VINCENT CHEOK. Understanding China and the Chinese – An Australian Perspective – Part 2.

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.

And so unlike most ordinary Americans who have never travelled overseas unless they are going to war we Australians are lucky in that it is cheaper for us to travel to Bali or Kuala Lumpur or Singapore or Bangkok for our holidays, then it is to travel and have our holidays within Australia. And unlike us, most Americans would not have heard of Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta or Bali. We are in ‘Austral-Asia’!  We are part of or part of us is with Asia. We ordinary Australians interact with ‘Chinese’ people everyday in our lives, particularly if we reside in the main Australian capital cities. We have Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke to thank for this. Most of the ‘boat-people’ from Vietnam were ‘Chinese diaspora’. Then we had a surge of Chinese migrants (students allowed to stay) after Tiananmen. And in recent years we have hordes of Chinese tourists from the Mainland. And this is not counting the number of overseas students from Mainland China at our Universities. Mind you, the number of overseas Chinese diaspora students, like I was, from former British colonies in the Far East have also increased dramatically since my time. It is not just the number of Chinese around us in our daily life and the consequent familiarity we have with them that has promoted or increase our propensity to understand them. It is also the resultant cross-fertilisation or cross-acceptance of our different traditions and culture that is truly significant, and this is obvious in the changing profile of Australian standard food cuisine and fruit and vegetables that we eat. Take Sydney today as an illustration. You are virtually ‘one to one’ with China and the Chinese diaspora, not just in Chinatown but also Ashfield, Burwood, Strathfield, Bankstown, Canley Vale, Cabramatta, Chatswood, Eastwood, Carlingford. Unlike America, here in Australia we consider Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian food as standard fare, as it had with Greek, Italian, Lebanese food etc. Australian Food is simply ‘fusion’. And ‘fusion’ is how we Australians view China and the Chinese. Our understanding has grown a long way from mundane Cantonese ‘chop suey’ and chiko rolls such that we now have an ability to distinguish the parochial and dialectical differences between the different Shanghai, Sichuan, Xinjiang (Sinkiang), Yunnan, Peking, Taiwan, Hakka and other cuisine

It is not as if there should still remain in our psyche an inherent fear of the ‘unknown’ in the Chinese as it was the case in the past, in our pre-Federation anglospheric era. We were not a multicultural society then. We are now. And the Australian population were not well travelled nor well educated then. Now, with internet and travel and almost every Tom Dick or Harry having a basic university education it is a brand new Australia. We are a global-oriented minded Australia. We have learnt from the mistake of our Founders in the xenophobia of the White Australia Policy.

Yet without us knowing it, deep in our true blue Australian ‘she’ll be right’ mateship soul and psyche we are all ‘Chinese’ when we are ‘fair dinkum’ Aussies. The Irish miners and the Irish Government Assayists of the Victorian gold fields (those days in Victoria all gold had to be sold to the Crown Treasury) would take the ‘Mickey’ out of the Chinese miners by saying their tendered gold was ‘false’ gold. In reply the Chinese miners would respond ‘Ding Kum! Ding Kum!’ (Genuine Gold! Genuine Gold!). And also as we now know, the Chinese were trading for trepang (beche de mer or sea cucumber) with the locals up in Arnhem Land long before Captain Cook came sailing by. So, we have had an ancient association with China and the Chinese. Guess why the locals in the Northern Territory call their local and most poisonous snake in the world ‘Tai Pan’? It is Chinese for ‘Big Disaster!’ But of course if you are not a Don Dunstan you would say – ‘total nonsense’.

If we accept however that even Chinese words are now part of our Australian ethos, how much more true is it not that we are in Asia’s doorstep, and that China and its diaspora extend all the way through ASEAN and to our immediate neighbour Indonesia? Can we argue with Amy Chua’s finding that the ASEAN economies are controlled by the Chinese diaspora? Would China be a threat to its own diaspora? I think not. It would be more like an umbrella of an insurance policy. And would it not be safer for Australia to piggy-ride by being quasi-ASEAN rather than flying ‘America First’? This is not a zero sum game to be based on the Thucydides Trap. Australia/America viz-a-viz China is not exactly Athens viz-a-viz Sparta speaking the same language and having the same mindset, psyche, culture and traditions. Any fear and self-egoistical interest might best be handled or managed with mutual respect as in the Ballad of East and West by Rudyard Kipling of the encounter between two incompatible cultures in the North West Frontier. Understanding comes from knowing that the East and West see through different lenses. The East sees panoramically in holistic breath and the West zooms in on the details and analytically. And that the East and West think differently. The East thinks in shades of grey to harmonise collectively the ever-changing phantasmagoria but the West sees in black and white terms and seeks individual certainty and ascendancy and authoritative rules. And that gets back to the starting point of understanding the Chinese continuing antiquity and survival being based on 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.

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


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5 Responses to VINCENT CHEOK. Understanding China and the Chinese – An Australian Perspective – Part 2.

  1. R. N. England says:

    Thank you, Vincent, for your words of understanding and peace.

    The new Chinese culture is different from the old in one key respect. The new China has absorbed science from the West, and steered clear of much of the rest. A very wise move! Traditional Chinese social cohesiveness was always superior to that of the foolishly individualist West. Science was the only thing the West had going for it, and allowed it to get ahead of China for a while.

    As for the xenophobia that is spewing out from the Australian media, may I suggest one thing. If enough of us refuse to click on xenophobic headlines, they will eventually go away, literally. That’s the way the profit-dependent media work. And when the xenophobic stories go, people won’t vote for xenophobic politicians.


  2. Jim KABLE says:

    Vincent: Back in the 1980s I recall (with some pretty strong support from a China-expert and from a colleague from Guandong) positing in a forum (SMH Column 8 I think – February 9, 1984) that “dinkum” was a “Four-Districts” dialect word meaning real gold. My thesis was that it was probably a gold-fields era word – 1850s/1860s. Almost immediately pooh-poohed. Nope! A little-known English regional dialect word meaning hard work! Interestingly this possible dialect word and meaning were not noted until the 1880s – and not entered in the first edition of the New English Dictionary (Based on Historical Principles) – later known as the Oxford English Dictionary. But what would I know! Even now via Google you can find references both ways – though for me – far more likely the Chinese origin. The proof in that seems to me proved by the response in favour of the dialect (Lincolnshire) English thesis – and lack of interest in examining the Chinese origin.

    Canada’s Governor-General 1999~2005 Adrienne CLARKSON (married to philosopher/historian John Ralston Saul) was born in Hong Kong in 1939. Her father William Ah Poy (1907-2002) was born in Chiltern in North-East Victoria – his father coming from Guandong. (Ethel) Henry Handel RICHARDSON in her novel The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (pub. from 1917->) has a Chinese character working his gold claim quite possibly based on William’s father with his red-haired Irish wife.

    Keep writing Vincent.

  3. Thanks Vincent for the insight into Chinese thinking. Your description in Part One of Taoism tallies with the experience of a colleague who has done business deals in China. He summarises Taoism in two words — anything goes.

    You note the Chinese have none of western liberalism’s concept of the individual, nor of Christianity’s right and wrong. On top of that a centralised, authoritarian, one-party government imposes disturbing levels of conformity using Orwellian technologies.

    To cap it off, China never experienced the moderate or civilised period of capitalism we associate with Keynesian policies of full employment. As the Chinese intellectual, Chongyi Feng who teaches in Sydney, observed: “The golden age of healthy and equitable development of the West during the 1950s and 1970s did not involve China at all.

    “What is praised as ‘The China Model’ is actually a strange brand and the worst form of capitalism combining communist brutality with neoliberal brutality.”

    All the above, I hope, is the polar opposite of our Australian values. That has nothing to do with America.

  4. mark elliott says:

    Careful Vincent,we are not used to thinkers in this country.Especially if your name is not smith or jones.And then no long dissertation on economics!! What is the world, or at least ,our world coming to.I thought your articles interesting but are they fair dinkum???

  5. Tony Kevin says:

    This article contains some brilliant insights about Australia and the profound influence of the Chinese diaspora influence on our history and contemporary society. As Vincent says, we are not ‘next to’ China, we are actually ‘in’ China’s doorstep, as are the ASEAN countries. The so-called clash between Australia/US and China exists only at the level of Australia’s political-military-intelligence elites and their media voices , and is a result of ANZUS institution- building since 1945, Five Power Intelligence Sharing,
    and concerted overt and covert American efforts of cultural diplomacy over many years to draw Australian governing elites in as close military-political-intelligence allies. Those efforts redoubled after the Whitlam era scare. So now, at the Canberra higher national security bureaucracy level – government departments except DFAT, military and national security agencies – a real fear of China exists. It is a reality, as we were reminded at a recent AIIA academic conference at ANU last week. But even at this level, the Chinese perspective is being heard and defended. We had an openminded discussion there on the merits of both sides ‘ arguments on the South China Sea dispute. Among young educated Australians , Sinophobia does not exist. It is a preoccupation of a few angry old white men (and one or two women) whose mental maps are shaped by their career history. In these and other important ways, Australians and Americans are already profoundly different . These differences will widen in coming years.

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