troublingly, there is little time to equip even a few Australians for the different world emerging in Asia. In the 37 years since the Australian Embassy in Beijing foreshadowed "Communist" China's explosive growth and put forward the proposal for an Australia China Council, official Australian understanding of China and the region seems to have gone backwards. Despite several insightful speeches by opposition leaders and the admirable intentions of their proposed New Colombo Plan , there is little evidence of real awareness of the depth and urgency of the challenge.

Even less is there a sense of the cost of a few more years of the sub-conscious, reassuring comforts of Anglo-American exceptionalism. China's peaceful and strategic rise has transformed the global environment. Australian policy is already characterized by misconception and anachronism.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website: www.confucian-daoist-millennium.net.

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