WANNING SUN. Australia’s nation-building must start re-imagining Chinese-Australians as part of the ‘national self’, not the nation’s ‘internal Other

Australia is now home to more than 1.3 million citizens of Chinese heritage. They have been profoundly alienated.

Any sound nation-building policies and practices that seek to shape Australian identity must value and acknowledge the significant role this community plays in constructing the multicultural society we have today.

Over the past decade or so, I have investigated how Australia’s Mandarin-speaking, first-generation migrants from the People’s Republic of China adapt to Australia’s citizenship practices, learn how democracy works, and articulate their dual identity as both a person of Chinese heritage and an Australian citizen. My research has made it abundantly clear that a Chinese migrant who is now a naturalised Australian citizen can have a deep cultural attachment with China and a genuine love of Australia at the same time.

Yet, in the current debate on China’s influence, the loyalty of these new citizens has been frequently called into question. Typically, the mere mention of PRC students and migrants by the media conjures up a popular narrative that alleges their overriding patriotism towards China, at best, and their role as agents of Chinese influence, at worst. Too often in the debate, the fact that these are rights-bearing Australian citizens is forgotten.

The Chinese community has been profoundly alienated by this process.

There is now a widely shared view within the Chinese diaspora community in Australia that Chinese Australians are increasingly becoming collateral damage in the escalating diplomatic tensions between China and Australia. The media, public commentators and politicians imagine this community mostly in terms of transactional relationships – either as subjects to be managed for their potential connections with the Chinese government, or as ethnic voters to be wooed during election campaigns. In such imaginings, they’re often reduced to individuals whose rights as Australian citizens have become less relevant than their pre-determined identity as ethnic Chinese, and they are called on to choose between Australia and China – us or them – as if they were individuals without any cultural, emotional or cognitive ambivalence and tensions.

Chinese migration to Australia has always been an essential part of Australian multicultural history. The great majority of Chinese migrants in this country happily and proudly call Australia home, and strongly identify with Australia’s cultural and social values. But there seems to be a huge blind spot in the narrative of the ‘untrustworthy PRC diaspora’: modern China has experienced only one-party rule. These migrants, and those who remain in China, did not choose to live in a Communist country. They were born into that system. It’s not that there’s the CCP and one or more opposition parties, and that Chinese people have chosen to side with the CCP. It’s therefore not only unfair but also illogical to assume that citizens of the PRC – or PRC migrants – are loyal to the CCP simply because they live – or have lived – in a nation that happens to be ruled by the CCP.

I currently lead a research team, funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant, to investigate the cultural citizenship practices of PRC Chinese communities in Australia and their use of Chinese-language digital social media. We have published some of these findings in peer-reviewed journals, and while our research is ongoing, we’re already fully convinced that this is an extremely heterogeneous cohort, marked by great diversity in terms of class background, education level and cosmopolitanism, as well as in their political distance from the PRC. We’ve conducted large-scale surveys, in-depth interviews and longitudinal ethnographic research. Our surveys suggest that PRC migrants don’t always side with the Chinese government on matters of political policy (just as non-Chinese Australians don’t always side with the Australian government on such matters). Most of our survey respondents were very happy to promote Australia, and many of them were already active in doing so. Our careful analysis of the content of Australia’s Chinese-language media suggests that they are not functioning merely as a blunt and unquestioning tool of the Chinese government and its state media; nor are they just a ventriloquist for mainstream English-language media. Rather, wedged between a frequently anti-Chinese public rhetoric in Australia’s mainstream media and anti-Australian responses in China’s state media, this sector seems to exist profitably by actively giving voice to PRC migrants’ sense of ambivalence towards both Australia and China. And our engaged ethnographic interaction with more than 40 WeChat groups of PRC migrants indicates that there is a very high level of enthusiasm among first-generation PRC migrants to learn about democratic values, practices and processes.

Throughout the summer months when Australia’s bushfires burned, I closely followed how PRC Chinese migrants used WeChat to organise fund-raising events and mobilise fellow citizens to make donations for bushfire victims; how they spread stories about volunteer fire-fighters of Chinese heritage and other generous and compassionate non-Chinese Aussies; and how they engaged in heated debate on the relationship between climate change and bushfires. Their reason for doing these things was simple: as one Chinese community organisation put it, ‘Australia is our home’.

I have been equally impressed with the high level of civic consciousness and community effort on the part of the Chinese community during the current CORVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis. For the sake of their own health and the health of the public, Australian permanent residents and citizens who have returned to Australia from China since late January have voluntarily opted to quarantine themselves by staying at home for 14 days. They have used WeChat to reinforce the importance of home isolation, offer moral encouragement to each other, and provide practical support. Thousands of volunteers, organized through WeChat, have sprung up in various Australian cities to help deliver food, groceries and daily necessities for the home-confined.

Chinese migration to Australia has always been an essential part of Australian multicultural history. Various diasporic Chinese communities in Australia have played important roles in Australia’s political, social, cultural and economic maturation. Australia is now home to more than 1.3 million citizens of Chinese heritage. Australia’s nation-building policies must start re-imagining this community as part of the ‘national self’, rather than as the nation’s ‘internal Other’. And any sound policies and practices that seek to shape Australian identity must value and acknowledge the significant role this community plays in constructing the multicultural society we have today.

Part of this article is extracted from a submission to the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Committee Inquiry into National Identity, Nationhood and Democracy, which was held in Canberra on 14 February 2020.

Wanning Sun FAHA is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney.

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3 Responses to WANNING SUN. Australia’s nation-building must start re-imagining Chinese-Australians as part of the ‘national self’, not the nation’s ‘internal Other

  1. Kevin Bain says:

    John Fitzgerald’s 2007 book ‘Big White Lie’ provides much evidence that Chinese people in Australia at the time of Federation were largely enthusiastic about individualism, egalitarianism and mateship, wrongly appropriated as ‘Australian’ cultural values which the supposedly cruel, deferential and self-interested Chinese couldn’t understand (despite 1/3 of them being Christian). Not only were there significant groups in Australia plotting to modernise China, just like the Irish were plotting home rule, but they celebrated Federation as cosmopolitans hoping to become Australian subjects of the British empire. (JF says they were sentimental dreamers too.)

    But it’s not playing identity politics to be sympathetic to Clive Hamilton’s argument that there’s a clash of political cultures (not “civilisations”). Imperial China and the People’s Republic are different species, the latter having an interventionist capacity.

  2. Evan Hadkins says:

    Foreign students aren’t citizens. The government of China is quite able to exert influence on them via their families still resident in China.

    Distinguishing visitors and citizens is relevant.

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