Wandering China

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

Exploring the China syndrome: prosperity without profile [The Age]


Post White-Australia policy and Chinese Australians not having a say in the national conversation: A look into the willingess of political engagement in the overseas Chinese mind, transplanted down under.

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Exploring the China syndrome: prosperity without profile
By Tom Hyland
Source – The Age, published January 15, 2012.

Wesa Chau, a former Young Victorian of the Year, says ethnic Chinese are under-represented in public life. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

THE kids, says Hong Lim, are doing fine. They have degrees, professions, and lots are driving a Mercedes. Life’s good.

But the state Labor MP says there is something missing in this success story for a growing middle class of Chinese Australians: they don’t have a say in the national conversation.

”There is no voice, no effective body at the national level, for Chinese Australians,” says Mr Lim, the sole Asian in State Parliament. ”This is not right. Because of the sheer numbers, the sheer wealth, the sheer brain power they have, they should have something more.”

Ideas emerging from the council challenge the stereotype of a politically passive community. They insist Australia confronts its history of anti-Chinese racism and educate its children about it. They question why Asian faces are absent from our TV screens. They challenge political parties – and the Chinese community itself – to deal with the lack of ethnic Chinese MPs. And while they say it’s time the Chinese had a voice, they admit the diversity of the community prevents any one group from claiming to represent it.

In the 2006 census, more than 700,000 Australians – almost 4 per cent of the population – traced a Chinese ancestor. Some 380,000 residents were born in China, making them the third-largest overseas-born group after Britons and New Zealanders.

Chinese language speakers are the second-largest language group after English. Yet these numbers are not reflected in public life, says Chek Ling, a convenor of the Chinese Community Council of Australia.

”Apart from Penny Wong, the Finance Minister, there’s hardly anyone you can recognise,” he says. ”They are not on TV, not public intellectuals, or human rights or social justice activists. There are none in the judiciary.

”We are seen as very good as surgeons, accountants, doctors, but there seems to be a sort of gatekeeping at a cultural level, so the Chinese are not able to have a voice.” Jen Tsen Kwok, who is writing a PhD on Chinese Australian engagement in politics, cautions against any assumption of a homogenous Chinese community.

Instead, there are diverse communities made of different strands: descendants of 19th century migrants who survived the White Australia policy; students from Malaysia and Singapore who came in the late 1950s and 1960s; refugees from Indochina in the late 1970s; and the surge of migrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China from the late 1980s.

”There are not many ethnic groups like the Chinese who come from so many diverse source nations and have such diverse experiences, so to try to construct a single narrative around political engagement is very difficult,” Mr Kwok says.

There are also historical factors inhibiting their political engagement. War and revolution in China over the past century had a ”blanketing effect on the desire to engage politically”. Many Chinese from south-east Asia had also experienced discrimination, which made them reluctant to engage in politics.

There is also Australia’s history of racism and the White Australia Policy, introduced largely to keep Chinese out.

Ethnic Chinese aspiring to elected office also face resistance from political parties. In some cases their ethnicity works against them, Mr Kwok says. They are seen as outsiders, while in New South Wales they are regarded primarily as sources of funds.

Anthony Pun, national president of the community council, says Labor and the Liberals in NSW have seen Chinese candidates as ”Asian cash cows”.

”Sometimes we think we are just the money bags, and whenever they want we’ll open the coffers and after that they forget who we are,” Dr Pun says. ”Both major parties have shown this tendency.”

Francis Lee has experience of the NSW ALP’s expectations. He was left disillusioned after failing to win preselection for Parliament and Sydney Council. In his last attempt, he says party bosses quizzed him on how much money he could bring to the party. He lost out to a Liberal defector with greater financial clout.

”The parties were interested in money, rather than the quality or the talent of the candidates,” he says. Even so, he sees a renewed interest in Chinese involvement in politics, with the focus on local government. At least 10 ethnic Chinese are active in local government in Melbourne, with a similar number in Sydney.

Mr Lee says any ethnic Chinese candidate faces obstacles beyond the slog of day-to-day politics. ”They have to overcome resistance from voters on a racial basis,” he says. ”It’s a lot harder for an Asian candidate, all other things being equal, to win a lower house seat.”

A former Victorian Liberal senator, Tsebin Tchen, sees positive signs in the number of Asians in local government and the fact Premier Ted Baillieu and Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews have appointed special advisers on the Chinese community.

Mr Tchen questions whether Chinese are under-represented in elected positions, as many are new arrivals with more immediate priorities than politics.

As for racial prejudice, he says some Australians will never vote for a Chinese, or a Muslim, for that matter, although he never experienced overt racism when he was in politics.

”I’m sure there were people who I’d spoken to who would not have voted for me in a fit. But I’m also sure there have been people who voted for me because I’m Chinese.”

Others are less sanguine. Mr Lim says the number of Chinese in Federal and State Parliaments – five – is minute compared with MPs from other, smaller ethnic groups, including Greeks, Turks and Italians.

A lack of representation meant a growing part of the community was denied services, such as settlement support and aged care. This was not a healthy situation.

”There’s almost a disdainful relationship towards the Chinese community, from governments in general, at all levels on both sides of politics, and that should be a concern.”

At the same time, he sees signs of younger Chinese becoming active in campus politics, political parties and community affairs.

There are people, he says, with a ”longing to belong” and believe playing a role in civic life is more important than owning a Mercedes.

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Filed under: Australia, Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Chinese overseas, Culture, Influence, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Politics, Social, The Age, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Uncategorized

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