China is mourning the loss of a dear old friend - former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on Tuesday, a man who will always be remembered as a great helmsman in the China-Australia relations.
For more than 40 years, Whitlam's name has been etched into the annals of China's history, as one of the Western leaders who made a difference in Australia's relationship with the new Socialist Asian country.
Decades after then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Whitlam established diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1972, Whitlam continued to receive regular visits from Chinese diplomats and politicians.
They would often recite to him the traditional Chinese proverb: "When you draw water from the well, you must not forget those who dug the well." For the Chinese people, Whitlam's role in the China- Australia story will never be forgotten.
With late Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou, Whitlam' s efforts in forging diplomatic relations were the single most important event in relations between China and Australia in the 20th century, and remains the foundation of their relationship today.
The great men's actions changed the Sino-Australian relationship forever. They sowed the seeds of trust and mutual respect. The power of fear and suspicion lost its grip. Now was the time for friendship and trade to flourish.
Whitlam strongly believed in the importance of closer ties with China. In 1954, Whitlam, who was then an Australian Member of Parliament, said: "It is about time that ... we recognized the communist government of China." In 1971, Whitlam visited China as the Opposition leader, where he met with Premier Zhou in his first meaningful contact with Chinese leaders since the People's Republic of China was established in 1949.
An Australian journalist who was covering the visit wrote: "The Zhou-Whitlam debate is one of those unexpected dramatic events that make or break political reputations because they capture the public imagination. It will become a part of Australian political folklore and Mr. Whitlam is the beneficiary."
After Whitlam secured the Australian Labor Party's election win in 1972, and on his first day in office as prime minister, he started negotiations to establish diplomatic relations with China.
Many of China's top officials remembered the tall Australian politician in his previous visit. As a result, it was possible to complete the talks in record time. While it took years for some Western countries to negotiate their agreements with China, the Whitlam government had finished the process in a matter of weeks.
Whitlam landed in Beijing on Oct. 31, 1973, and became the first Australian prime minister to visit China. As his motorcade drove into the Chinese capital, loudspeakers on the roadside played famous Australian songs Click Go the Shears, The Road to Gundagai, and Waltzing Matilda as well as Chinese folk songs.
Whitlam spent a total of 17 hours in conversation with Premier Zhou and as one Australian official observed, "when two countries haven't talked for 23 years, there is a lot to be said."
After a historic meeting with Chairman Mao, Whitlam referred to his China visit as the culmination of Australia's own "Long March. " "A generation of lost contact between our peoples has ended," he said.
During the landmark visit, a 250-million-Australian dollar agreement was signed on sugar importation from Australia. In today 's currency value, that equals to approximately 2 billion Australian dollars (1.76 billion U.S. dollars). The deal is seen as the official start of trade between China and Australia after 1949.
Bilateral trade rose to 141.76 billion Australian dollars (124. 88 billion U.S. dollars) in 2013, an increase of 20.7 percent year- on-year. Among that, Australian exports to China reached 100 billion Australian dollars (88.09 billion U.S. dollars), exceeding its exports to Japan, South Korea, the United States and India combined. One out of every three dollars of Australian export goes to China.
But trade is only one part of a whole picture. The people-to- people contacts between the two countries have grown immensely. A record number of Chinese tourists have been spending their holidays in Australia. More than 88,000 Chinese students are studying in Australia, and more young Australians are studying the Chinese language than ever before.
Recently, and for the first time, Chinese soldiers joined Australian troops in joint military exercises in Australia. This week, the Australian Federal Police said it was working with Chinese police to seize the assets of corrupt Chinese officials who have fled to Australia.
Whitlam, a great Australian statesman, has passed away, but he will never be forgotten as the man who helped nourish the China- Australia friendship.