Transnational connectivity is here to stay. How we understand and deal with it is crucial

By Cathy Harper, Managing Editor, Melbourne Asia Review,
and Fazal Rizvi, Emeritus Professor, Global Studies in Education – University of Melbourne

Although somewhat disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and public health responses, globalisation has resulted in new forms of connectivity across national borders via flows of people, ideas, money and goods.

This connectivity is creating groups of people who are dispersed across the world but remain connected to their country of origin – the new diasporas that are globally mobile and transnationally networked.

The economic and cultural benefits of utilising the people-to-people links associated with diaspora communities is central to managing the regional opportunities facing Australia in the diverse Indo-Pacific.

Fazal Rizvi is an Emeritus Professor of Global Studies in Education at the University of Melbourne, as well as a former member of the Asia Education Foundation council, and an internationally recognised authority on globalisation and educational policy and has in recent years examined the emerging theories of transnationalism, diaspora and higher education.

He spoke about transnational mobility, diaspora and higher education in Asia and Australia with Melbourne Asia Review’s Managing Editor, Cathy Harper.

You were the lead author of a key report on Asian diaspora in Australia which explores the potential of diasporas in Australia to deepen economic links with Asia, especially China and India. You used the concept of diasporas and suggested that it better describes the contemporary forms of migration and multicultural societies. What do you define as ‘diaspora’? 

The idea of diaspora has traditionally been thought of as referring to groups of people in exile who wish eventually to go back to their own community. It is an idea associated with memory and nostalgia. This is not the case with the contemporary diaspora who keep links with their country of origin but often cultivate those links in relation to the benefits that be can be derived from transnational networks and connections. In this way, the contemporary concept of diaspora is much broader than the notion of migration and the notion of the exilic condition with which the idea of diaspora was traditionally associated. In the context of transnationalism, its scope has broadened a great deal, perhaps so much so that it is now very difficult to tell who does not belong to a diaspora community. That’s where the challenge lies analytically and empirically with the uses of the idea of diaspora. Analytically, it is a challenge because it raises questions about our definition of something that is dynamic and constantly changing.  Diaspora communities are forever being created as people view themselves as coming in and out of the diasporic condition.

Estimates of the number of Chinese and Indian diaspora in Australia are somewhere between 1.2-1.6 million for the Chinese and probably around one million for the Indians. But these numbers, while they are clearly increasing, are very difficult to establish with any confidence. Here again, the analytical problem is evident: do you include the people who have been in Australia for five generations, such as the Sikhs in Woolgoolga in northern New South Wales? They are Australians and their links with India are remote. Do you include people from Fiji of Indian background as Indian diaspora?

That was the problem we had in doing our research because we wanted to give quantitative data that could be regarded as relatively reliable, but if the analytical categories are so unstable and difficult to establish then you can’t do that. How people retain links and regard these links is significant, but how they define themselves is also important. These qualitative aspects become part of the definition. Diasporas are only diasporas in so far as they have some kind of affective bond with their country of origin or their cultural or religious traditions. But exactly how far you go back into their origins becomes an interesting, but complex, question.

Tangentially, we might also ask why is it that we don’t talk about the British diaspora in Australia in the same way we talk about, for example, the Chinese diaspora in Australia. That reveals something about Australia’s idea of itself as a white or Anglo-Celtic nation. So, the question of who is referred to as a diaspora — and also why and how groups of people need to regard themselves as diaspora — involves issues of power and various assumptions about national belonging.

You’ve found that the Asian diaspora in Australia is being under-utilised, despite being highly educated, motivated and globally networked and with the potential to develop Australia’s economy through greater engagement with Asia. How can this resource be better utilised?  

Some 15 years ago, a Harvard University communication theorist called Yochai Benkler wrote an interesting book called The Wealth of Networks, in which he argued that in a globalising economy, transnational networks across cultural and national boundaries really matter. He argued if you want to expand capital markets then networks play a really important role. So, it is not only the linguistic and cultural knowledge and intercultural skills that the diaspora has, but also their networks that are really decisive in growing trade links. For example, how can people utilise their diaspora networks so that they can reliably invest their money in India or China, without fearing that it will be lost in the complex processes of bureaucracy? How can they be confident in addressing all kinds of problems and challenges that invariably emerge in the complexities of international trade? This is where diaspora networks can be useful.

Asian diaspora in Australia people are highly talented, highly educated and highly motivated, with deep transnational networks and the capacity to take advantage of them in the globalised economy. Many of the Indian and Chinese businesspeople we interviewed felt that the potential for Australia was huge and that this fact remains recognised. In this sense, we should note that the contemporary notion of diaspora that I’m describing is linked to our understanding of the processes of globalisation and transnational links to which it has given rise. The contemporary idea of diaspora may have itself emerged out of our understanding of the global processes, how capital and knowledge circulate in transnational spaces, in which diaspora groups have become major cultural intermediaries.

Why are diaspora in Australia being underutilised, especially the Indian and Chinese diaspora?  

Perhaps because the understanding of global processes, and the associated idea of diaspora, is not adequately appreciated. Policymakers’ understanding of concepts such as citizenship, migration, international students, tourists and other mobile people is often very static. The notion of the diaspora we presented is more dynamic. Until we better understand the changing nature of the global economy and appreciate how in this economy diaspora communities are an important resource for the nation because of their transnationality, we will not be able to take advantage of the resources that they bring.

This does not mean that governments, institutions and corporations should simply use the knowledge, cultural and other resources that the diaspora communities bring to Australia instrumentally. Diaspora communities should not only be brought in at the level of planning and decision-making when it’s convenient and useful but then discarded when they are not. Instead, they should be involved in decision-making processes at every level. Many of the interviewees in our research felt that this was not happening.

Lunar New Year
Melbourne's Chinese community celebrates Lunar New Year in Chinatown - February 2, 2020. Image credit: Adam Calaitzis, Shutterstock.

What about Australians overseas? Australia doesn’t currently have a diaspora policy relating to this group. Should it? 

Most of the countries that have developed diaspora policies receive large remittances from their diaspora and their economies are often quite dependent on this source of income. Australia doesn’t get huge remittances and as a result, there is no economic imperative to have a policy in relation to the Australians overseas. The perception in government circles is that we don’t need a diaspora policy, that we are fine with these things to develop organically and we will see where it all goes; that there is no problem to be solved. I believe that public policies should have an educative function – to get the community to think about the importance of diaspora, as well as the processes of 'diasporisation' in Australian society and its considerable potential, both economically and culturally.

Are businesses perhaps better placed than governments to devise and implement their own diaspora policy? 

Yes, I think they are, and some businesses have already begun to think about it. Businesses have begun to appreciate the economic role that the ethnic communities play, but do not always grasp the importance of the transnationally-constituted diaspora networks. So, in many ways, the hurdle is analytic rather than practical or political because until we understand the role of diasporas in global trade, we will continue to view them as consumer groups rather than major drivers of economic exchange and productivity. We will continue to say that since ‘x per cent of the Australian population is of Asian background’ they need to be represented on the boards etc in similar proportions but will fail to appreciate fully how better representation of transnationally networked people can make a difference in international trade in a rapidly globalising economy.

Are there elements of other countries’ diaspora policies that would work in Australia that we should consider adopting? 

The country that we could look at more closely is Singapore which has begun to consider how to take advantage of the approximately 10 percent of its residents who are not Singaporean citizens. Singapore has begun to ask how it can take advantage of their links to their countries of origin, even if they are not migrants or citizens. Singapore has begun to ask: ‘how can we value the contribution of those diaspora communities of other countries, including Australians, who are living in our midst?’. In Australia, discussions of diaspora policy have largely been about the question of how to support Australians who are living abroad, and not also on how to work with those transient communities who live in Australia and can potentially make a major contribution, more than filling the gaps in the labour market.

How have the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current bilateral tensions between Australia and China affected your thinking in relation to the arguments you’ve been articulating? 

I think we are in a tough place in relation to China. Exactly how China-Australia trade relations are going to develop over the next ten years or so is very difficult to predict. I am not sure how, and the extent to which, the recent announcement about the AUKUS alliance and Australia’s intended acquisition of nuclear submarines might damage our relations with China. Geopolitical tensions also have the potential to prevent good relations from developing, when Chinese-Australians, for example, become fearful about pursuing trade relations through their transnational networks, or Australians might decline an invitation to visit China. Such macro-level geopolitical tensions affect individuals making decisions at a very micro level. Effective transnational relations in trade require confidence in the agencies of the state, but geopolitical tensions make this difficult.

Even Australian schools that were planning to develop a relationship with Chinese schools are now somewhat hesitant. The potential of public diplomacy has always been affected by government-to-government relations. It becomes much more complex, difficult and challenging when there are broader tensions between nation-states.

Where do you see the higher education sector in Australia, especially those universities very exposed to the international student market, in the short to medium term, say in three to five years’ time? 

The consumer research conducted over the past 18 months shows very clearly that the interest that parents in China and India have to send their children to Australia remains high.

The other ways of looking at the student market point in a different direction. It will depend on whether mobility across borders will even be possible and whether Australian higher education will remain as strong as it has been; or whether everything is going to be affected by cost-cutting, making Australia a less attractive study destination. There is already some evidence that many students are wondering whether Australia remains the best option for them. The stories about racism directed against Asian students in Australia have clearly not been helpful, because they shape the imagination of the people of what life in Australia is like. Those are some factors that are also going to discourage potential students from coming to Australia, including perceptions of declining quality and policy uncertainty.

What kind of creative thinking do you think universities should be undertaking? 

To begin with, they should be trying to understand how a transnational public space has already emerged and consider what are its opportunities and what challenges it presents. We live in an interconnected world, and, beyond the commercial aspects of internationalisation, we should examine what new forms of transnational connectivity mean for universities, their curriculum and their pedagogic approaches. For example, issues such as the global environmental crisis, the global mobility of people and refugees raise questions about the shifting nature of our inter-connectivity. Such questions demand us to consider what kind of education is appropriate for students experiencing what is called a ‘risk society’. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of fundamental educational questions about our interconnectivity and interdependence. I know that universities have many new challenges, but I do not think that the broader questions about the core purposes of higher education, and its governance, can be set aside.

Perhaps you could reflect more on the broad trends of transnationalism and diasporic communities shaping higher education in the context of Australia. How do you see them playing out? 

I want to say again that global interconnectivity is here to stay. The rates of global mobility may be declined as a result of COVID-19, but the mobility of ideas and culture have not – they have produced new forms of inter-connectivity. We may be in a very different global terrain. While the mobility of people has gone down significantly, the mobility of information and ideas has intensified, through online learning, online seminars and other modes of communication across borders. In my view, the importance of sharing of knowledge and ideas has never been greater.

I have great faith in the potential of higher education being able to do all kinds of exciting things in terms of global inter-connectivity, transnational conversations, exploration of ideas, creativity and innovation. We need to abandon the narrow instrumentalism that now dominates the thinking about higher education.

Transnational connectivity is going to remain part of how we understand the nature of the global economy and the globalising culture. In the shifting constitution of societies, I have no doubt, the diaspora communities will play a major role. Higher education will be a site where these diasporas are forged and cultivated. The connections that international students make at universities both within and beyond Australia have the potential to transform the character of our communities, but also of the countries of their origin.

Joseph Lo Bianco is Professor of Language and Literacy Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. He is a former president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the first educator elected to this role.  In 2012 he was appointed Research Director of the UNICEF Language and Peacebuilding initiative in Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand.

Cathy Harper is Managing Editor of the Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne.

Fazal Rizvi is an Emeritus Professor of Global Studies in Education at the University of Melbourne, as well as a former member of the Asia Education Foundation council.

Banner image: Melbourne's Chinese community celebrates Lunar New Year with dances, drums, and fire crackers - February 2, 2020. Credit: Adam Calaitzis, Shutterstock.

A longer version of this interview appears on the Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne.