WANNING SUN. China finding its place in the world.

Dec 9, 2019

China.  Chinese Australians are feeling the heat, whether they support China or Australia

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 maturations. Yet now their loyalty to Australia has been unfairly questioned. 

The expression Chinese diaspora refers to Chinese who live outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. This is a broad term but it is possible to be more specific in Chinese. Huaqiao 华侨 used to refer to Chinese migrants who did not intend to leave for good. The PRC government has adopted the term to refer to Chinese living abroad, while Chinese who have adopted citizenship of their country of residence are haiwai huaren 海外华人.

In the scholarship of diaspora studies, some scholars believe that diaspora refers to second, third or fourth generation migrants. Others argue that descendants who are integrated into their host societies should not be described as diasporic. Often, Chinese diaspora is loosely used to describe all migrants of Chinese heritage. Thus described, the size of the Chinese diaspora globally has been on the rise. A 2012 report put the total population of Chinese overseas at around 50 million, but this figure has probably increased greatly since, given that Australia’s population of people of Chinese origin rose from around 749,000 in 2011 to some 1.2 million in the 2016 Census.

Migration from China to Australia started during British colonial rule. Intake of significant numbers directly from the PRC resumed in the late 1980s, after economic reforms started, with the implementation of an open-door policy in relation to study abroad. From the early 1980s, China was caught up in a sustained “fever of going abroad.” Australia quickly identified language education as a new market segment. Following the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, the Hawke government made a bold decision to allow 45,000 Chinese students and nationals to settle permanently.

As a result of greatly expanded intake since that time, Australia has seen a considerable increase in its Mandarin Chinese speaking population. With its reputation for clean environment and relaxed lifestyle, Australia became an attractive destination for China’s middle class, who value our quality of life. The estimated number of ethnic Chinese in Australia was 343,523 in 1996 but over 555,500 in 2001 and continued to rise to around 866,200 in 2011, with three quarters being first generation immigrants. There are currently about 1.2 million people of Chinese origin in Australia, approximately half born in mainland China and speaking Mandarin in the home. That is roughly five percent of the total population.

Despite this dramatic growth, this population is marked by considerable diversity in terms of place of origin, experience, cultural sensibility, and history and trajectory of migration, as well as by differences in politics, religion, ethnicity and ideological beliefs. Not only are there generational differences and degrees of connectedness between old and new migrant cohorts, there are also differences in identity politics between, for instance, mainlanders and Hong Kongers, between Han Chinese and Uighurs, and between Falun Gong supporters and PRC supporters. There is also much diversity in terms of their class backgrounds, education levels and cosmopolitanism, as well as in their political distance from the PRC government – even within the Mandarin-speaking migrant cohort.

Like other diasporic communities, the global Chinese diasporas are practitioners of “flexible citizenship”, in that they take advantage of “the cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement”, and “respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions”, while seeking to both circumvent and benefit from different nation-state regimes.

Whereas the PRC government used to regard overseas Chinese with some suspicion and ambivalence, more recently, especially as part of the official agenda to “go global”, it has encouraged them to promote Chinese culture, relay the government’s version of the “China Story” to the world, and generally promote PRC interests.

In contrast to the PRC engagement of migrants in its public diplomacy exercises, the Australian government has only recently turned its attention to ethnic communities in Australia as potential public diplomacy assets. According to the Public Diplomacy Strategy 2014–2016, Australia wants to be seen as a “contemporary, creative, successful, diverse and tolerant nation; and an attractive place to study, work, visit, live and invest.” This Strategy also proposes to “employ soft power for trade, investment and economic prosperity promotion.” Special mention is made of the diaspora communities that “not only play a key role in projecting contemporary Australia to the region, but also contribute to fostering a cohesive, harmonious and stable Australian society.” However, just how this will be accomplished is largely unexplored. So far there is little evidence that this public diplomacy agenda has translated into policy implementation.

In fact, Chinese Australians have found it increasingly hard to practise flexible citizenship and dual allegiance (to motherland and host nation). Caught in the tug-of-war, the Chinese diaspora has been experiencing growing pressure to declare allegiance to Australia and their loyalty has been called into question. Typically, mention of PRC students and migrants by the media conjures up the recently popular narrative alleging overriding patriotism towards the PRC and asserting their role as agents of Chinese influence. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hartcher even suggests that Australia should “consider changing the composition [of its migration intake] in favour of Chinese immigrants from places other than mainland China.”

There is a widely shared view within the Chinese diaspora community in Australia that they are collateral damage in the escalating diplomatic tensions between the PRC 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 PRC government or as ethnic voters to be wooed during election campaigns. In such imaginings, they are often reduced to individuals whose rights as citizens are less relevant than their pre-determined identity as ethnic Chinese, and they are called on to choose between Australia and the PRC – us or them – as if they were individuals without any cultural, emotional or cognitive ambivalence and tensions.

Chinese Australians are now feeling the heat, regardless of whether they support the PRC or Australia. And it is becoming even harder for those who refuse to choose.

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

See also links to previous articles in this China Series.

DAVID WALTON. China finding its place in the world.

YINGJIE GUO. China finding its place in the world.

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