In Response to a Reader’s Comment
The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.
First, the comment:
The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.
So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.
I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.
I did make an implicit comparison between China and Australia in the final paragraph, mediated by Hong Kong, where I’ve lived for the past six and a quarter years. I mentioned the former Hong Kong Chinese mayor of Melbourne in Australia (now ex-mayor), and went on to muse:
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 . . .
Taken out of context that could well look like a spit in the Chinese eye, but I began the paragraph by pointing to the possibility, what can seem like the enormous possibility, of China leading the world to a new type of purposeful multiculturalism. Here are the exact words:
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.
Earlier I mentioned that “people often forget the significance of the Mongols and the Manchurians to Han Chinese history”. So my insistence that China isn’t multicultural – and by extension that no country is yet multicultural – is historically bounded, looking at the past, considering the present, gazing hopefully towards the future.
This suggests the possibility that ‘yourfriend’ read the opening paragraphs, found something objectionable in a relatively complex argument, and didn’t read through to the end. Or that the objection to my characterization of ethnic relations in China as ‘xenophobic’, regardless of my inclusion of multiculturalism in Australia under the same banner, over-ruled any possible consideration of what else I was trying to say.
Interestingly enough, much of the post actually focused on a very considered examination of the multiple cultures in China by Professor George T. Crane at The Useless Tree – a post that might not impress many people, but nevertheless highlighted the same sort of promise in China that I did. ‘Yourfriend’ failed to mention any of Professor Crane’s positions that I discussed, which is a shame because the professor draws out an intriguing scenario of ethic change within the country.
The problem with any conversation is often that those who recognise the possibility of change and are not ready to accept the majority view of the present need to go back and explain that their comments are meant to move the subject on, into uncertain territory, not to attack what eternally ‘is’. Such is the case here, I think. I would welcome any further comments from ‘yourfriend’ on how anything that I’ve written about this subject could be construed as ethnocentric or racist, given my counterargument in this post and remembering that multiple cultures do not necessitate a multiculture anywhere in the world.
Now, that should make for an interesting discussion.