News

China and Australia share a multicultural future



31 January 2014

Around the globe, Chinese sons and daughters will return home to be with their families, receive red packets of money and share a dinner table. In Australia, Chinese New Year is also widely celebrated, with large firework-filled events taking place all over the country.

I will be spending Spring Festival in China with a close Chinese friend and her family, in a cosy Beijing apartment. It's not my first time to China, but this visit is special because it marks the beginning of my journey to explore China's minority nationalities.

For many of China's citizens the Spring Festival is just as foreign and exotic as it is for us in Australia. Although multiculturalism is usually associated with the immigrant countries of the West, China has had a diverse ethnic population for a millennia. Currently, China officially claims 55 different ethnic 'minority nationalities', with groups ranging in size from the thousands to the tens of millions. It is not unusual then that China's 20 million plus Muslims hold the dates of Eid and Ramadan far more important than Spring Festival.

Growing up in Sydney - one of the world's most culturally diverse cities - multicultural life seemed normal to me. My best friends were Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek and we all ate meat pies, spring rolls and souvlaki. Later, as an adult, I grew to recognise and value the uniqueness of Australia's multiculturalism and its people.

On my first trip to China, over a decade ago, I found myself exploring the country's many cultures—as diverse as those in my home of Sydney. I began to wonder how multiculturalism manifests itself in a country that is so large and changing so rapidly.

My time in China spurred a growing interest in how governments face the challenge of valuing the diverse ethnic identities of its citizens while still developing a unifying sense of national identity. A decade later and I am in China again, this time to find some answers. How does China and its ethnic minorities maintain the balance between national and minority identities, and how does China's rapid economic development change peoples' senses of self within their community and the Chinese nation.

For those of us in Australia's urban centres, Chinese cuisine has changed a lot since I was a boy. Restaurants specialise in regional Chinese cuisine - from the fire and spice of Sichuan to the dumplings of Shanghai and even cuisine from western Xinjiang. Australians are beginning to know and appreciate the differences in Chinese cuisine. However, our engagement with China remains strictly of the sweet and sour pork variety. Australian business and political leaders still see China as a monolithic unit, rather than a diverse country with just as rich a tradition of multiculturalism as Australia.

The issue of multiculturalism has far-reaching implications for China. For example, China's ethnic minorities reside largely in those border regions that contain most of its natural deposits of mineral resources. Just as Australia's own thirst for resources impacted our country's Indigenous population in the form of forced removals and the denial of land rights, a similar challenge confronts China. One of China's greatest challenges for the future will be to ensure that all of its peoples benefit equally from the rising tide of economic growth. Public protests have already sprung up over the equitable distribution of income from resource extraction in China's western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.

As a multicultural nation, Australia has valuable experience that we can share with countries like China. Although we have a chequered past with our Indigenous and immigrant populations, and need to be wary of claiming the moral high ground, Australia's multiculturalism has the potential to be one of our greatest cultural exports. In a matter of decades we have been transformed from a determinedly 'White Australia' to one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Although there have been some bumps in the road, and Australian society's relationship with refugees in particular remains generally antagonistic, the journey has been made without major political or domestic unrest.

Both of our countries are complex, dynamic nations with a number of shared challenges and opportunities. It is only natural then that China will increasingly look to countries such as ours for successful models to adapt and apply. In this regard, Australia has achieved a lot, but we still need to improve our ability to share our story. In the 21st century, a culturally diverse, linguistically adept and globally linked population is increasingly an advantage. As such, both China and Australia will need to realise that we share greater common interests than simply resource extraction and education exchange - we also shared a multicultural future.

Josh Bird is completing a Doctor of Philosophy in China Studies at the University of Sydney. He will be conducting six months of fieldwork in China for his doctoral thesis on China's minority nationalities.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Sally Sitou, 93518647, 0481012597, sally.sitou@sydney.edu.au