Amanda Barry: Our countries will only become more intertwined

Interview By Molly O'Brien

Dr Amanda Barry is the founding Director of the Australian National University’s China Liaison Office and is responsible for deepening and strengthening the university’s China engagement across multiple research partnerships, as well as through student pathways, alumni relations, and industry engagement.

Moving to Beijing around the same time as the 2008 Olympics, Amanda has seen the city undergo incredible transformations over the space of a decade. 

Amanda spoke to Advance about her Beijing experiences, namely how she promotes Australian universities as a premier destination for international education, the Australian presence in Beijing, and what's changed in the vigorous city since she's been there.   

How did you come to be living and working in Beijing?

My husband is originally from Beijing and when we graduated from the University of Melbourne, we decided to give Beijing a try. He came here to start a business, I had just finished a Ph.D. in Australian History, so it was back to square one for me, professionally. It was around the time of the Olympics and a fascinating time to live here, and I started to build a career around education, focusing on the bilateral relationship. This took me into consulting where I worked with the Australian Embassy, Peking University, University of International Business and Economics and now, representing ANU in China. All the while, continuing to work on my Chinese language skills – that’s still a work-in-progress!

What prompted you to start the Australian National University’s China Liaison Office?

I wish I could take credit for the idea! In fact, it’s a strategic initiative of ANU, part of a 2017-21 Strategic Plan to strengthen the university’s role as the ‘national university’ and to embed the university internationally as well. China is such an important country for ANU, both in terms of student enrolments, but there are also deep and long-lasting research links across many fields.

The office was established in early 2017 as a way for ANU to more deeply engage in China with our students and alumni, and researchers, government, and industry.

What do you do to deepen and strengthen ANU’s China engagement across research, teaching, learning and student exchange?

It’s a collaborative effort with colleagues back on campus, working closely with our people as they engage in China to ensure that their relationships are working as well as they can. For example, ANU has an exciting joint laboratory in Shanghai which is quite innovative. I’m also always looking for opportunities in China for our students for internships, exchange, and study abroad. It’s a busy role and I love it, it’s an honour to represent ANU in China.

Why would you recommend Australian students considering an exchange as part of their studies to go to China?

Any overseas experience for students is incredibly enriching, no matter where they go or for how long. It’s the biggest regret of my own undergraduate years that I didn’t go on exchange or study abroad!

Coming to China, in particular, is eye-opening from a cultural and historical perspective, but it’s also a very pragmatic choice for young Australians – China is one of our largest trading partners and more and more Chinese students and tourists are choosing Australia as their destination. Our countries will only become more intertwined, culturally and economically, and young Australians will have a real edge in their career and life if they develop a deeper understanding of China from a young age.

How have you noticed Beijing evolve during the time you’ve lived there? Has it become more user-friendly for expats?

Beijing has definitely become an easier place to live in recent years,  and that goes for locals as well as expats. The rapid expansion of e-commerce and mobile phone payments and apps means we can order, buy and organise just about anything with a few swipes on our smartphone. That said, sometimes I do miss the old days, before the Olympics in Beijing there were fewer foreigners and perhaps more of a sense of adventure and discovery. These days Beijing is truly becoming an international city, and I just hope it doesn’t lose its distinctive characteristics in that process.

How would you describe Australia’s relationship with China? 

I think that the long-standing relationship between Australia and China is something both countries can be proud of. We focused a lot last year on the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations, which indeed is a remarkable milestone in the relationship. But in fact, the relationship goes back much further, almost 200 years to the Australian goldfields and Australia’s early colonisation. And from the very beginning, it has been about people, and that is where the strength of the relationship lies, it is in the long-term commitment of the millions of Australians and Chinese that travel, work and live between the two countries. For the relationship to prosper it’s just vital that this people-led engagement continues.

How do you promote Australian universities as a premier destination for international education?

Australia is so fortunate to have a strong, highly-ranked university sector which also covers an incredibly diverse range of disciplines and research areas. No matter what a student is interested in studying, they will be able to find a course to suit them in Australia. As a nation we also provide a very liveable and welcoming environment for international students, so lifestyle factors are definitely involved as well.

All that said, the international education sector continues to be a highly competitive one and so it’s incumbent on universities to continually engage in the market and communicate their advantages to prospective students. Recognising this, last year I worked with ANU to establish an official ‘WeChat’ account for the university, its first Chinese-language social media platform, to showcase ANU, engage our alumni back in China, build our stakeholder engagement. I’m pleased to say it’s going really well and I am learning a lot about the quirks of Chinese social media in the process. I also love getting out of Beijing to other parts of China to meet students and families and talk about ANU.

Is there a noticeable Australian presence in Beijing? If so, how would you describe it? 

The Australian presence in Beijing is definitely tangible! And it’s also really diverse. I enjoy being part of a community that counts business people, academics, journalists, diplomats, teachers, students, artists and performers in its ranks. And of course, it includes Chinese-Australians too. We share a deep interest in China and a commitment to the bilateral relationship. There are also a lot of families here which is great for us as we have a four-year-old girl. One of the hardest things living abroad is being away from family and friends at home, so it’s nice to have an Australian community right here in Beijing.