WANNING SUN. China finding its place in the world.

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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5 Responses to WANNING SUN. China finding its place in the world.

  1. David Brown says:

    pity we have a federal government that is purely inward and self-serving and therefore useless to Australia …..

  2. David Brown says:

    good to read some informed discussion of peoples attitudes …… from any of the “diasporas” respresented in Australia (Indian?)

  3. Barney Zwartz says:

    There is no doubt that ethnic Chinese have made an immense contribution in Australia since gold rush days. Or that Chinese are like many other ethnic groups in having a harmless double identity as Australians and members of their original community. Turks, Lebanese, Jews, Indians provide obvious examples – just watch the Indians at the cricket when India tours Australia.

    BUT. There is also no doubt that some Chinese living in Australia have loyalties to the PRC before Australia. I heard it directly from a most authoritative source that ASIO and the intelligence agencies are devoting far more attention to Chinese Australians than to potential Muslim terrorists. They must have reasons for such priorities.

    So let’s not be naive about this. Scott Morrison was scurrilous in suggesting that any concerns about Gladys Liu were racist and a smear against all ethnic Chinese in Australia. They were legitimate concerns about ONE Chinese Australian. Morrison’s cheap and lazy sneer was exactly the line Beijing runs – that any concerns are predicated on racism. In my view, if Chinese want to live in Australia – and they are very welcome – they cannot also be agents of influence for the PRC, which is not a benevolent power towards Australia.

    • R. N. England says:

      Beijing wants to continue trading with Australia, and opening up to Australia’s science and education community. The deals Chinese companies and individuals make with us have kept the Australian economy much stronger than it would have been otherwise. Criticisms leveled by Beijing at Canberra, which are no more than a response to its hostile behaviour towards them, are diplomatic and well deserved. There is no reason why Chinese people who think well of their own government, and are prepared to say why, should be treated with suspicion and hostility in Australia. The achievements of the Chinese government in the last 40 years are probably greater than that of any government in history.

      Chinese in Australia should be much prouder of their home government than we could ever be of ours. Australians are still, on the whole, an attractive people who treat each other, and strangers well. Australians would get better rather than worse if they were more strongly encouraged to look after the less fortunate, especially other species, and did not have self-interest constantly touted to them as some kind of moral imperative by the creeps they are persuaded to elect.

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