Not Yet, But Maybe Soon
The notion of a multicultural society is difficult for many people to accept, and not only because they yearn for the purity of a singular description. If a city, a region or even a country is multicultural, how do we define its multiculture? Of the many definitions proposed for culture, perhaps the best is that it provides a common system of signs and signals by which a group of people can function as a group of people. In a sense, culture is the sum of our presumptions, the net of our possibilities.
So the coexistence of more than one culture, as distinct cultures in themselves, would seem impossible in the same society. As a policy, multiculturalism has always stumbled at this hurdle, failing to satisfactorily negotiate the hazards of divergent cultural practices, discrepant ways of living, juxtaposed against each other.
Perhaps that’s why the Chinese government calls minority ethnic groups ‘nationalities’ – it skirts the issue, places them at the edges of supranational life, with their own cultural spheres only loosely connected to the Han whole. Conceptually, assimilation isn’t an issue because minority cultures either continue at the margins or disappear as the centre expands. There’s no room for compromise.
This is quite obviously a case of xenophobia, but so then are the many failures of coexistence in Western societies. Allow me to give a brief example that involves not ethnic cleansing – nothing so extreme – but merely the pursuit of everyday life.
Over the long decade of recently ended conservative rule in Australia the government shrank back from adequately contemplating how a mess of cultures – at once singular and interdependent – could satisfy the dominant culture’s need to be recognised as the universal Australian culture. People in the majority no longer considered themselves British, as my grandparents did, but were encouraged to maintain the sort of systematic biases that allowed them to go about their cultural lives in much the same way.
The newly elected Labor government has done little to reverse this myopia. Australians tend to accept that they live and speak and write in a multicultural society without much considering the multiples beyond cuisine and unusual faces glimpsed quickly on sometimes crowded streets.
So we have much the same situation in two very different countries, which suggests that despite an enormous amount of chest thumping around the world – both in an out of academia – very little has been done to reconcile the urge for an illusory national unity with the accidents of history that people every country with groups never quite fitting the norm. It is within this climate of disguised cultural indecision that Professor George T. ‘Sam’ Crane at The Useless Tree asks an intriguing question. Can a black man ever become Chinese?
The most obvious answer, and one that Professor Crane points out early on, is no. A black man – or a white woman for that matter – can become a Chinese national, or in other words hold a Chinese passport. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Yet the notion of being Chinese in China is strictly tied to being a member of the Han supra-ethnic group, even though ethnically Cantonese people, for instance, are quite dissimilar to their northern compatriots.
Professor Crane argues that China is already multicultural in that it has multiple cultures within its borders (and some, I should add, not entirely happy to be there). But the influx of foreigners and an increase in intermarriage as China’s economy has expanded means that it has the long-run potential to host those cultures in ways less restrictive than it currently embraces. Although I would argue that this notion of a multiculture is still very much tied up in the cultural indecision I mentioned earlier – to endure multiple cultures is not the same as to grapple with the ways in which they can co-exist in a sort of social competition – Professor Crane offers an important example of how perceptions of culture and change are being reconfigured in the developing world today.
Given the profound transformation afoot in China, given the choice between abject poverty and barely controlled development that the Chinese leadership had little choice but to take, the country stands as an exemplar of the often ignored notion that the global economy is not just about multinationals and men in suits. It’s also about multiple nations and a multitude of men, women and sometimes children in factories and fields. Economies are conglomerations of people, engaged in exchange. And with that exchange comes the necessity for openness, not only of banking systems but also of attitudes.
Professor Crane writes about those people who China has attracted from afar, those who have stayed not only for the benefit of an expat package and a cut-price maid. He asks where they fit in a society struggling to maintain its singularity. And he suggests, gently, that
If Chinese multiculturalism does not deepen, if whites and blacks and other racial and ethnic groups cannot become Chinese, China will discourage the very people it has invited to understand its language and culture; and in the process it will be limiting the global market for its cultural products and undermining its world-wide political influence.
It’s a gentle suggestion because Professor Crane doesn’t expect an ethnic revolution even if China manages to nurture multiculturalism. He expects the country to remain most influenced by the Han peoples. There could be turmoil ahead, but the Chinese have long absorbed external influences; people often forget the significance of the Mongols and the Manchurians to Han Chinese history.
What we’re left with is the possibility that the contours of Chinese culture, of a future Chinese multiculture, could well cough up an understanding of ethnic interaction that will aid us all in coexisting within tight and trying social spaces. So allow me to juxtapose China and Australia once more, with a little Hong Kong thrown in because that’s my home. The current Lord Mayor of Melbourne is John So, a Hong Kong Chinese Australian. In a geo-political sense he’s marking time; what we need now is an Australian Hong Konger mayor of Beijing. That’s an intriguing possibility, an important possibility. My youngest daughter has just started school. Perhaps she’ll move north in time . . .