Billy Griffiths reviews 'Comrade Ambassador' by Stephen FitzGerald

Billy Griffiths reviews 'Comrade Ambassador' by Stephen FitzGerald

Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam's Beijing Envoy

by Stephen FitzGerald

Melbourne University Press, $34.99 pb, 272 pp. 9780522868685

On his first day in Australia's foreign service in 1961, Stephen FitzGerald was told to learn the language of the enemy: 'a country we have no diplomatic relations with, which our government denounces as an aggressor, instigator of subversion in Southeast Asia and major threat to Australia.' He took on the assignment with apprehension. China was completely foreign to him; he had never met anyone who spoke Mandarin. Over the next five decades he became one of the key players in Australia's relations with Asia, working as Australia's first ambassador to China under Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, as an academic and adviser, and as a businessman and public intellectual. In his memoir, Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam's Beijing Envoy, FitzGerald weaves his personal journey into the narrative of the nation: how Australia moved from an era of insularity and racial exclusiveness to accept and embrace its place in Asia. He describes this extraordinary change as 'a kind of Australian "Enlightenment"'.

FitzGerald's story is also bound to the tumultuous events of modern Chinese history. He witnessed the 'anarchic madness and social breakdown' of the Cultural Revolution in 1968, and recalls the sense of possibility that followed the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the 'brave new Chinese world of Deng Xiaoping'. He also describes encounters with key political figures such as the ageing Mao Zedong, the masterful Zhou Enlai, and the exiled Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong Mei-ling.

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Published in November 2015, no. 376
Billy Griffiths

Billy Griffiths

Billy Griffiths is a Melbourne-based writer and historian. He is the author of The China Breakthrough: Whitlam in the Middle Kingdom, 1971 (2012) and co-editor (with Mike Smith) of The Australian Archaeologist's Book of Quotations (2015). His latest book is Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (2018, Black Inc.).

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