Outsourcing the dirty work
Thank you Mike Steketee for raising uncomfortable facts (“Compassion trumped by expediency in asylum-seeker response”, 18-19/7). Well might the Prime Minister and his Foreign Affairs Minister sweet-talk their Malaysian counterparts to stop the people-smugglers, but what is to be the fate of the men, women and children in their custody? Malaysia has a vile record on human rights, with Malaysian citizens allowed to raid and beat anyone they think may not have a valid visa. Sometimes these paramilitary groups get this terribly wrong — in recent cases black American academics have been illegally arrested and bashed on the supposition that they might be refugees from Africa. The Malaysian government has a record of pushing boats out to sea, and of handing refugees back to their persecutors. While Australia is tidying up its human rights record on shore, are we commissioning those governments in our region who have not signed the Refugee Convention to do the dirty work of deter and deny for us? Pamela Curr, Brunswick, Vic
Big White Lie – Chinese Australians in White Australia; John Fitzgerald; UNSW press; pp: 42-45
Comparing non-white Settlements with White
Dutch observations of Chinese immigrant behaviour in colonial Borneo differed accordingly from Anglophone commentaries on Chinese morals and manners in Australia.
To Dutch colonial officials, the independent micro states of Chinese miners along the coast of Kalimantan appeared remarkably egalitarian, fraternal and democratic,
and — regrettably — republican.” These contrasting accounts of Chinese immigrant behaviour cannot reasonably be attributed to the different character of the immigrants themselves. The Chinese of West Kalimantan came overwhelmingly from northern Guangdong Province, albeit from a different sub-ethnic group than the Cantonese émigrés to California, Australia and New Zealand.
They immigrated to West Kalimantan in search of gold too, in this case a century earlier than Cantonese miners in Australia, California and New Zealand.
The difference between Anglophone and Dutch ethnography is best explained by the different local conditions under which immigrant miners adapted to life away from home. In the absence of formal colonial structures in Kalimantan, Chinese miners were at liberty to build autonomous social and political institutions that gave concrete expression to the values they brought with them from China. Further, the Europeans who described their behaviour and captured their values in print were, on the whole, associates of colonial officials in Kalimantan who were keen to bring autonomous Chinese enclaves to heel.
Starting in the late 16th and early 17th centuries Chinese labourers and merchants established settlements in insular Southeast Asia to produce and trade in commodities such as tin, gold, pepper and sugar. Among the earliest of these settlements was the autonomous city-state of Hatien on the coast of Cochinchina (now southern Vietnam), established by the entrepreneurial Cantonese pirate Mac Cuu around 1690.
The city was managed as a semi-independent urban republic, not unlike the city-states of mediaeval Italy, although in this case managed through the agency of share-holding partnerships involving Chinese merchants and labourers.
Hatien was one of a dozen Chinese emigre commercial entrepots that sprang up around the Chinese ‘water frontier’ of coastal and island Southeast Asia over the late 17th and 18th centuries.
Every year in the 18th century 4000 to 10 000 Chinese labourers boarded Chinese vessels bound for Chinese entrepots in Southeast Asia.
These labouring men were members of egalitarian fraternities that were based in a material sense on share-owning partnerships and founded ritually on the oaths and ceremonies of the secret societies that ran peasant village networks in southern China.
They held shares in enterprises financed by merchant capital. Significantly, the disparity between the shares and the profits of head merchants and labourers
was measured by their relative contributions to the enterprise rather than by their relative status in a primordial or preordained status hierarchy.
As historian Carl Trocki has observed, the share-holding companies and settlements ‘espoused egalitarian principles, which were often at odds with conventional Confucian orthodoxy’.
When labour conditions deteriorated the share-holding labourers ‘could easily strike or simply walk off the job and find another mine’. In the pre-colonial era Chinese workers in Southeast Asia were known for their militant egalitarianism.
The indentured coolie system found in accounts of early Chinese labour immigration to Australia was an outcome of a later colonial era. The share-owning fraternities were undermined by European colonialism in Southeast Asia, not least because leading Chinese merchants entered into commercial and political alliances with colonial authorities.
These alliances broke the back of the old egalitarian labour confederations and effectively undermined the prosperity of the 18th century entrepots.
New colonial ports, such as Singapore, arose to take their place, and new kinds of labour contracts were devised for European-style latifundia (tax farms) in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
The collaborating merchants supplied labour and capital under new contract arrangements, framed in partnership with colonial authorities, that reduced the status of migrant labourers from that of share-owning partners to that of chattels.
By the time Chinese labourers began moving to central and south America and to the Australian colonies in the 1840s, they were entering under contracts that bore little resemblance to the old fraternal agreements.
Extant contracts and regulations governing Chinese emigration to Cuba and Peru at this time show that coolies were not shareholders but ‘the property of the- planters’.
Similar conditions applied to the indentured labourers recruited from Singapore to New South Wales and Victoria in the 1840s, to Queensland in the 1850s and to Western Australia later in the century.
Trocki has argued that the emergence of Singapore as a British colonial entrepot was the key to the destruction of the independent Chinese labour confederations of Southeast Asia.
If this is so, the recruitment of coolie labourers from Singapore to eastern and western Australia was enabled by the same colonial system that brought convicts to the Australian colonies.
Unbeknown to themselves, British and Irish convicts in the Australian colonies shared common cause with immigrant labourers from China, who were no less eager than themselves to re-establish more equal relations with their employers and with one another on the egalitarian principles of their male fraternities.