John Howard holding out hope for democracy in China, reflects on release of secret

Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister, John Howard, says there is still hope for democracy in China, although he is disappointed by how it has changed since he was in power. 

Mr Howard was reflecting on the publication of his government’s cabinet papers from 2001, which have been released today by the National Archives in Canberra. 

The key excerpts from those documents touch on momentous events, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Tampa crisis, the collapse of Ansett and the so-called “khaki” federal election. 

However, Mr Howard reflected that one important event not covered in the documents was the 2001 meeting of APEC leaders in Shanghai, China, held just weeks after the twin towers in New York fell. 

“What I remember was the extraordinary atmosphere of the meeting,” Mr Howard recalled.

“The chairman was the then-president of China, Jiang Zemin, who not only conducted the meeting in the plenary session in English, but also delivered his own address in English, which was a singular tribute to his American guests.”

Mr Howard said that he and then-US president George W. Bush reminded themselves they were in a “dictatorial and totalitarian country”.

But they reflected that the mood of “solidarity” between the Chinese and Americans was very notable, particularly when contrasted with the current deepening diplomatic tensions of today.

“I mention those anecdotes to illustrate the different mood that existed,” he said, describing the time as a “high-water mark”.

The former PM added that, eventually, “there’s going to be a big debate about the future” of China among the country’s growing middle class, though only “years and years into the future”.

Although the relationship between Canberra and Beijing is frosty at the moment, Mr Howard urged both major Australian political parties to be ready to respond to any opportunities to improve things.

“The current situation is not this government’s fault,” Mr Howard said. 

“Right at the moment, you have an iron grip at the top [in Beijing], which is causing difficulties, particularly with the United States but also with Australia.

“I think we should be ready to respond to any opportunities. I don’t see a lot right at the moment.

“The important thing is to be flexible enough to respond.”

A Chinese flag flutters in wind before the Chinese Consulate building in East Perth on a sunny day.
China and Australia’s relationship has soured over the course of the past year.(ABC News: James Carmody)

Call for archives funding

The release of 20-year-old cabinet documents is an annual event, however some historians fear accurately collating the nation’s history is going to keep getting harder due to the way key institutions are being funded.

In December, archival institutions received a cash boost of $50 million. It came after the National Archives received a $67.7-million injection in the middle of last year to save documents from decay.

However, at a briefing about the release of this year’s papers, there were fresh calls for more money to be spent.

“The bigger concern is the base funding,” said this year’s National Archives Cabinet Historian, Christine Wallace.

“That’s not even covering what’s happening now in a timely fashion.

“It’s a huge issue, there’s not enough focus on it.”

Dr Wallace urged Mr Howard to use his influence with the current Coalition government to campaign for more funding.

“All I can say is, ‘Go, John’,” she added.

Due to the increase in use of encrypted messaging phone apps, social media and email in Parliament House, there is also concern among historians and academics that some historically significant documents are currently not being captured to the same extent they were decades ago.

However, it’s not something Mr Howard thinks will apply much to his time in office.

“In this context, I still remember some advice I had from my dear late mother years and years and year ago. She said, ‘You can’t possibly say that on the phone’,” Mr Howard recalled.

“By the time I left politics, I think Facebook was just starting,” he said.

“It was my custom on very sensitive issues … to talk to people in person.

“You have far less potential for misunderstanding if you still remember the importance of direct eye-to-eye contact.”

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