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Professor Emeritus Colin Mackerras

Presented by Vice Chancellor Professor Ian O’Connor on the occasion of the admission of Professor Emeritus Colin Mackerras to the degree of Doctor of Griffith University, 7th April 2006



Colin Mackerras was born in Sydney in 1939 and educated at St Aloysius College and Sydney Grammar School. His academic qualifications include a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne (1961), and a Bachelor of Arts with Honours (1962) and a PhD (1970) from the Australian National University. He was also awarded a Master of Letters from Cambridge University in 1964.


In a career spanning forty years, Colin Mackerras has been hailed as a major inspiration for Australia’s move towards Asia. He has been a staunch advocate for the promotion of Asian studies and languages in schools and universities, and has worked tirelessly to cement relations between Australia and China.


Colin Mackerras first developed a strong feeling and sympathy for the Chinese people when he was appointed to teach at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages in 1964. On returning to Australia, he worked as a Research Scholar and Research Fellow for the Department of Far Eastern History, Australian National University from 1966-1973. In planning for the establishment of Brisbane’s second University in the early 1970s, Griffith’s founders decided that a quarter of the initial courses at the University should be in Asian Studies. Colin Mackerras was one of the first people approached to become Foundation Professor in Modern Asian Studies, and he took up this position on 1 January 1974.


In a long and fruitful association with the University, Professor Mackerras taught extensively in Chinese politics, history and culture. He published widely during this time, and his Modern China: A Chronology from 1842 to the Present Day was considered one of the definitive texts on contemporary China, and consolidated his international reputation as a Sinologist. As Chairman of the then School of Modern Asian Studies from 1979-1985, and later as Head of School from 1988-1989 and 1996-2000, he provided outstanding leadership and played a crucial role in the development of innovative curriculum design in the Asian Studies area. During the period 1988-1996, he was also Co-Director of the Key Centre for Asian Languages and Studies which was hosted jointly by Griffith and The University of Queensland.


The quality of Professor Mackerras’ teaching performance was recognised by the University in 2000 when he won an individual Excellence in Teaching Award. Professor Willett, the University’s first Vice Chancellor, once described his commitment and talent as a teacher in the following terms:


“Motivation goes back to the teacher and that’s where Colin is enormously important. The pursuit of excellence is the taking out of students everything they’ve got in them. And that’s what Colin’s good at – he’s a first class teacher in every sense.”


In December 2004, Griffith acknowledged Colin Mackerras’ significant contributions to scholarship and to the University by conferring on him the title “Professor Emeritus”.


As an expert in foreign affairs and an authority on East Asia, Professor Mackerras has provided valuable advice and guidance to a number of key professional associations and councils. He was President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia (1992-1995), President of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia (1991-1993), Chair of the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Taskforce (1994-1999) and Chair of the Queensland School Curriculum Council (2001-2002). In the wider community, he was well known as a presenter and scriptwriter of the “Dragon’s Tongue” series - nineteen half-hour programs on Chinese language and culture produced by the ABC in 1991 in association with Griffith University and the Asian Studies Council.


Professor Mackerras’ extraordinary contributions to scholarship and to the community have been recognised by numerous national and international awards. He was elected as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities in 1999 and was chair of its Asian Studies Electoral Section from 2001 to 2003. He received a Foundation Cross of Merit from the Albert Einstein International Academy in 1993, an Australia-China Council Award in 1999, a Millennium Medal of Honour from the American Biographical Institute in 2000, and a Centenary Medal in 2003.


In paying tribute to a remarkable life, a biographer had the following to say about Colin Mackerras:


“The final impression of this present day Marco Polo, attested by family, colleagues, students and detached observers alike, is that of a giving man, who wears his abilities and scholarship unassumingly, has promoted understanding between this country and China, and is endowed with a grace of spirit which lightens that of others.”


It is fitting that Griffith University should honour Colin Mackerras in recognition of his distinguished contributions to the University and to the Australian and international community.


(Written by Professor Ian O’Connor, Vice Chancellor and President)


Leneen Forde in her role of Chancellor of Griffith University conferred upon Professor Emeritus Colin Mackerras the degree of Doctor of the University

on April 7th, 2006


The following is the speech by Professor Emeritus Colin Mackerras on the occasion of his admission to the Degree of Doctor of Griffith University,

7th April 2006


I begin by offering my sincere congratulations to all those who have won their degrees today, This is a great achievement, and as a true believer in the value of academic work, I think it is also an extremely useful one. I would also like to thank Griffith University for the honour it has bestowed on me of Doctor of the University. I value that extremely highly.


I am going to focus my attention today on Asia and Asian studies and more especially on the study of China.


I started teaching and researching China and East Asia at Griffith University in 1974. At that time Japan had already gone a long way towards its post-war rise, but China was still dedicating itself to a kind of radical revolution that attracted support from radical youth and others, but has since come to seem more and more self-destructive and irrational. In any case China’s economic growth lagged well behind several other major parts of Asia, including some territories the Chinese consider part of their own country, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Australian government was not many years away from the strongly anti-Chinese policy which did not recognise China until 1972.


With the death of the great but infamous revolutionary Mao Zedong in 1976, things changed greatly in China. Within two years political revolution was ‘out’, and economic revolution was ‘in’, very soon making the system in China look like ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’. China began its dramatic economic growth of about nine per cent per year, which it maintains to this day.


And what a difference this has made! As I see it two things have happened with this spectacular economic rise. One is that China has taken its place among the major powers of the world and has come to be acknowledged as a major economic force. Its diplomats are respected. China’s goods are highly regarded for quality and value for money. When historians of the future look back on our era, they will probably pick the rise of China as one of the most important trends of the last decades of the twentieth century and the early ones of the twenty-first. I do not know if the twenty-first century will be ‘China’s century’ as many have suggested, but it is quite likely.


At the same time there is a more negative aspect, and that brings me to the second of the ‘two things’ that I noted above. Many distrust China for its poor human rights, while others fear a rising China as a threat to Western, and especially American, hegemony. Many view with great concern the widening economic disparities – the wealth of some and the poverty of others – and abhor the lack of freedoms we take for granted in the West, such as freedom of the media.


All these issues are very complex and depend largely on one’s point of view. My own view is that there are different ways of looking at human rights, and that the welfare and living standards of the great majority are more important than the individual political rights of the small minority, though I think those are also important and I certainly do not wish to belittle them. I think life has improved in a large number of ways for the great majority of the Chinese people over the thirty years since Mao died, and if one went back further, the improvements would be even greater, especially in absolute terms but even in comparison with many other countries.


Of course nobody can be sure of the future and some may accuse me of being too optimistic. However, I do not expect China to be a military threat to the West. I believe a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question is possible and even likely, although I do not underestimate China’s determination to reincorporate Taiwan at some time over the next few decades. Nevertheless China will certainly pose a challenge to the West’s economic supremacy unless it collapses into chaos, which I think possible but unlikely. We should regard China’s economic success as an opportunity, not a threat.


My overall message, however, is that we in Australia must come to terms and engage with China in order to understand it. We do not need to ‘kowtow’ as some have put it, but governments of both persuasions are right to regard China as a friend and to expand dealings with it. Recent events in relations between China and Japan show that we would do well to put some emphasis on history if we are going to understand the cultures that matter to us.


Given this view I look back over the thirty years I spent as a professor at Griffith University with great pleasure and a sense of achievement, but also anxiety. I believe it has been sensible to press for more knowledge of China and the Chinese, both in terms of its history and its present conditions. I am glad that Australian government policy toward East Asia, and China in particular, is now more or less bipartisan and generally positive.


I do not have any doubt that, proportional to its population, Australia has done pretty well in international terms in its attention to China and other parts of East and South-East Asia. For me what that means is that we should use the progress we have made so far to press on to more and better achievements.


However, I perceive quite serious backsliding in the country as a whole in learning about China and Asia in general, including languages. In the last few years we have failed to maintain the momentum we gathered in preceding decades. This will not help us to engage with our region in the ways I believe we could and should do.


As for China itself, I think it has done quite well. Again there is much to criticise in its performance, as most Chinese are quite happy to admit. However, if I were an ‘ordinary’ Chinese, that is one who does not belong to an elite, I would rather be alive today than at more or less any time in the past, despite the big problems they face. What that tells me is that China’s overall performance has been fairly good.


I would like, as a coda, to pay tribute to two people who took a pioneering role in introducing Asian and Chinese studies into Griffith University at a time when they were not nearly as fashionable as they are now. I am referring to Sir Theodor Bray, the first Chancellor of Griffith University, who gave his name to the Bray building, and the first Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Willett for whom the Willett Centre is named.


May I again congratulate all those who have today received their degrees, and assure you of the value of your efforts. Learning and understanding have always been essential to a civilised society and always will be so. I again thank the University not only for awarding me this degree, which means a great deal to me, but also for all it has given me as an employee over more than thirty years. I would also like to thank my colleagues of many years, my family and my students, without whose cooperation I could never have achieved anything.



Colin Mackerras

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