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Vol. 75/No. 26      July 18, 2011

Hong Kong conference
discusses overseas Chinese
Panel debates Obama’s record, capitalist
crisis, Chinese in Cuban Revolution
(feature article)
HONG KONG—Some 170 people attending an international conference here June 21-22 discussed the history and place of Chinese living in countries around the world.

The event, organized by the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO) in conjunction with the Anthropology Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), drew participants from 23 countries. The largest numbers of researchers, students, and teachers were from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Many came from across East Asia—including Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Others were from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe.

The conference, held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was one of the regional events ISSCO organizes in a different country almost every year. Previous locations have included Havana, Cuba; Pretoria, South Africa; and Auckland, New Zealand. The next regional gathering will be held in Seoul, South Korea, in June 2012. The organization held an international congress last year in Singapore; the next one is scheduled for 2013 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Participants were welcomed by ISSCO president Leo Suryadinata, director of the Chinese Heritage Centre of Singapore; ISSCO vice president and CUHK professor Tan Chee-Beng; and officials of the university. Charles Coppel of the University of Melbourne, Australia, gave a keynote speech focusing on Chinese of mixed ancestry and culture—known as Peranakan Chinese—in Indonesia as well as Malaysia and Singapore.

The three dozen panels held over two days, in either English or Chinese, took up the history and development of the Chinese populations in various countries.

The theme of the conference was “Overseas Chinese: Culture, Religions, and Worldview.”

In one panel, Teresita Ang See, secretary-treasurer of ISSCO and president of the Kaisa Heritage Center in Manila, Philippines, described how Chinese in that country have combined Buddhist, Confucianist, Taoist, and folk practices with elements of Christianity—as seen, for example, in ceremonies devoted to a Chinese Virgin Mary. In another panel, Dwi Susanto of Sebelas Maret University in Indonesia discussed the development of Confucianism as a religion in that country.

There were panels on “Marriage and Changing Gender Roles among the Chinese Diaspora,” “Taiwan’s Changing Policy toward Citizens Abroad,” “Censoring the Chinese Press in the Netherlands Indies,” “Stereotypes and the Chinese Diaspora in Spain,” “Identity Challenges of the Chinese Muslims in Malaysia,” and “Family Transformation: ‘China Modern’ in 19th Century Hong Kong.”

In a panel on “Mississippi Chinese World War II Veterans’ Narratives,” Gwendolyn Gong, who teaches at CUHK, explained that her father was among dozens of Chinese who immigrated to Mississippi shortly before World War II and joined the U.S. armed forces, which allowed them to gain U.S. citizenship. In describing the research project, she detailed how difficult it was even to create a list of Mississippi Chinese who served in World War II because of the way county, state, and federal records were kept. In Mississippi under Jim Crow segregation, Chinese were often classified as “colored” or “nonwhite.”  
China, Hong Kong, Taiwan
Some conference discussions touched on the history of Hong Kong, which the British seized as a colony at the end of the first Opium War in 1842. Today an international center of finance and maritime trade with a population of 7 million, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. It became a “Special Administrative Region” that maintains the continuity of capitalist relations there—a setup the Chinese government calls “One Country, Two Systems.”

Hong Kong residents are issued a special Beijing-authorized passport, and many also hold a special British passport that classifies them as “British Nationals (Overseas)” with no automatic right to live or work in the United Kingdom. Sidney Cheung, one of the conference hosts from CUHK, got an appreciative laugh from the audience at the opening session when he noted that according to his passport he wasn’t Chinese but “Overseas British.”

Conference participants from the region described the accelerated migration from mainland China to Hong Kong since 1997, as well as the mushrooming travel—from family visits to daily commutes to and from work—between both sides. Several young people at the conference were CUHK students who grew up in Guangdong province in southern China; some planned to return home, while others hoped to get jobs in Hong Kong after graduation.

Participants from Taiwan noted that today there is also much more travel between mainland China and Taiwan—a consequence of the opening of the Chinese economy to foreign investment and the loosening of the grip of the Kuomintang-led regime in Taiwan. On June 28 the first airplane carrying individual tourists from the People’s Republic of China landed in Taipei; previously the government there allowed visits from the mainland only through organized tour groups. Trade relations have also expanded rapidly between the two territories, and Taiwanese work as consultants in numerous businesses on the mainland.

The status of Taiwan remains a point of conflict internationally. The Beijing government continues to demand the reincorporation of Taiwan, which was seized by bourgeois forces led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) in their retreat from the mainland after they were defeated in the 1949 revolution that brought to power the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s independence is backed by Washington, London, Tokyo, and other imperialist powers.  
Debate on politics in U.S. and Cuba
One of the panels sparked discussion and debate on politics in the United States and Cuba. The panelists were Ling-chi Wang, a retired professor of Asian American and ethnic studies at the University of California in Berkeley; Mary-Alice Waters, president of Pathfinder Press; and Evelyn Hu-DeHart, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Sidney Cheung of CUHK chaired the session.

Wang, who more than any other individual was responsible for the 1992 founding of ISSCO, spoke on “2009 as the Defining Year of Chinese American Political Participation: Limits of Minority Participation in American Democracy.” He chronicled the record of the current U.S. administration, contrasting it with the illusions held by many Chinese Americans, Blacks, and others when Barack Obama was elected president. “Are African Americans any better off today with Obama?” he asked. “No.”

Likewise, Wang said, despite the significant number of Chinese Americans appointed by the Obama administration to judicial and executive positions—including three to the cabinet—and the recent election of mayors who are Chinese American in San Francisco; Oakland, California; and elsewhere, “there are severe limits for Chinese American participation in American democracy.

“We mock countries like China as being ruled by one party. Yet America is ruled by only one party. It’s the Capitalist Party, which is supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.”

He pointed to “Obama’s bailout of corporate America” and to the so-called comprehensive health-care reform, which he said benefits insurance and medical complexes, not those who need health care. And Obama had “promised to get us out of war, but now they’re involved in yet another war in Libya.”

He concluded that the only avenue for defending rights and seeking improved conditions for ethnic minorities is through local community struggles. As an example, he pointed to the struggle being waged to complete construction of a community college in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“The focus now moves, from the world center of the party of capital, to the world center of the revolutionary struggle against the party of capital,” Waters said in opening her remarks on “The World View of Chinese in Cuba’s Revolutions.” She is the editor of Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution by Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong.

Waters noted that Cuba is today unique in “the near absence of discrimination and virtual disappearance of prejudice against Cubans of Chinese descent,” who are integrated “at all levels of society, including the highest levels of responsibility in every arena.” The reason, she said, is that in Cuba workers and farmers took political power 50 years ago and carried out a socialist revolution.

She pointed to 150 years of revolutionary continuity in struggles there, going back to the independence wars against Spanish colonial rule and the international struggle to abolish slavery and bonded labor of all kinds. Chinese toilers—brought as indentured laborers in the mid-1800s—played a prominent role in that struggle. In the 1950s numerous Chinese Cubans participated in the revolutionary war against the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.

After the 1959 revolutionary victory, many Chinese Cubans assumed leading responsibilities in the new government and in Cuba’s internationalist missions backing anti-imperialist struggles in Latin America and Africa, especially in Angola.

Waters pointed to the class divisions among Chinese Cubans before the revolution, noting that they had no single “world view,” nor could have. “The Chinese owner of a sugar mill had a different world outlook from a Chinese cane cutter or street peddler,” she said. After 1959, in line with these divisions, capitalist businessmen who were Chinese left Cuba for the United States and elsewhere, in proportions similar to their non-Chinese peers.

In her talk on “Rethinking the History of Asians in the Americas,” Hu-DeHart focused on the fact that Chinese arrived in the Americas long before the large-scale migrations from China that began in the 1840s. The first Chinese settlements were established in the 1560s as the trans-Pacific galleon trade developed between the Spanish colonies in present-day Mexico and the Philippines.

She began her remarks, however, by urging that Obama be embraced as the first “Asian American” president, noting that he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, his half-sister is part Indonesian, and his brother-in-law is Chinese Canadian. “Obama is Asian American,” she told a largely sympathetic audience.  
Responses to capitalist crisis
During the discussion period, Dean Chen of the University of California in Santa Barbara disputed Ling-chi Wang’s conclusions about Obama, arguing that his election had “important symbolic value.” Wang replied that this was true “but symbolism doesn’t put food on the table or create jobs.” He noted that many Blacks who voted for Obama, especially among the majority who are today in worse shape economically, are “turned off” by his administration’s record. While many will cast a ballot to reelect him, large numbers will join “the fastest-growing party in the United States, the party of nonvoters.”

Hu-DeHart disagreed sharply with remarks by the other two panelists. “Asians in both the U.S. and Cuba are for the most part conservative,” she argued. Taking issue with Waters, Hu-DeHart said that in Cuba “most Chinese did not support [Fidel] Castro. They were petty-bourgeois elements who fled the revolution and went to the U.S. They were shopkeepers and small business owners. They were people for whom socialism was not convenient.”

In response to Wang, Hu-DeHart argued that Chinese Americans “are overwhelmingly opposed to affirmative action” and that “most of them want to join the ranks of corporate America.” Later she added that in the United States “racism doesn’t come from the propertied classes. It comes from the white working class.”

The most important fact about U.S. politics today, Waters insisted, “is how much of a change there’s been in the thinking of working people hit by the economic crisis over the past three years, including the loss of homes, jobs, medical coverage, savings.” Today we see an openness to a clear explanation that the problem is capitalism itself. “This is something new.”

Waters responded that she disagreed with Hu-DeHart that most Chinese Cubans fled the revolution. Contrary to the oft-repeated misperception that there are no Chinese in Cuba anymore, “there are hundreds of thousands of Cubans of Chinese ancestry—overwhelmingly working-class—living in Cuba today. A minority of Chinese Cubans, predominantly from the layers involved in commerce, left the island,” Waters noted.

Wang replied to those who had taken issue with his presentation. “The Chinese American population is bifurcated,” he said. “One part is well off, while another part exists at the margins.” The problem is that Democratic politicians such as Obama and U.S. commerce secretary Gary Locke, who is Chinese American and was recently appointed U.S. ambassador to China, will “continue to represent corporate interests,” Wang said.

The chairperson extended the lively debate beyond the allotted time, but there were still many hands in the air when he announced that time was up. The informal discussion continued into the lunch break.

Following the Hong Kong gathering, two groups of conference participants took part in multiday tours of historic sites in southern China. One visited the city of Quanzhou in Fujian province; the other traveled to the cities of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) and Kaiping in Guangdong province. Both tours focused on places from which many Chinese emigrated to cities around the world and the impact on their native villages as they returned.

Patrick Brown, Linda Harris, and Mary-Alice Waters contributed to this article.  
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