Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Fears over Chinese need perspective [The Age]


Australia: Despite Australia’s past of actually having government policy that attacked the ‘industrious’ Chinese presence in the late 19th century (sparked by White miners’ resentment towards industrious Chinese diggers… the word industrious comes from this blurp from the Australian government’s immigration website), they just keep on coming. First they came for the gold, a century odd later, they are back to acquire more –  farmland and agriculture are in focus now, but with a stronger bargaining chip this time – Chinese growth is the reason why Australia’s economy (maybe in a sense, skewed as it is so resource-centric at the moment) is doing so well. The Aussie dollar has been mightily strong, pipping the USD which made for recent travel around the world lighter on the pockets, well, thanks to Chinese domestic industry and thirst for infrastructure.

Summed up, and put into perspective and a little tongue in cheek to reflect the myopia in such a view… – ‘Indeed, Australians seem happy to enjoy a lifestyle funded heavily by Chinese demand for our resources. But now they’re coming out here and buying farms, as if they were from any of the other numerous foreign nationalities that have owned Australian land for the past 200 years … why, that’s a step too far, apparently. Next they’ll want to dig for gold again.’

And the perspective needed? – In what is known inelegantly as a ”globalised” world, any economy that tried to remain an island would sink without trace.

– – –

Fears over Chinese need perspective
Tony Wright, National Affairs Editor
Source – The Age, published July 2, 2011

IF YOU were to employ the eye of an archaeologist along an old track starting at the seaside village of Robe across the South Australian border and head into Victoria, crossing the Glenelg River at Casterton, skirting the Grampians and wending your way to Ballarat and Bendigo, you would find evidence of an astonishing journey that is all but unknown these days.

You might find the remnants of market gardens planted every 20 kilometres or so. If you looked hard enough you’d come across the remnants of wells dug to slake the thirst of worn-down travellers. In the dust you might even uncover strange coins with holes bored in them – ”holey dollars” discarded in disgust when their bearers discovered they were worthless in Australia. Here, then, is a forgotten road taken by thousands of Chinese into the heart of the Australian story.

As the Greens and the Nationals and Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten wrestle with the current spectre of Chinese interests buying up Australian farmland for mining, let’s puddle around in the past in order to seek a little perspective.

What happened in Robe and on the road east to Victoria a century and a half ago remains instructive about Australia’s ambivalent relationship with the Chinese and the futility of using heavy-handed rules to keep a determined people at bay.

Robe is nothing these days beyond a rather lovely little fishing port. Known for its crayfish, it sits within Guichen Bay about 130 kilometres beyond the Victorian border, which is why it became important so long ago to the Chinese.

As the hopeful and the desperate hustled to Victoria from all points of the world in the 1850s to seek their rake-off of the gold said to be there for the taking, the colonial authorities became alarmed by the arrival of shiploads of Chinese.

It was all right, apparently, for cut-throats and vulgarians and conmen and ladies of a certain reputation to stream in from California, Ireland and Britain, populating the diggings like a cast from Deadwood. The more the merrier, as long as they weren’t Chinese.

No matter that the Chinese arrivals worked harder and lived quieter than just about everyone else on the goldfields. Why, they wore pigtails, ate rice and vegetables instead of mutton, smoked opium instead of drinking rotgut, didn’t speak English and just looked different. And because most of them had taken out loans to get to Australia and maintained responsibility for their families, they sent home any money they made.

So unpopular were the Chinese that by 1855, four years after the rush began, the government passed an act imposing a £10 poll tax for each Chinese passenger landed at a Victorian port. This was about the same as a passenger’s entire fare from China. To make it harder, ships were limited to carrying one Chinese passenger for each 10 tons of the ship’s weight. To top it off, a stiff duty was applied to opium.

The lucrative Chinese transport business looked endangered until the wily old captains studied the map. There was no poll tax in South Australia, the state authorities levied a much smaller tax on opium than those in Victoria, and the port of Robe was just beyond Victoria’s border (although about 440 kilometres from the gold diggings). The first ship-load of ”celestials” arrived in Robe in 1857. They were the first of more than 16,000 of their nation’s fellows to pass through the tiny town (population 200 at the time) and set off on the long, fraught trek to Ballarat, Bendigo and Beechworth.

Groups were guided for a fee by bullockies across the strange, sparsely populated countryside.

Some of the smarter entrepreneurs dropped off long before the goldfields and established market gardens to feed the stream of travellers to come. Wells were dug to guarantee fresh water. Many hung their belongings from wooden yokes balanced on their shoulders, and for decades afterwards scores of these yokes, tossed aside by the exhausted, were found rotting by the track.

In short, Victoria’s shamefully xenophobic legislation failed utterly. The Chinese, like all the others desperate for a chance at fortune, kept coming. They simply found another route around the regulations, however difficult it may have proved, and struck out for gold.

Once gold fever receded, Australian politicians sought a more drastic solution. The White Australia policy was aimed at keeping Chinese out of Australia, even if no country town considered itself complete unless it had a Chinese restaurant. The policy achieved little but ensured that Australia played no constructive part in its own geographic region for more than half the 20th century, artificially propping up its economy behind a protective wall that stultified innovation while Asia set about preparing itself as the power of the century to come.

And here we are. In 2011, there is uproar because Chinese companies have bought 47 NSW farms at a cost of $213 million. The federal government, apparently caught by surprise and assailed by the Greens and Nationals, is scrabbling to find out who owns what in the nation’s agricultural areas and considering how (or whether) it can limit foreign ownership.

Yet ever since Europeans arrived in Australia, foreign interests have owned great swaths of the nation’s land, resources, industry and infrastructure. Australia’s population and domestic wealth have never been enough to drive the sort of development its inhabitants demand. In what is known inelegantly as a ”globalised” world, any economy that tried to remain an island would sink without trace.

Indeed, Australians seem happy to enjoy a lifestyle funded heavily by Chinese demand for our resources. But now they’re coming out here and buying farms, as if they were from any of the other numerous foreign nationalities that have owned Australian land for the past 200 years … why, that’s a step too far, apparently. Next they’ll want to dig for gold again.

By all means Australia should work out who owns what, set its own rules on what can and what can’t be sold and debate the wisdom or lack of it in allowing foreign investment in food-growing land.

But before the Greens and Nationals run away with themselves trying to argue that the Chinese are different because their businesses are effectively owned by the Chinese government, the story of Robe ought to be recalled. It’s not just wrong-headed to single out a nationality for special treatment. It doesn’t work.

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Filed under: Australia, Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese overseas, Culture, Domestic Growth, Economics, History, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Public Diplomacy, Social, Strategy, The Age, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, White Australia

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