A former diplomat’s adventure in the middle kingdom

Interview with Dr. Geoff Raby, the former Australian Ambassador to China

This post is based on an phone interview I did with Dr. Geoff Raby, the former Australian Ambassador to China (2007-2011). I would like to express my deep gratitude to Dr. Raby who generously shared with me his stories and thoughts on China. 

Interview audio 

“You (Chinese) can’t understand how weird China looks in our eyes” was the remark Dr. Geoff Raby made at one of the dinners he had with his artists’ friends some time ago that I happened to be present. How China looks in the eye of a Westerner but with deep insights of China? It instantly sparked the curiosity.

Dr. Raby was the Australian Ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011 and Deputy Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2002 to 2006. He was the longest-serving Australian ambassador in the 40 years of Australia-China diplomatic relations. When it was time for him to return to Canberra, he didn’t want to leave China. He decided to stay on and started his own business advisory firm, Geoff Raby & Associates, in Beijing.

Dr Raby does not fit most people’s idea of having a traditional Canberra career. He admits he is not the kind of person to hang around somewhere for the sake of hanging around. When he finished his post, he realized he had the opportunity to build a new career, which happens to be his third career. He first started as an academic and then a public servant for 27 years where China came along the way.

Speaking Chinese is not the only thing that Dr. Raby is fond of, obviously he fell in love with Chinese food and then the people and then the country. During his time with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Dr. Raby was responsible for the relationships with China for many years as well as other countries in Northeast Asia. He was posted to China from 1986 to 1991 as the First Secretary and the Economic Counsellor of the Embassy. And then he went back as the Ambassador from 2007 to 2011.

The timing of his two postings was significant in itself. The first time was right after China adopted the opening-up policy after the traumatic years of the Cultural Revolution. The second time was after China became a fully-fledged member of WTO and also during the Beijing Olympic Games. Dr. Raby has witnessed first-hand how China, starting from relatively humble beginnings, muscled its way up towards a leadership role in the Asia Pacific.

Dr. Raby said one of the main reasons for him to stay on was the country’s extraordinary change and development. “What’s happening in China today is one of the greatest, or the greatest event in the modern period, and will have the greatest impact on the world of the modern period,” Dr Raby said, “and to be living here to witness the part of it, even in a small and unimportant way, is a fantastic experience and opportunity.”

Now two years after the transition, his advices and perspectives on strategic issues concerning the relations with China are highly sought-after. He serves in senior advisory positions and on the boards of a number of multi-billion dollar businesses and high-profile institutions. He has many titles, such as Chairman, Vice Chairman, CEO, Senior Advisor, Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Fellow, and probably more upcoming. From Australia to China and from government to running a private business…and all successfully, Dr. Raby is more of a question mark than an exclamation mark.

Dr. Raby does not think close economic and commercial ties with China in anyway will compromise Australia’s basic values on human rights. “This is a big dilemma. It’s not just Australia, it’s all the countries that have democratic societies…China has a vastly different political and social systems. At least at the government level, the values are very very different…I think it’s important to acknowledge where the differences are and then focus and concentrate on things of our common interest,” Dr. Raby said, “I think what makes a strong relationship is both sides understand and recognize each other’s differences or values.” He commented Australia has adopted this approach in dealing with China since the Hawke, Keating and Howard Governments, but has not been very consistent through the Rudd and Gillard Governments.

On the question of how China will evolve in the Internet age and especially after the recent change of the Chinese top leadership, Dr. Raby pointed out China will definitely not be going back to the older Communist forms of organisation, but it is also naive to think China will start to look more and more like any countries of the West. What he does think will happen is a third alternative, which is a mildly authoritarian society based on altruistic authoritarianism, like that in Singapore.

“And in that system, although it is internal authoritarianism, the rule of law, which is a key thing I believe, will be able to operate over a very big area of the lives of Chinese people. And Chinese people would be able to take action against the state, and protect their rights, and to be able to defend themselves against confiscation of lands and so on, would be able to protect their rights on food safety and health and even environmental issues,” said Dr. Raby. But he believes the Communist Party will continue to be the single political force in the country and there will be a limit to which democratic politics will be allowed to operate.

Life in the capital city of a traditional Communist ruling country has long inspired imagination and literature for many people living in the west. But reading stories is nothing like actually living through all these experiences. Dr. Raby remembered what was like in the 80s and now. “In the 80s, Beijing was very poor and conditions of lives of Lao Bai Xing (grassroots Beijing residents) were very hard. But as a Lao Wai, Beijng was a wonderfully romantic and exciting place to be. Life was very easy for foreigners in those days, even though there was much less on offer, there was much less entertainment, there was much less shops. There was an easiness about living in Beijing.”

But now, in contrast with some other Chinese city, like Cheng Du, where life is much slower, Beijing has developed so much in recent years that it has lost a lot of charm that foreigners fell for. “Beijing is a very high pressure city these days nowadays…I get to Cheng Du a lot and I am actually an honorary citizen of Cheng Du,” he said. “Here in Beijing, one feels suppression very much. Everyone seems to work seven days a week. You never feel you can get away from things and relax.”

In China, foreigners are known as ‘Lao Wai’. But Dr Raby is hardly any foreign to the Chinese culture and way of lives – he lives and works in the heart of China for years, speaks good Chinese, associates with grassroots Chinese people, especially the artists community, and last but not least, he loves Chinese food. Dr. Raby told me his partner loves lamb, so they regularly went out to eat Mongolia style Huo Guo, or a kind of Chinese hotpot. Dr. Raby is also fond of Lao Beijing Cai, an old style Beijing dish. “There is a great Lao Beijing Cai restaurant around Gui Jie, in Dong Zhi Men Nei. These great old style Beijing food remind me of living in Beijng in 1980s,” he said.

For a Chinese official, retirement means one can continue to enjoy the treatment and privilege one used to be entitled to without the obligations (or the influence) one formerly held. But for Dr Raby, retirement just means another new start. Life turned in to an even faster lane, with endless meetings, talks and travelling to do. So far, Dr Raby is very happy and enjoying what he is doing. During his spare time, he associates with a group of Chinese contemporary artists, with whom he has made friends since the early 80s. He even started his own studio in Song Zhuang, an artists’ village on the outskirts of Beijing, where he displays personal collections of contemporary Chinese art and hosts visiting Australian artists.

Because of the deterioration of the environmental standards of Beijing nowadays, he admits he might have to move back to Australia one day. But he would like to put the thoughts away for as long as possible. “Although I am not a Buddhist… I do relate to some of the philosophical ideas. One thing I am trying very hard now is to live life in the moment.”


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