China, Race and
(SCMP July 21)
It is easy to throw around accusations of racism just as it is easy
to bask in the glow of being regarded as patriotic. In reality the line
between meritorious patriotism and the sin of racism is a fine one.
I will not comment on the latest Hollywood version of American patriotism,
The Patriot., though understand it to be painted in primary colours.
I have not seen the movie, and doubtless as an Englishman my view would
be considered biased. One man's patriotism is another's poison. Let
us leave it to the Canadians to decide about The Patriot as they were
the ones who then rejected the new "patriotism" in favour of the old
and declined to join a liberation struggle led by slave owners. They
have had to live with the consequences of not being US citizens.
Canada also takes us to the even more complex issue of actual or potential
conflict between patriotism, in the sense of identification with the
common values and interests of a nation, and ethnic identity. It has
been raised recently in the columns of this paper. Is it proper for
an American of Chinese descent to judge one their number who has been
elected to high public office on what he does for the Chinese community
rather than for the public at large?
It is certainly a reasonable question to ask, though the answer is
very difficult. It depends on a variety of factors. A degree of ethnic
or religious identity is inevitable in societies created from diverse
immigrant groups. It is normal for Jews in the US for instance to be
generally but not unconditionally supportive of Israel and use their
political clout to influence the policy of their own country in its
favour. Ditto Greeks, Cubans, Poles etc in respect of political issues
affecting their places of origin. This only becomes a problem when the
adopted nation is seriously at odds with the nation of origin. This
was the case with Japanese in the US during World War II, the Japanese
being penalised as a group on the basis of scant evidence. That was
an unjust act. But one cannot therefore assume that there is no potential
Individuals do sometimes allow ethnic loyalties to over-ride what
ought to be primary obligations to fellow citizens regardless of ethnicity.
And they most certainly need to avoid giving primary political loyalty
to another state. This is especially important in Hongkong where so
many citizens have dual citizenship. It is disturbing to hear talk of
certain people, often rich businessmen, being described as "patriotic
Chinese" when they are known to have foreign passports. In some cases
they acquired these at birth but continue both to present themselves
as loyal subjects of their country of origin while emphasising their
Chinese "patriotism" when in Hongkong.
Others have gone out of their way to acquire foreign passports for
reasons of pragmatism. That is not ignoble but it does carry consequences
for notions of loyalty and communal obligation. It is not uncommon to
hear prominent persons with US passports openly declare contempt for
basic American values of democracy and liberalism and privately their
disdain for some other races, expecially African Americans. That is
their privilege in free societies. But it is also disturbing.
If "patriotism" in the Hongkong context were an ethnic identification
that would be unexceptional. But in reality it is a political one. Beijing
has cornered the "patriot" label. Its critics, however imbued with Chinese
culture, are "unpatriotic" Out of respect for the countries whose passports
of convenience they carry and out of respect for the tens of millions
of patriotic Chinese who do not identify with the current rulers of
the state created in 1949, holders of foreign passports should desist
from talk of patriotism. If they do not, they will only encourage the
suspicion in the US and elsewhere of the loyalties of Chinese immigrants.
It may be that Lee Wen Ho the Taiwan-born scientist accused of passing
important nuclear weapons data to the mainland is a victim of racist
assumptions. The facts in his case are not yet clear. But those who
make accusations of anti-Chinese racism would do well to be equally
alert to the excesses of ethnic identification in multi-cultural environments,
and particularly to those citizens who identify "patriotism" as loyalty
to another country.
There is another aspect of this racism issue which is interesting.
All too frequently in the media here "Asian" is used when "Chinese"
or at least "northeast Asian" or "oriental" is what is meant. Just last
week we were reading about the outside chance that a Taiwanese golfer
might become the first "Asian" to win one of the big four tournaments.
Apparently Vijay Singh does not count as Asian. Is he too dark? Or is
Fiji not in Asia? (Thank god for Tiger Woods, whose mother is Thai.
In his typically elegant fashion he sidestepped racial labels by describing
himself as a Cablinasian).
One reads too about how "Asians" in the US are worried about the loyalty
issue following the Lee Wen Ho case. In fact this problem seems to be
specific to Chinese because China is a military power which is known
to want to acquire up to date weapons technology. Nor can America be
blamed when Beijing's nationalist rhetoric is, as recently, coloured
by an emphasis on ethnicity and the common identity of Chinese everywhere.
The Lee Wen Ho case is of limited, if any, concern to the largest
Asian community in America - the Filipinos. Nor, I believe, to Indians,
Iranians and other large immigrant groups from Asia now who are prominent
in high-tech industry and academia. Asians as a group have little political
power in North America for the very good reason that they have no common
identity. There are many different communities, not only with differing
interests but differing views on who is "Asian". In specific localities,
one community may have political clout. From time to time to time communities
from different parts of Asia have common interests vis a vis whites,
blacks, hispanics etc. And all new migrant groups have common interests
relative to old-established ones.
But let us not fall into the trap of assuming that Chinese and Asian
are interchangeable words. That is of course particularly the case for
Hongkong Chinese. Not only do so many have very unpatriotic passports.
They live under colonial era laws, which no one seems to want to change,
which give precedence to ethnic Chinese, whatever their nationality
or place of birth, and in a society which is routinely accused of discriminating
against Indians, Filipinos and other darker Asian residents. That may
be unfair. But it should be caution against linking race and patriotism.
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