On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A leader who understands China

The 50-year-old Rudd has already told the world that he would position Australia as a Western country that understands China and Asia most, a statement that would certainly make him hugely-popular among Asians.  

While his predecessor John Howard was seen as an old-world leader, still with a 1950s outlook on Asia, Rudd is seen as more positive and forward-looking, sensitive to the fast-changing trends in Asia.  

His party even put up a RM40,000 a month, 7m-tall billboard at Cameron Road in Hong Kong to promote his image and new leadership. The boyish-looking Rudd has given extensive interviews to Chinese television to boost his image, aware that bilateral trade between the two countries has trebled.  

The world is fully aware of his ability to speak Mandarin fluently and his past experience as a diplomat in Beijing.  

Outside of Australia, however, not many are aware that he has a Chinese-Australian son-in-law.  

His daughter, Jessica, is married to lawyer Albert Tse. Both work in the same law firm and the union would certainly have endeared him to the strong number of voters with Asian roots.  

Rudd’s elder son, Nicholas, is studying at Fudan University in Shanghai, while the younger son, Marcus, is still in high school and is studying Chinese already.  

An ardent Sinophile, Rudd’s love of things Chinese started when his mother gave him a book on Asian civilization when he was 10 years old. By the time he entered the Australian National University, his obvious choice was Chinese language and history. One report even claimed that Rudd has the Chinese character “solidarity” tattooed on his arm.  

Chinese Premier Hu Jintao is said to have liked Rudd so much that he invited the latter and his family to be his guests at the Beijing Olympics. And this was even before the election. When the results rolled in signalling the end of Howard’s era, Premier Hu was among the earliest to congratulate him.  

But Rudd, who has also declared his strong Christian faith, must surely be aware that once the honeymoon period is over, the press would be less kind to him.  

He may have his language skills and foreign policy credentials but he is relatively new on the political scene. Howard has led Australia for the past 11 years and the country’s economy has done extremely well under his charge.  

Nicholas Stuart, a journalist and author of a recent Rudd biography, said few people “even within the Labor Party” know what the new Prime Minister really stands for.  

“Rudd is like a glass and we’re pouring our hopes and our ideas into him,” he said.  

Others said Rudd’s policies would not be any different from Howard’s, especially those linked to Australia’s current economic boom.  

In fact, Australia’s media reported that not only were the two contenders similar, they even shook the hands of the same voters, kissed the same babies and appeared at the same places.  

But while Howard, 68, enjoyed his cowboy image as the deputy sheriff of George Bush, Rudd can be expected to take a softer stance on international issues, given his diplomatic training.  

Rudd has also put environment on his priority list, reflecting his clear understanding of the sentiments of the younger voters. And his “bring the boys home for Christmas” announcement, in withdrawing the Aussie troops from Iraq, certainly struck a popular chord.  

Rudd has no doubt studied Sun Tzu’s Art of War well, given his interest in Chinese history, and is surely charting his next moves. The world, especially China, will be closely watching.