A Brief History of Queensland Branch of ACFS
A mass meeting of thousands of people in Festival Hall, Brisbane in 1952 was the direct impetus to form the Queensland Branch of the Australia China Society.
The groundwork for that decision had been laid over many decades. For example regular Chinese interaction with local Aboriginal people, large numbers of Chinese immigrants during the Palmer River gold rush; Australian workers support for factory workers in China in the 1920s; Victorian medicos shipments of medical aid to Chinese people in the 1930s and bans by wharfies and seamen on exports to Japan during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937
By the 1950s it was a particularly turbulent time in Australian politics, and Chinese issues were at the centre of that turbulence. The Chinese revolution had established the new People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Korean war commenced in June 1950, and Australian troops were fighting in Korea. In that environment the Federal government was fiercely anti-communist, and passed a law banning the Australian Communist Party in 1951. After that law was overturned in the High Court, they initiated a referendum to outlaw the communist party. After a widespread campaign over the civil liberties implications, the referendum was rejected by the Australian people. Any attempts to present the Chinese point of view were met with vigorous cold war opposition.
It was during that period that the large crowd of thousands gathered in Brisbane to hear a report from the former head of the Foreign Affairs Department, Dr John Burton, talk about his recent trip to China to build support for an international peace conference in Peking. At the meeting a proposal was put to establish a Qld Australia China organisation to promote understanding of China and peace with China. Following the meeting an official of the Carpenters Union, a Brisbane music teacher Mrs Jessie Ferguson, and Tom Loy, a young electrical engineer who had arrived with his family from Hong Kong two years previously, met with others to establish the Australia China Society in Qld in mid 1952.
That first decade was a particularly difficult one for the members of the ACS. Followed and harassed by ASIO officers, spied on by ASIO recruits within their own group, and attacked in the popular press as communist dupes, the organisation managed to weather out those quite vicious early years. During that period communist party members were active in running the ACS, along with ALP members sympathetic to China, as well as church and community members who were attracted to aspects of the new society which the Chinese were building.
By the 1960s, whilst the ASIO spying and harassment continued, the worst of the cold war hysteria was abating, and the ACS was able to play a more prominent role in community affairs. The first volume of the Qld branch newsletter was published in December 1960, and the society has continued to produce regular newsletters to this day. In 1961 the National Council of the Australia China Society was established, and Qld delegates regularly took part in the national activities of the society from then on
– for example a campaign to oppose proposed amendments to the Commonwealth Crimes Act which would have serious impact on the functioning of the ACS.
In 1964 retired ex-Senator Bill Morrow moved to Brisbane and immediately became active in the ACS. Bill had been a railways union official and then Federal Labor Senator from 1946 to 1953, during which time he was a fierce advocate for recognition and trade with China. He had taken many trips to China, and had toured Australian States showing the remarkable advances Chinese medicine was making with such techniques as acupuncture. His committed and extensive work in the ACS over many of those early years (when it was extremely difficult and intimidating to carry out public campaigns in the name of the ACS) was recognised in 1986 by the establishment of an annual lecture in his name.
The 1960s were a time of rapid political and social change in Australia, and The ACS mainly concentrated on publicising the achievements of socialist China amongst Queenslanders during that time – as well as pursuing issues related to China, for example by campaigning to oppose proposed amendments to the Commonwealth Crimes Act which would have serious impact on the functioning of the ACS, joining the growing voices of opposition to the Vietnam War, and regularly campaigning for recognition of China by the Australian government..
During the 1970s there was a rapidly growing interest in China, as more people became aware of the social and economic advances that were occurring there. The Qld branch hosted visits by well known personalities who were supporting ad in some cases living in China, such as New Zealander Rewi Alley. The largest of these visits was when over 1000 people attended a meeting in Brisbane City Hall by author Dr Han Su-Yin in 1975. The East Wind Bookshop had been established in Elizabeth St in 1968, and the ACS was able to direct members to their wide range of Chinese journals and books. In the late 1970s ACFS members constructed a float each year to enter in the annual May Day parade in which was usually 10, 000 strong march of Brisbane workers. The float banner in 1976 was “China: 850 million people – no inflation, no unemployment”
These were the years when ACS study tours to China were conducted and the Qld branch organised delegates to take part in these tours and usually to report back to public meetings on the highlights of their trips. Bill Morrow travelled as ACS Qld President to lecture at schools about China, to establish a sub-branch of the ACS in Cairns, and to Tasmania to publicise Chinese advances in acupuncture.
By the 1980s there was a considerable community interest in China. In 1982 the society decided nationally to change its name to “Australia China Society” (ACFS) to more accurately reflect its aims and objectives. In 1980 the ACS established its first shop in George St, later in 1986 shifting the shop to Clayfield, and then the following year to an upstairs centre in Wickham St near Chinatown – where the ACS centre remained until 2008.
During the 1980s and 90s the Qld branch held monthly meetings with speakers on political, economic, cultural issues. One of the regular speakers at these meetings was Prof Colin Mackerras who had established the first Asian Studies course at Griffith University.
The branch also held regular promotions of the many ACFS tours to China, and events for members to socialise with the local Chinese community as well as visiting Chinese students and academics. These social gatherings and dinners regularly attracted 100 to 200 people.
The Qld branch recognised the importance of a national perspective for the ACFS and regularly sent delegates to national council meetings. In some periods Qld branch members held national executive positions, with Rosemary Andrews as National Treasurer, and Tom Loy and Keith Jenvey as National President during the 1990s and 2000s.In 1986 during the national ACFS council meeting in Brisbane, the Qld branch took on the task of organising the first of what would become the annual ACFS Bill Morrow lecture.
The branch played an important role in networking amongst the Chinese community. In 1987 President Tom Loy opened the celebration dinner to mark the opening of the new Chinatown Mall in Fortitude Valley. Then in 1999 the branch was instrumental in preparing and organising for a celebration of the golden jubilee of China.
In November 2012 the branch organised a major symposium and reception, with the assistance of the Chinese Consulate in Brisbane, to celebrate 40 years of recognition of China, and over 100 people attended to listen to speakers on a range of topics relating to the history of that recognition in 1972, and the current implications for Australia China relations.
During the past two decades public awareness of China, as well as tourism to China, has grown immensely and there has been lees need for the ACFS to build awareness in the community of Chinese affairs. However in recent years there has been a growing international and national campaign of criticising and isolation of China. The Qld branch, along with the national ACFS body, sees an important role in combating this campaign and promoting understanding of Chinese policies, as well as an ongoing need to build friendship between our two peoples.