Old racism in a new language: the state of Sinophobia in Australia

It is not a pleasant time to be a politically engaged Chinese Australian. Until the ramping up of the People’s Republic of China influence debate earlier this year to a daily topic, I had not felt this sense of dread since the first incarnation of One Nation, two decades ago.

The debate has resulted in a form of collective madness amongst segments of the political class with inflammatory language and an unwillingness to hear out the concerns of Chinese Australians. I know I am not the only one deeply uneasy about the direction of a debate that often has Sinophobic undertones that invoke a fear of anything ‘Chinese’, suggesting risk without explanation or context.

There is a failure to grasp why Chinese Australians are deeply concerned. Language is one reason. One of the principal problems with this debate is that people interchangeably use ‘Chinese’ to refer to Australians of Chinese heritage as well as nationals from the PRC. The conflation and use of terms like ‘Chinese influence’ drag in anyone with Chinese heritage.

The big fear is that those of Chinese heritage in Australia will be acceptable ‘collateral damage’ in this debate. We are already seeing signs of that Sinophobia in play. There are anecdotal reports from Chinese Australians about a shifting mood in both the public and private sectors. There is a real danger that the fearmongering leads to further discrimination against Chinese Australians, who are underrepresented in our institutions as it is. I have already heard a number of people flag concerns about with public sector security clearances for Chinese Australians and mention they know of discussions about whether Chinese Australians should be hired in corporate circles. These concerns were raised by a number of individuals at the recent Asian Australian Leadership Summit in Melbourne.

While the realities of Australia’s anti-Chinese legislation and the White Australia Policy are widely known, few realise that anti-Chinese sentiment played a fundamental role in the formation of the nation-state, even compared to countries such as Canada and the United States that had similar legislation. As pointed out in John Fitzgerald’s book Big White Lie, Australian values were explicitly constructed against a Chinese ‘Other’ that inverted those values. A clash of cultures between Chinese and Australian values was the justification for the exclusion of people of Chinese heritage that underpinned White Australia. Chinese culture and values were stereotyped as being hierarchical, profit driven and servile, putting ‘Oriental despotism’ ahead of Australian democracy and stereotypical values of mateship, equality and the fair go. We see the legacy of that dichotomy in today’s debates.

Countless numbers of these debates show that, as a country, we struggle to understand that racism does not require malicious or hateful intent. This means that even those who usually see themselves as progressive and opposed to racism engage in the promotion of conspiratorial and racist tropes. The Tasmanian Greens have been amongst the worst offenders on the progressive side of politics, raising concerns about the number of skilled migrants from the PRC and indulging in conspiratorial claims that the Cambria Green hotel development is a ‘threat to the future of Tasmania’ and ‘an essential building block’ of the PRC’s objectives in Antarctica.

We are also witnessing the conflation of concern about anti-Chinese rhetoric with silencing opposition to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The mention of the willingness by the CCP to ‘weaponise’ race is used to dismiss and shutdown genuine concerns. Criticism of the actions of the CCP or the PRC is not racist in and of itself, but there is often a racist undertone in this public debate that is being mainstreamed and must be called out. It is a line constantly crossed by people who should know better.

The public debate around Gladys Liu is a case in point. I am not a fan of Liu’s hard-right, socially conservative politics. She undoubtedly has questions to answer about her fundraising practices, underhanded election campaigning and inability to be upfront, but suggestions that she is secretly loyal to Beijing – prompted by Clive Hamilton’s baseless claim that she has a Section 44 issue and might be ineligible to be a Member of Parliament – are deeply racist and hark back to a common narrative across the Asia-Pacific that the Chinese diaspora are secretly loyal to China. Historically, this narrative has been used to justify discriminatory policies against Chinese minorities.

The media has played a large role in creating this climate. For the past few months, there has been almost a story a day about ‘CCP influence’. These rely on drip-feeding bits of new information then repackaging previously stated claims to create an amorphous atmosphere of fear, disproportionate to the actual revelations. The recent episode of Four Corners about PRC influence at Australian universities is a prime example: the story contained new information about university partnerships developing technology that might be used to violate human rights but much of it was already in the public domain, such as the rallies by those who did not support protests in Hong Kong, and much of it was questionable, such as the segment about student politics at the University of Sydney that inferred a ‘takeover’ by Chinese international students.

The frustrating thing is that most of those concerned about growing Sinophobia would agree with critics of the CCP on a range of issues: universities should not be involved in the development of military technology likely to be used for human rights violations; we should protect ourselves from foreign interference; political dissidents should not fear surveillance or harassment in Australia, physical or online; we should raise awareness about mass imprisonment in Xinjiang and provide refuge to Uighurs and other minorities, and provide solidarity and support to protestors in Hong Kong. All these points, however, can be made without the hysterical, racist undertones.

What we are seeing instead is the development of a narrative stripped of any nuance, in which an amorphous ‘Chinese’ threat infiltrates and encompasses everything from infrastructure, education, politics and agriculture. This narrative merges into more benign Sinophobic ones such as those around selective schools, property ownership and even baby formula. The propagation of these narratives on social media by individuals who self-identify as progressive should be cause for deep concern.

The normalisation of Sinophobia on both the left and the right will only pave the way for the far right – who have little interest in democracy or human rights in China – to appropriate that message and push it even further.

The direction of the PRC influence debate and its implications for those of Chinese heritage in Australia means it is urgent that Sinophobic narratives are called out and pushed back against while opposing CCP apologism and supporting democratic freedoms. The alternative will be a country where fear and suspicion are the default setting, further entrenching the institutional discrimination against those of Chinese heritage that already exists.


Image: Zhipeng Ya

Osmond Chiu

Osmond Chiu is a Research Fellow at the Per Capita thinktank. He tweets at @redrabbleroz.

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  1. Osmond Chiu writes well and is one of a few rare species in the Chinese Australia community that is able to put his/her thoughts and real feelings into a sensitive article about Sinophobia Australia. The Chinese Australian diaspora has a wide spectrum of political ideology however, this characteristic is not widely appreciated by the Australian public and it is much easier to be intellectually lazy and say “they all look alike mate!”.

    Most the points raised by Osmond will be supported and resonated by the Chinese Australian community however there is a slight disagreement starting with the paragraph “The frustrating thing is…..”. In my personal opinion, the paragraph sound too “China bashing” for my liking and those issues raised concerning the CCP reflect an view seen through western liberal democracy & values, and some allegations are yet to be substantiated. No country is perfect and that includes the PRC; human rights issues and hypocrisy seems inseparable.
    One reason why white Australians paint Chinese Australia as one homogeneous background is because they do not understand their history, nature and background, ie. from a lefty to a product of the British Empire. Please refer to:

  2. This is an issue that concerns me greatly, and I am appalled that Sinophobia seems no longer limited to pubs but now policy for members of parliament (both government and opposition, the ABC, SBS, and the SHM. No good news about or positive action by China is ever without it’s sceptical preface about encroaching Chinese influence or propaganda. Not to mention outright fabrication of stories and double standards. Revised COVID-19 death toll in the US is a revision of numbers as more data becomes available. In China it is evidence of a cover up.

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