In the approach to the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949, Humphrey McQueen weaves memories around policies to reflect on how Australians have responded to threats and promises from our north.

BROTHER VITALIAS POINTED north across the dirt playground as he told us nine-year-olds in his 1951 religious instruction class that 'When the Red Chinese get to Brisbane they'll line us up out there with the choice of renouncing our faith, or being shot'. I had been looking forward to martyrdom since becoming devoted to the nun in Grade One who had chosen the religious name of Tarsicius after a Roman youth stoned to death by pagans while protecting the consecrated host. Presented with an opportunity of dying for the faith of our fathers, I was less ardent and, like Augustine's prayer to stop sinning, added 'but not yet!'. A year or two later, a gaunt grey-beard who had been a missionary in China preached the sermon at Sunday Mass. I felt close to his endeavours because at the convent school I had filled several flimsy cardboard boxes with thirty pieces of copper so that priests such as he could buy Chinese babes to baptise in the name that I had chosen -- Tarcisius.

A missionary attitude towards China continues to flow in both directions. When we are not saving the Chinese for Christ or the cash nexus, they are pointing us in the right direction with feng shui or enriching our farmers.

Despite the White Australia Policy, I had more contact with Chinese than with Aborigines. We shopped in Fortitude Valley which included Chinatown but almost never went to South Brisbane where the Aborigines were kept. At the bottom of our street, a Chinese market gardener pee-ed on his lettuces, but that is not why I still do not eat Chinese. My father took me on visits to a friend with a Chinese wife and a Pekinese dog, who looked like three peas in a pod. My mother told me how fortunate one of her school friends had been to have married into Chinese shopkeepers in Rockhampton, because they were good providers, which led me to wonder what my life would have been like had she shared their luck. At high school, two of the boarders were Chinese -- Joe Wah Yu came from Hong Kong and Julius Chan from New Guinea -- Roman Catholics to be defended from the Reds. Race or colour prejudice did not notarise with them.

Otherwise, my impressions of China came from radio serials and films of Charlie Chan, Detective, with his honourable and numbered sons, and the malevolent Dr Fu Man-Chu. Childhood games never included Anzacs versus the Red horde but, courtesy of Hollywood, were Romans persecuting Christians or Crusaders vanquishing Saracens. I knew that the Chinese had been victims of Japanese atrocities, like my POW uncle George. My father admired a Chinese leader called Dr Sun Yat-sen. From this sweet-and-sour, I glimpsed that there could be good and bad Asiatics.

Shortly before my fifteenth birthday in 1957, my faith was fractured further when the Labor Party in Queensland split and my parents stayed with Dr Evatt who proved his pro-Communist stance by advocating the recognition of Red China. In playground and classroom arguments, I defended the enemies of Christ by mouthing off about the corruption of Chiang Kai-shek. In advocating the recognition of the Communist government, I joined the hundreds of thousands of Australians who were what the Courier Mail would now call 'agents of influence'.

When a Beijing Embassy arrived in 1973, it took over a Canberra motel where I was invited to talk about Australian painting. I passed around illustrated books because I had no slides. All I can say in defence of those two hours of monologue was that they were no more boring than the political study circles that were part of the diplomats' working week.

The married couple who represented the official Chinese newsagency belonged to the Journalist International, which is to say they were as addicted to partying as to The Party, as they demonstrated the night they invited us to their motel room for a tutorial on Australian history. I can remember too much maotai and a waiter teaching us how to fold napkins into the shape of birds. After the reporters visited central Australia, they were anxious for a tutorial on the condition of the Aborigines, which had shaken them. 'China has people as poor as those Aborigines', they observed, 'but China is a very poor country. Please explain how such misery could exist in a country as rich as Australia?' I still cannot.

I did not hear from their successor until he asked me to guide him to the university bookshop, which he had been unable to locate. As we walked from my door to the chauffeured Mercedes he told me that we should not talk in the car because it was bugged. He did not say by whom. At the bookshop, he remained silent until he bought a copy of Who's Who whereupon he turned to the entry for the Treasurer Philip Lynch and asked for some background because he was about to visit China. Unlike the questions about the Aborigines, I knew what to say but suspected that someone whose leaders included Zhou Enlai would neither believe nor understand how anyone as shallow as Lynch could rise so high. I began to explain the difficulties of a Roman fallen among Presbyterians but was silenced by the drive home. I never heard from the Embassy again.

MY ENGAGEMENT with matters Chinese deepened in 1963 during a Peace Cavalcade to Canberra. Delegates felt vindicated by the Test Ban Treaty between the US, UK and USSR announced on 5 August as our bus reached Newcastle. Although I now have no recollection of the Cuban missile crisis, I shared the Left's repugnance at nuclear warfare, had joined Aldermaston marches in Brisbane, and assumed that even a limited test ban must be good for life on earth and so, at a morning tea of ham sandwiches and strawberry sponge in Gosford, was perplexed to hear an aged peace activist denounce the Treaty in terms he had heard over Radio Beijing.

As the Communist Party of Australia shifted from Beijing to Moscow, my Trotskyist preferences kept me critical of the Soviet regime for its advocacy of Coexistence with imperialism and for a Peaceful Transition from capitalism to socialism. Disputes between Moscow and Beijing were conducted as shadow boxing, with Yugoslavia and Albania standing in for the principals. Typical of my unreliability, I favoured both the Chinese Line and the Workers' Councils in Yugoslavia while spurning Moscow and dismissing the Albanian Party Of Labour as perpetuators of blood feuds, a point confirmed recently. Some on the Right and the Left refused to accept that the split was other than a tactic to disarm the West.

Nobody in the Queensland delegation supported the Chinese position and the apparatchiks in charge of the Canberra protest excluded the dissent voiced in Gosford. Instead, I began to hear that the Chinese wanted nuclear war as the surest path to world socialism. Because that prospect seemed so horrible that I could not accept that anyone with any kind of socialist leanings would adopt it, I decided to investigate 'The International Line of the Communist Party of China for the World Communist Movement, 1956-1964' for my final-year honours thesis in 1964.

Before that effort, I had to sit a third-year exam on international relations which included a question on the Sino-Indian border dispute at the close of 1962. Because the examiner was an Indian, I knew better than to argue that the Indians had been the aggressors. Instead, I balanced manoeuvring and mistakes by both sides. That I failed that unit was also because I had not done enough preparation in other topics. Reading about that conflict breached the conventional wisdom that People's China was both aggressive and expansionist.

From months spent paraphrasing eight years of Beijing Review, given to me in bound volumes by a Party member who no longer wanted to have such material in his house, I discerned that the China Line was not war-mongering. My Trotskyism was not satisfied by the official position on Stalin which catalogued crimes and errors before concluding that 'his merits outweighed his faults', a combination I labelled 'absurd'. More appealing was the class analysis sketched by the Chinese Party of why Stalin and Khruschev had erred, a dimension ignored in the Soviet emphasis on personality cults. My never having been pro-Stalin or pro-Soviet was a matter of timing. My temptation was Maoism, which, like all occasions of sin, presented itself as a good thing, in particular, as an antidote to Stalinism and a way of going beyond the permanent opposition associated with Trotskyism.

The more the Soviets denounced Mao as a peasant anarchist, the more I warmed to him. When Penguin published a selection of his unedited speeches in 1974, I heard the Mao who had led a revolution, not the tin god of the Foreign Languages Press. My favourite passages include this 1965 question: 'The Ministry of Public Health is not a Ministry of Public Health for the people, so why not change its name to the Ministry or Urban Health, the Ministry of Gentlemen's Health, or even to Ministry of Urban Gentlemen's Health?' That is the kind of speech a President of the Australian Republic should make. The scene in Kundun where a waxworks Mao tells the young Dalai Lama that 'Religion is poison' was risible because Mao would have said 'Reincarnation is a pile of yak shit'.

My comrades in the Monash Labor Club in the late 1960s shared the irreverence that Mao displayed off the record, as evidenced by two of the songs we sang at parties. One went to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club theme:

Mao Tse-tung,
Me favourite boong,
Ever let us hold his banner, High, High, High,
Come along and sing his song
And join the Red CP,
M-A-O T-S-E T-U-N-G.

Another ditty was:

You can bring Chiang,
She's a great big bang
But don't bring Liu Liu.
Liu Liu is a monster and a freak.
He's the kind of smartie
Who breaks up every party.
Hullaballoo-loo, don't bring Liu Liu,
leave him to Brezhnev.

This larrikinism flourished in Australian assumptions that sovereignty resides in the people, not in gods or kings. How far that political culture was from China's became clear to me during two years in Japan in 1988-1989 when my Communist and small-l liberal friends there explained that their opposition to the Emperor System had little to do with the emperor as a person or an ex-God but was aimed against the notion of sovereignty that prevailed in Japan, Korea and China, whether under feudalism or communism. Their critique made me realise that I had judged Mao in terms of the popular sovereignty that permeates public life in Australia, not through the web of Confucian obligations.

My hesitations about the post-1965 direction taken by the People's Republic were subordinated by the proofs that Washington gave to the Maoist line about the need to resist imperialist aggression. The slaughter of Leftists after the Indonesian coups of 1965-1966 confirmed my support for the Chinese line that a peaceful transition to socialism would be prevented by US-backed massacres.

Simultaneously, the US war against the Indo-Chinese transformed the work I did for my thesis into a set piece for Vietnam Teach-Ins because Menzies justified commitment of combat forces to Vietnam on the grounds that they were opposing 'a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans'. The enemy was not the Viet Cong or North Vietnam, but Red China. The Coalition built its case about Beijing's expansionism and aggression through its intervention in Korea, its takeover and treatment of Tibet, the conflict with the Nationalist remnant on Formosa (Taiwan) and, most powerfully, its invasion of India in 1962.

My lectures countered with denials and qualifications:Korea. The North Koreans were not Chinese puppets and Chinese 'volunteers' entered the war only after the US-led forces pushed north of the 38th parallel, a strategy of expanding the conflict towards Manchuria which would provoke Truman to sack MacArthur.

Tibet. The British invasion of Tibet in 1904 had encouraged a declaration of independence by Tibetans after two hundred years of Manchu hegemony so that the Communists saw their occupation of Lhasa as reversing previous European aggressions. Liberation could be condemned as aggressive but not expansionist and was not evidence for a plan to conquer all of Asia, but revived the system of tributary border states.

Formosa. Similarly, since neither Beijing nor Taipei saw the other as an independent nation, the Reds could not be considered expansionist in claiming those islands, though their tactics be aggressive. The Nationalist line was that the Civil War was not over, that Mao's regime were bandits who would be overthrown when Chiang's legitimate government reconquered the mainland from Formosa where it was in temporary exile.

India. By the time fighting erupted late in 1962, Beijing had a bad name from the three above encounters while Indian militarists camouflaged themselves in Gandhi's non-violence and Nehru's non-alignment. This dichotomy of war-making versus pacifism had been blurred by the 1949 agreement between Lisbon and Beijing over the status of Macao in contrast to India's invasion of Goa in 1960. Two years later, the anti-Beijing chorus could not explain why the People's Liberation Army had returned to the status quo ante after its complete military victory over India. Australia's man in Asia, Dennis Warner, proposed that China's 'rapid withdrawal' was 'intended to intimidate the Indians', who were presumably frightened by movement in any direction. The Australian-born correspondent in New Delhi for The Times between 1959 and 1967, Neville Maxwell, had reported the conflict as a Chinese invasion but, with access to additional sources, came to realise that the Indians had been the aggressors before he published India's China War in 1970. Reviewing Maxwell's retraction for the Melbourne Herald, Rohan Rivett added his own apology: 'After fifteen years of the Cold War, none of us who are professional observers should have swallowed all the codswallop that was spooned out to us. But we did -- almost to a man'. Maxwell's book confirmed my then recent decision not to waste time keeping abreast of `the news', one resolution to which I have stuck.

Reading Felix Greene's 1963 The Wall Has Two Sides, I had chuckled as he mocked the US media for its regular announcements about the imminence of Mao's death, though I knew a day had to come when those reports would no longer be exaggerated. When I worked as a barman in a Brisbane pub, a drinker asked if I knew Greene's book of which he claimed to be the author. I had no way of knowing that this tourist was not Greene until I saw his photograph years later. I faced the same problem in regard to fabrications about China, whether for or against the government in Beijing. The more lies I discerned against the People's Republic, the less capable I became of accepting valid criticisms.

At the time, the level of misunderstanding was phenomenal. An academic study in the late 1960s found that Australians estimated the population of China at anything between eighty and six thousand million. Asked whether there were two Chinas, replies included: 'There is another but I don't know its name; it's ruled by Madam Gandhi; she has a husband; General someone or other; he is deceased.' I would like to believe that our knowledge has improved but in 1987 I overheard the audience leaving The Last Emperor expressing surprise that China had been in our war against Japan. How many supporters of Tibetan independence know of the Formosan movement against the Chinese occupiers of their island, or that the KMT on Taiwan opposed Tibet's freedom, despite having armed rebels during the 1950s?

Australian fears of China turned me into a student of Australia. A New Britannia (1970) attempted to explain why the electorate had rejected Calwell's 1966 stand against conscription for an imperialist war. The point was not to become an expert on the Long March but to understand what had to be changed at home to challenge the racist assumptions behind the Liberal Party's television commercials of the threat from the north. When the Red Asian menace faded in the early 1970s, I began quoting the final lines from Cavafy's 'Waiting for the Barbarians': '...what will become of us without barbarians?/They were a kind of solution.' Domestic reforms could no longer be withheld on the grounds that they were subversive or a distraction from security, clearing the ground for the Whitlam years.

Perhaps that bias towards understanding Australia is why I never joined a tour of China, though lack of cash and time were decisive. I now regret not having seen Shanghai before 1980 because I have no basis for comparing those days with the impress of capitalism.

The danger of having once been right against the majority is that I remain captive to that knowledge. For instance, because of the lies propagated against Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s, I retained a trace of scepticism towards details about Tiananmen or Tibet long after I had lost all sympathy with the regime. Media ignorance today reinforces the difficulty I have in distancing myself from previous positions. When I catch the ABC correspondent in New Delhi peddling the Indian line about who did what in 1962, or authors writing about Tibet as if it had been Shangri-la before 1949, or journalists treating Beijing's 1996 rocket-rattling against Taiwan as between two sovereign states instead of provinces of the one country, I have to stop myself slipping back into stances that have lost most of their relevance. Such over-reaction is not a matter of my past allegiances because, in correcting misapprehensions about the military capacities of Japan or Indonesia, I slide towards apologies for those regimes. When I taught in Japan, I defended Australian policies and practices in ways that I would never do here.

Research for my thesis also set the course for my response to the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Whereas many people assumed that Mao's Little Red Book was a collection of folk droppings, I had studied the five volumes of selected writings from which the quotations were drawn. Far from seeing Mao Zedong-Thought as sloganeering, I knew how demanding his ideas could be. Hours of grappling with his philosophical essay, 'On Contradiction', made the structuralisms that became popular in the late 1960s easier for me to follow.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution brought so radical a break with the past behaviour of the Chinese Communists that my awareness of 'the principal aspect of the principal contradiction', to quote the Chairman's essay, might not have convinced me that such an upheaval was necessary had I not read Jan Myrdal's Report from a Chinese Village, translated in 1965. Until then, I had assumed that all of China had been revolutionised, that, although much still needed to be improved, basic reforms were universal. Myrdal's documentation of life in the northern Shensi village of Liu Ling from his month there in 1962 demonstrated how little had changed. In particular, I was shocked to read of a grandmother who kept a seven-year-old home from school and of purchase marriages. Surely, the Party had put a stop to such feudal practices? Thus, however much had been achieved in the political and economic realms, the cultural was in need of revolutionising. What I had not reckoned on was that Mao, who was then adopting Daoist notions that increased sexual activity would prolong life, was in need of being revolutionised culturally as much as any illiterate granny.