My parents were Hakka Chinese from Malaysia. I came to Australia as a minor in 1968 and have been here ever since. The first time that I knew I was ‘special’ as a Chinese was when I was working in a rural town in South Australia over Christmas 1968 while waiting for my matriculation results. An old lady ‘encountered’ me on Main Street and tapped me solidly on the shoulder. I immediately thought I was being reprimanded. ‘Touch a Chinaman for good luck!’ – she said with great rapturous glee and hilarity, and then rushed off.
I grew up under Don Dunstan as Premier of South Australia. He married Adele Koh from Penang, Malaysia. The founder of Adelaide, Colonel William Light turned out to be the son of Captain Francis Light who founded Penang for the British. The Australian Torrens Title System started in 1858 by the S.A. Premier Sir Robert Torrens was in fact based on its predecessor the Labuan Registration of Land Titles 1849 in the British colony of Labuan. Thus another Malaysian connection. This British Colonial outpost connection with Australia extended from Malaya to its kindred like Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak, Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong. And most of these early batches of ‘Colonial’ overseas students to Australia were, like me, of ‘Chinese’ descent. And today of course most of the overseas students in Australia are ‘Chinese’ from China. But what is meant by this salient word – ‘Chinese’?
This is the first understanding required of the West – that of China as a ‘duality’. Firstly, China as a modern Westphalian geographical entity or nation and secondly, China as a continuing living antiquity of a civilisation or socio-cultural state (‘Middle Kingdom’) of the Chinese people, as applied both in China and in its vast diaspora overseas. As they say in equity law – ‘spirit and substance’ transcend ‘manner and form’. China and the Chinese see themselves ‘geopolitically’ in ‘spirit and substance’ as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ rather than the geographical ‘manner and form’ that had been dictated by Westphalian concepts and values. So, like many of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia or in other parts of the world, I am still wearing two ‘hats’. As any Australian who has been to Bali too and indeed, to other parts of ASEAN, would have observed, the Chinese diaspora retain their ‘Chinese-ness’, and some Mainland Chinese would even say that the Chinese diaspora is even more ‘Chinese’ than they are!
Take careful note of this issue of ‘socio-cultural-ness’ as it will also arise soon enough with India – as it re-emerges as a global power equal and similar to China in its own unique antiquity of an Indus civilisation or socio-cultural state of Hindutva or ‘Mother India’. Likewise India would be similarly set with intent on reverting and restoring itself to its past glory, as it was before the invasion and humiliation by foreign ‘conquerors’. In other words, what the West is having difficulty now with in understanding China and the Chinese will be replicated in their foreseeable difficulty in understanding India and the Indians of the Hindutva.
Of course, it would be much easier for China to overcome the ‘humiliation’ by and to rectify or remedy the malfeasance, inequities and excesses of the Colonial Powers.
Firstly, there is no consequential religious divide unlike in the Indian sub-continent. The Three Pillars of Chinese Society (Taoism, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism) are atheist spiritual or humanistic philosophies. Christianity and Islam and other ‘true faiths or religions’ are ‘licensed’ by the Chinese State to be strictly a private and personal devotion. This goes back to the paramount Taoist tenet of ‘harmony’ above all things, as inherent in the Taoist yin/yang or wei/wu-wei (action/inaction) principle of duality or inversion of and in all things. Thus anything self-declared to be absolute, immutable and ultimate in truth is perversive, divisive and heterodox. ‘Harmony’ is in accepting that one man’s truth or food is equally another man’s poison. This Taoist tenet or dictum of ‘harmony’ is pervasive across all manner of human endeavours and interactions in Chinese socio-cultural thought. Thus human rights cannot be seen in individual or absolute terms but collectively (for in Confucian thought the family is the ‘basic unit’ in society) and in subjective, relative and dualistic terms. Collective ‘rights’ in this Chinese sense must go hand in hand, in tandem, in ‘yin and yang’, with collective ‘duties and responsibilities’. The concept of an ‘individual’ in a public sense (i.e. outside the ‘house’) is totally abhorrent to the exhortation under the Three Pillars of Chinese Society that there is no ‘Ego of a Self’, that it is a mirage of an illusion. All things are interdependent ‘one in all and all in one’ in collective corporeality The basic unit is always a yin and yang dichotomy or duality, like family of a father and mother, like the two sides to a coin, or the moon has a bright and dark side. And so in subjectivity and relativity that is duality there is no absolute right or wrong or absolute good or bad. There is only the cyclic nature of ‘yin and yang’ in consort! What goes around comes around!
And secondly, as much as China refuses to recognise the geographical borders that were unilaterally drawn up by the Colonial Powers without China’s consent with India, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Philippines, it is nevertheless in pragmatic terms prepared to take these borders as a ‘starting’ or preliminary arrangement for discussion. For the ‘Middle Kingdom’ is a notional abstract from antiquity. Only the Western mindset drew or would draw dots and dashes and lines as borders. In the Orient borders were broad unspecific margins or corridors of mountain ranges and deserts and seas. China is however retaining ‘territories’ not normally considered as part of the ‘Middle Kingdom’, like Xinjiang (Sinkiang), Tibet, Manchuria, Mongolia or parts thereto that it inherited from its conquerors the Mongols and the Manchus as reparations. China sees the South China Sea in this suzerainty sense of the border corridors of its ‘Middle Kingdom’. Western borders and Westphalian rules are irrelevant in this sense.
I assure you that it is not easy to lose your ‘Chinese-ness’, just as it is not easy to lose your ‘Jewishness’, if you were a Jew. I am a 3rd generation overseas Chinese diaspora in Malaysia! It is a sense of ‘belonging’ that goes beyond geographical borders or even religious faiths or generations. It is in the socio-cultural DNA.
Just in case you are beginning to doubt where I might be going, what I am leading to is that America First is not necessarily Australia First. That is, leaving aside the biological or human tendencies to be ‘tribal’ or sectarian etc, in my opinion, the Australian perspective, mindset and psyche as to how China and the Chinese are viewed must obviously be different from the Americans. It is and must in fact be based on our Australian historical experience and relationship and our close geographical and time zone proximity with China and the Chinese. That narrative will follow in the next instalment.
Vincent Cheok is a retired lawyer and accountant. He worked in the Australian Taxation Office, HK Inland Revenue, PNG Internal Revenue Commission, SA Crown Law and later as a corporate and fiscal lawyer in private sector.