Saturday, January 21, 2017

Chinese "Long March" In Australia - Opportunity to Build Ties Between Chinese and Australian Peoples

Ned K.

In May 2017, events are taking place in the South East of South Australia and western Victoria to celebrate the 160th anniversary of Chinese gold seekers trekking over 400 kilometres from the seaside town of Robe to the goldfields of western Victoria. Part of the celebration includes a community "Long March" from Robe to Melbourne, following the route taken by some 16,500 trekkers in 1857.

The "Long March" will include participants who are direct descendants of those Chinese who made the journey from southern China 160 years ago. Some of these descendants are coming from China for the walk while others are Chinese Australians.

The celebration of the 160th anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the Chinese and Australian people and build stronger ties between the peoples of both countries at a time of growing tensions between China as a growing power and the USA as a declining but still dominant imperialist power.

In 1857 most of the Chinese people who made the long overseas journey from southern China by boat to Robe were poor people desperate to find a way to improve the lives of their families at a time when the Chinese people were exploited by a feudal regime supported by expanding European and US colonial powers.

According to Fiona Ritchie in a paper called "From Guichen Bay to Canton: The Chinese Trek to Gold", most of the Chinese who came to Robe in 1857 did so to avoid paying the 20 pound poll tax imposed by the Victorian Government on Chinese arriving by boat in Port Phillip Bay from 1853.
Ritchie points out that most of the Chinese had to borrow money from loan sharks in China to pay for the journey by boat. Those who did not own land for security on the loan had their families in China placed in indentured labor in China to work off the loan for two years or more.
The colonial merchant capitalists from England, Holland and the US provided the poorly equipped boats for the journey. These sharks were the "people smugglers” of the 1850s - from the colonial powers. Ritchie describes the conditions on the boats in the following way:

"Often they (Chinese) were confined below decks because the crews were fearful of these unfamiliar people...many Chinese died on board or arrived dying of fevers or dysentery. The British Consul of Armoy recorded that on one ship, the lack of food and water had led to the loss of 70 Chinese lives in a few days"
On arrival in Robe the "boat people" set off across difficult terrain with unknown water supplies, averaging about 35 kilometres per day until they reached the goldfields. They often had to avoid the larger towns in Victoria such as Hamilton as the Victorian Government officials were on the prowl to get the 20 pound poll tax.
Unlike today's "boat people" the majority of Chinese (about 48,000) returned to China of their own free will. How many of those went back with enough wealth from gold finds to improve their families’ lives in China or at least pay off their loans is not known. The remaining 15,000 stayed in Australia and some of them survived long enough to have a family here and contribute as Chinese Australians for generations to come up to the present day.
The similarities between the desperate lives of the Chinese gold seekers and the Chinese workers in Australia today on 457 visas or other sham contract working arrangements are pretty obvious. Unfortunately the attitude of reactionary elements within Australia is the same 160 years later with Chinese being seen as a "threat to the Australian way of life” (so called!).
The celebrations of the 160th anniversary of the arrival of Chinese gold seekers at Robe is an opportunity to strengthen ties between the peoples of both countries. The world has changed between 1857 and 2017 as has the power relationships between Australia and China. In 1857, Australia was firmly in the British colonial empire, while Chinese people were on the verge of an earth-shattering revolution against feudalism, colonialism and imperialism. In 2017, Australia is in the clutches of the US empire but has such strong trade links with China that the Australian capitalist class has conflicting allegiances depending on their sectional economic interests. Some related to defence and military are particularly tied to the US empire while increasingly the agribusinesses are closer to China. The obvious example is the big and medium sized wine industry companies. Some of these wine companies are themselves US owned such as Accolade which adds to their conflicting interests.
The rise of the reactionary ultra conservative Trump represented interests in the USA trying to fuel the anti-China mantra to cover up the internal economic crises that just do not go away for the imperialist system known as "globalisation". However, threats of a clamp down on Chinese trade and cuts to Chinese goods and investments are likely to fall on deaf ears in China.
At the January 2017 World Economic Forum at Davos, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping announced China planned to invest $750 billion in the next five years and accept $600 billion of overseas investment in China. He also estimated that in the next five years, 700 million Chinese tourists will be making overseas visits.
The latter figure is probably the starkest difference between 1857 and 2017 regarding movement of people from China to overseas countries such as Australia. These 700 million are working Chinese or the new capitalists or state capitalists of modern day China. How this figure will compare with the number of overseas Chinese on working visa arrangements is not readily available.
The other change is the degree of Chinese investment in Australia now compared with 1857. As Chinese leaders have chosen the capitalist road, the increase in overseas investment is an inevitable trend as Lenin pointed out in 1913 in his "Critical Remarks On The National Question”: "The second (historical tendency of capitalism) is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the breakdown of national barriers, the creation of the international unity of capital, of economic life in general, of politics, science etc."

Lenin further said that this tendency "characterises a mature capitalism moving towards its transformation into socialist society."
History does not go in straight lines. What would Lenin think of the present day "capitalist roaders" in China, entering the world stage as an economic power having turned its back on the socialist road of post 1949 China?
One thing is certain. Lenin if alive today would support the strengthening of ties and understanding between the Chinese and Australian people and the strengthening ties between Australian and Chinese workers including those Chinese, who like the 1857 "boat people", come to Australia to lift themselves out of poverty.
Neither the Chinese people nor Australian people have a desire to be caught up as cannon fodder between rival modern day "empires".

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