1973 Prime Ministerial Visit

On October 31, 1973, Prime Minister Whitlam landed in Beijing, and became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China. His chartered Qantas Boeing 707 was met by a large crowd waving Chinese and Australian flags. On the tarmac, Whitlam and his wife, Margaret were met by Zhou Enlai. The Sydney Morning Herald noted that the ceremony was far more elaborate than that accorded to President Nixon on his visit the previous year.97 Driving into Beijing, loudspeakers played Click Go the Shears, The Road to Gundagai, and Waltzing Matilda as well as Chinese revolutionary songs.98


Country Party Leader Doug Anthony chastised Whitlam for approving the playing of Advance Australia Fair rather than God Save the Queen at engagements throughout the visit. Anthony argued that this indicated that Whitlam was 'obsessed with the idea of making Australia a republic'.99


Whitlam's discussions with Zhou Enlai, as in 1971, largely revolved around international relations and regional stability. Whitlam spent a total of 17 hours in conversation with Zhou Enlai, with many meetings running significantly over their scheduled time.100 As one Australian official observed, 'when two countries haven't talked for 23 years, there is a lot to be said'.101 Other engagements included a formal banquet, at which both Whitlam and Zhou Enlai spoke, and guided tours of Beijing's significant historical and archaeological sites. One of the Chinese interpreters later recalled that: "Margaret, she was so tall...we were told she was quite a swimmer. So one of the things they prepared for her was a swimming suit in case she would want to go swimming".120



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Gough Whitlam Meeting Chairman Mao Zedong 









It was unclear whether Whitlam would be given a meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong. 'The Chinese never confirm such arrangements until the last possible moment', he later recalled, 'there was a superb touch of theatre in the way they planned these meetings. Partly in deference to the old man's health, partly to enhance the sacred aura with which they invested their leader, partly, I suppose, as a matter of public relations'.102 During a session of official talks with Premier Zhou Enlai and government officials, a phone call came for the Premier. Zhou announced that a meeting had been arranged with Mao Zedong and that they would shortly be taken to his official residence. Whitlam's conversation with Mao Zedong lasted for an hour and a half, though little is known about its content. Whitlam was reluctant to discuss the content of his discussions with Mao Zedong with the press, other than to note that he had reiterated Australia's objections to Chinese nuclear tests.103


Describing the visit later, Whitlam painted the following picture: 'We met in his study. It was a warm, comfortable room; if it had been any smaller one might have called it a den. There were deep armchairs, and the atmosphere was lived-in and engaging. I noticed some Western encyclopaedias and shelves laden with innumerable boxes and scrolls. Mao rose to meet me and showed me to the chair beside him. He was a much bigger man that most of his countrymen. He was handicapped a little by rheumatism in his feet, for which he apologised, but there was no doubting his mental vigour and unfailing good humour. I recall a massive smiling countenance and an air of scholarly refinement, as if, for all the courtesy and attention he paid his guests, his mind was still burdened with deeper things'.104


Although the meeting was short compared to his eleven hours worth of interaction with Zhou Enlai, the moment obviously made a strong impression on Whitlam. He later observed that Mao Zedong was 'was very much abreast of affairs, aware of what was going on in the Western world and ready to express opinions about personalities and issues. He obviously enjoyed an exchange of views. He may have found some stimulus in hearing the opinions of a stranger from a different country, however erroneous my views may have been. He lacked Zhou's grasp of detail and incomparable knowledge of particular events and personalities, but his wisdom and sense of history were deep and unmistakable.'105 One journalist travelling with Whitlam noted that107:



 "Mr Whitlam was obviously carrying the exhilaration of it with him a couple of hours later when he arrived at Peking's [Chengdu] restaurant for a dinner arranged by the Australian Embassy for the Prime Minister's party. Rarely an easy mixer, Mr Whitlam sang and toasted in that fearful drink, Mao Tai, with the least inhibited and most enthusiastic in the party. It is hard to recall a happier Mr Whitlam"



At the dinner, Whitlam referred to the visit as the culmination of Australia's own 'long march', the journey to redefining its relationship to China.108


At a final press conference to conclude the four day visit, Whitlam observed that 'the great thing we have achieved this week is that a generation of lost contact between our peoples has ended'.109 Whitlam and his Minister for Northern Development, Rex Patterson also announced a $250 million (approximately $AUD 2 Billion in 2011 dollars) sugar export agreement with China.110 Conveniently, this came at a time when an export contract with Britain to supply a similar volume of sugar was due to expire, due to Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, thus depriving Australia of a significant export market.111


Zhou Enlai attended a departure ceremony at Beijing Airport to farewell Whitlam, and the Australian Government party. Whitlam had invited him to visit Australia, but this was to be the last time the two men would meet. Zhou Enlai was later diagnosed with cancer and died early in 1976.



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