Feature: Former Australian diplomat's Chinese story starting with telegram

by Bai Xu, Yue Dongxing

CANBERRA, June 26 (Xinhua) — Fifty years ago when Jocelyn Chey was among a group of Australians who sent their government a telegram congratulating it for establishing diplomatic relations with China, her life was changed.

Speaking fluent Mandarin, she later became the first cultural counselor in the Australian embassy in China, and worked as a senior diplomat in the country three times. She spent nearly 20 years in both the mainland and Hong Kong, during which period she met her Chinese-Australian husband.

If she could travel back in time to meet her younger self, Chey said, she would use a very Australian expression “hang in there” as encouragement.

“It means that things are not always going smoothly… but never give up,” she said in an interview with Xinhua. “There are so many things you can’t predict in life, but don’t give up hope.”

Her connection with China started more or less by coincidence.

“I sat down with my friend and looked at all the courses that I could do at the University of Sydney, we noticed that was the first time that they had Chinese Studies that you could enroll in,” she recalled, beaming.

At that time, she knew nothing about China, neither its culture nor the history. But she made the bold decision because she always felt that compared with learning a European language, it was more important for Australia to understand Asia.

She and her friend both enrolled in the first Chinese class that the university offered. At the end of the year, her friend gave up, saying the language was too difficult. But for Chey, if something is difficult, she would try harder.

She had done so well that her professor later encouraged her to apply for a scholarship. So she went to the University of Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong that she met her husband.

Chey stayed in Hong Kong for six years, before going back to work in Sydney.

An opportunity came in 1972 when she was on her first tour to the Chinese mainland. She was in a university delegation looking at education in China, and they spent three weeks in China between November and December.

Then she heard the news that Labor government had been elected. Several days later, she was told that then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam established diplomatic ties with China.

The excited Chey, in Beijing at that time, went to the telegraph office with her friends and sent a telegram to their government. “We said ‘we’d like to congratulate you,’ and we signed the message as ‘the Australians in China’.”

She had previously written to the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Overseas Trade, saying, “If you recognize China, you’re going to need more people who know something about China, so maybe you would like to offer me a job.”

She got replies from both departments, and thus moved to Canberra. She then became the person responsible for trade relations with China, with the first thing to negotiate a trade agreement.

She accompanied then Minister for Overseas Trade Jim Cairns on a visit to China.

In the following years, Chey was posted to work as a diplomat to China three times: twice in the mainland and once in Hong Kong. In comparison, she said she enjoyed the second posting in the 1980s to the mainland more than the first.

It was just after the reform and opening-up when China started to grow quickly. Restrictions that foreigners once had were lifted.

She made a lot of friends, and traveled to different parts of the country, from Xinjiang in the west to Hainan in the south, to Heilongjiang in the northeast.

In fact, compared with being a diplomat, she enjoyed more a job with the International Wool Secretariat, because her responsibility at that time was to work for a common goal that was good for both Australia and China: it meant more demand for Australian wool and more demand for Chinese wool products.

“We both had the same project and the same goal in mind,” she said. “I have to say that’s the time that I enjoyed more than work for the government.”

In relation to China, Chey said her husband influenced her a lot. He was a collector, so their house was full of Chinese artefacts. He liked to get on with different people, so she had many Chinese friends, including artist Huang Yongyu, whose hometown, the township of Fenghuang in southern China’s Hunan Province, left the Australian woman her best traveling memory.

Talking about her husband, Chey said, “I wouldn’t have made so many good friends in China without him also being involved.”

During the decades, she also witnessed drastic changes in China. “It’s like a different country compared with 50 years ago,” she said.

In 2019, she went to Beijing with her son and grandson. Her grandson had never been to China before and her son hadn’t been there for about 25 years. They not only marveled at the city’s physical change, but also felt changes in people.

According to Chey, one thing they would always do in Beijing in the past was to take bus. In the past, they used to see passengers being pushed onto bus, but then she saw people getting on in a more orderly way.

Talking about the relationship between Australia and China, the former senior diplomat suggested that the two countries could cooperate more.

“I go back to what I said about the time that I really enjoyed the most, that was working with friends in China, when you’re working on the same project, both as a part of a team,” she said.

In retrospect, she noted that past experience had opened a new window for her into a completely new world. “Learning another language, learning another culture broadens your mind and allows you to realize the world is much bigger and much richer.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Australia. Chey, who witnessed the relationship from the very beginning, believed that it is an opportunity to “look back and see how far we’ve come.”

Using the metaphor of mountain climbing, she said philosophically: “It’s like… you turn round and look, and said ‘I’ve climbed up so high,’ but then you look in front of you and you can see that’s not the top of the mountain. You’ve still got a long way to go. Let’s just have a cup of tea and admire the view, and that will give us more strength to go on climbing.”

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