I commend to all Interpreter readers Stephen FitzGerald's recently published paper, Australia and China at Forty: Stretch of the Imagination (it was meant to be a speech to ANU's Australian Centre on China and the World, but due to illness, FitzGerald did not deliver it). FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to communist China and a Lowy Institute Visiting Fellow, delivers some serious intellectual horsepower here. It's a speech of real depth and breadth on Australian foreign policy and the shortcomings of our China relationship.
Given the ambition of the speech, it's almost unfair to focus on one discrete part, but FitzGerald's comments about academia jumped out at me. FitzGerald wants Australia's China specialists to be more involved in the public debate, but...
I have some sympathy for the academics, because of the way public discussion is often reduced to caricature by the media, the dismissive spin with which government responds to intellectual debate, and the personal denigration that too often greets different views.
If FitzGerald is right about this, then academics might need to just toughen up a little. Yes, some knees and elbows get scraped occasionally, but on the whole I would describe our public debate as pretty polite.
And 'dismissive spin' from government? Surely it was ever thus. You can't expect a footnoted rebuttal from the minister's office every time you publish a new working paper. As I'm certain FitzGerald knows better than me, trying to influence government policy through argument is a hard, slow grind, and much of your work gets ignored. But based on my five years hanging around a think tank, I'd observe that persistence pays off and talent occasionally gets rewarded.
I suspect FitzGerald is closer to the mark when he goes on to talk about formal disincentives: careers in academia are made through publishing in journals and winning grants, not by writing op-eds or blog posts (or, for that matter, by teaching undergraduates).
I also think scholars sometimes just need to be asked to contribute; in fact I have contacted a few of them in recent days in relation to the Communist Party Congress, and I hope to publish some commentary from them next week. If you are a China scholar and haven't yet been asked, consider this an invitation. Pitch me your idea at email@example.com and we'll talk.