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26 November, 2012
Deakin University's Alfred Deakin Professor and Professor of Australian Studies, David Walker, has been appointed as the inaugural BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University.
“The appointment is”, he said, “exciting and a good fit for someone who as an historian has had a keen interest in Australia’s relationship with Asia.
“Moreover, since 2005 I have been a Visiting Professor in the School of Foreign Studies at Renmin University, Beijing, a University with a well-established Australian Studies Centre.
“The appointment also acknowledges the role Deakin University has played in developing Australian Studies.
“Our enrolments are strong and we are feeling very confident about our future.”
Professor Walker’s research interest for some time has been Australia’s engagement with Asia.
“As a historian I’ve taken that question back to the mid 19th century which is where my book, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia comes in,” he said.
Anxious Nation won the Ernest Scott Prize for history in 2001. China Renmin University Press published a Chinese translation in 2009. An English edition was published in India by SSS publications in the same year and a Hindi translation will be published in 2013.
“It offers a sustained historical examination of the way Australians thought of Asia at a time when the Australian nation was being formed.
“It positions ‘Asia’ as a formative influence on how we imagined ourselves as a people before we developed more formal diplomatic relations in the region.
“The volume I’m working on now looks at the period from the 1940s to the 1970s which is when we start to develop a diplomatic presence in Asia.
“This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Australia’s recognition of China in 1972.”
Professor Walker said the creation of the BHP Billiton Chair is a particularly important initiative.
“When the position was announced I saw it as an exciting opportunity, but it is also a critically important position for Australia and is, in truth, a rather belated development,” he said.
“We have chairs in other countries and it is high time we had one in China.
“This matters to us.
“It’s commendable that a major company like BHP Billiton and a company central to Australia’s development has stepped up to fund a Chair at China’s leading University.
“It is a striking and impressive initiative.
“Of all the places on the planet now, Beijing is going to tell us as much as any about the world that we and our children will experience over the next 20 years and more.
“It is an exciting, dramatic and challenging place to be.”
Professor Walker, who is legally blind, admitted the appointment would take him out of his comfort zone – although the change will be made easier by the special relationship he had developed with the students he has mentored since 2005 as part of his Visiting Professorship at Renmin University.
“I know Beijing reasonably well and have good friends there”, he said.
“The Renmin arrangement means I have a close supervisory connection with the students.
“I work closely with them in determining my itinerary and the topics we wish to address.
“So if I need to go somewhere they help me out.
“The benefit has been that they develop a close connection with a native speaker of Australian English.
“I get to know them and they get to know me.
“In this way we enjoy a social connection as well as an academic one.
“We have many lively banquets and informal exchanges and there is always a good deal of spirited banter and laughter.”
Professor Walker said getting around Beijing and living in China would still be a challenge.
“Beijing has a good subway now and that’s terrific, but the taxi drivers don’t speak English and my Mandarin doesn’t take me far,” he said.
“But, so far I’ve managed.
“I haven’t fallen down a manhole or been hit by a bus or suffered any other indignity and I’m assuming that will continue.”
Professor Walker said the importance of the initiative was also a considerable attraction for him.
“This is a critical development for Australia , for educational ties and for Australian Studies,” he said.
“As the inaugural chair, I will be given the chance to work out the scope and objectives of the position and lay down some of the ground work,” he explained.
“In doing so I will be working closely with the Foundation for Australian Studies in China (FASIC), the Australia China Council and Peking University.
“I will also be encouraged to weigh up the current standing and future direction of Australian Studies in China bearing in mind that the Australia China Council recognises some 30 Australian Studies centres across China stretching from Inner Mongolia to Hong Kong.
“One of the responsibilities of the Chair is to visit as many of these Centres as possible to form a sense of how Australian Studies is developing and to gauge the interest in the subject.
“Different institutions will approach the subject differently and it is certainly in Australia’s interest to have a diverse mix of programs.”
Professor Walker said these Centres were expected to get larger over the next 10 to 15 years and there would be new Centres created.
“There are already more Australian Studies Centres in China than in the rest of the world combined,” he added.
“So the position has a wider remit in that it will gauge the health, well-being and future of the inter-disciplinary study of Australia in China.”
Professor Walker said the growth of Australian Studies in China was a reflection of the importance of the relationship between the two countries.
“We often regard ourselves as a small player, but Australian investment in China and vice versa is quite significant,” he said.
“In terms of the economic relationship we are a major supplier of many of the raw materials they need, so while we are accustomed to thinking of China as huge and ourselves as small we matter in the scheme of things.
“But that does not mean we are indispensable.
“We have to work on the relationship and build our ties.
“We are also part of the Asia-Pacific region and that regional connection draws Australia and China together at many levels, strategically, economically and culturally.
“Parts of our history have divided us, but nonetheless we do have a history of connection as well and that is what interests the Chinese because they can see that historically there has been a relationship with Australia or with this continent.
“In truth, we need each other and now have a strong record of working together.”
Professor Walker is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His recently published and critically acclaimed memoir, Not Dark Yet: a personal history has been reprinted by Giramondo publishing. A Chinese translation of Not Dark Yet is in progress and will be published in 2014. His latest book, co-edited with Agnieszka Sobocinska, is Australia’s Asia: From Yellow Peril to Asian Century, University of Western Australia Publishing will be launched next Monday (December 3).
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Deakin University Professor and inaugural BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University, David Walker 'with' Professor Cai Yuanpei, President of Peking University from 1916-1926. Picture: Dr Chengxin Pan