Last year marked the two hundredth anniversary of the first documented Chinese migrant to Australia, yet the majority of Australians seem largely oblivious to this history. Chinese-Australians continue to be marginalised and othered in dominant culture and discourse, assumed by many to be more recent arrivals than anyone who happens to have white skin and an undetectable accent. This prejudice persists through the same tired stereotypes and colonial fears of the Yellow Peril. We are blamed for everything from driving up house prices to threatening national security.
But as Australia’s ethnic Chinese population increases, and as its economic dependence on China grows, local attitudes towards Chinese-Australians are becoming simultaneously more amenable and more anxious. These shifting power dynamics are manifesting not just in the lofty spheres of national politics and foreign affairs, but also in our streets and schools, in our cities and suburbs.
I live in Doncaster, in Melbourne’s relatively affluent eastern suburbs. When I was growing up, East Asian faces were an uncommon sight. Still, incidents of overt racism were isolated: being called a ‘ching-chong Chinaman’ in the schoolyard; someone in our street suspecting my dad of wanting to eat their dog. The rest of the time it was the standard assumptions and microaggressions endured by all visible migrants and their children: ‘You speak such good English!’ or the classic ‘Where do you really come from?’
After almost a decade living overseas or interstate, I returned to the area to raise a family and live close to my parents. The time away and change in circumstances have brought into relief a dramatic change in the area’s demographics. It’s still predominantly white, but depending on the day, I can walk along the street or catch the bus and see as many Asians as Caucasians. Between the 2006 and 2016 censuses, my local government area of Manningham saw the number of residents of Chinese ancestry increase by 68 per cent, so that they now make up 18 per cent of the community. With this shift seems to have come a range of tensions – tensions that, perversely, I have experienced most directly during conversations around my kids and local schools.
I often take my children to play at the local park, where I fall into conversation with other parents. Since my kids will be starting school soon, I have been canvassing opinions on the three nearby state options. There is one school in particular that provokes a revealing response. ‘We are in the zone for that school, but there are so many Chinese there now,’ said one mother, who appeared to be of Mediterranean background. The mother said this without direct malice, perhaps not even registering my Asianess – I am of Chinese-Singaporean and Anglo-Australian descent, although I am ethnically ambiguous enough to have been mistaken for everything from Spanish to Afghan. She was not exaggerating – for whatever reason, the school in question attracts a high proportion of Chinese-Australians, so that in some year levels they make up two thirds of the students.
Although this was the first time I had heard someone in the area speak against Chinese people so directly, I was hardly surprised. At kindergarten drop-off and pick-up, there is a marked divide between the Chinese-Australian parents and the ‘mainstream’ Australian parents, for lack of a better term. The latter group, with which I more often associate, includes people of different races, the commonality being that we all seem to be native English speakers. While the two groups exchange good mornings and hold the door open for each other, and overtures have been made on both sides, the divide remains.
As much as I would like to dismiss this division as a language barrier, there are other occurrences that make me think otherwise. I have attended a number of community consultations run by the local council. At all of these, I have been the only Asian person present, an issue I have raised each time, only to have my concerns politely dismissed by council representatives.
Residential development and the increasing density of the area is a topic that inevitably comes up, and while a valid concern, it sometimes becomes code for white anxieties about changing demographics: people complain about drivers not knowing Australian road rules, or residents of apartment towers leaving washing on their balconies, something we apparently don’t do in our culture.
The letters page of the Manningham Leader, the local rag, prints similar sentiments, conflating development and immigration through racialised language, as in the following:
[E]veryone is sick to death of the proliferation of block after block of ugly soulless expensive kennels for people … Residents don’t stand a chance with our greedy grasping council and developers with deep pockets. Doncaster looks like an expensive ghetto … Enough already.
By far, the most extreme manifestation occurred on a Sunday afternoon in March 2018, when members of Antipodean Resistance, a neo-Nazi group, hung over the Eastern Freeway a banner which stated ‘White Revolution Is the Only Solution’ while performing Hitler salutes. Of course, this was targeted at all racial minorities, not just the Chinese, as well as LGBTIQ folk, the disabled, those with progressive political views – anyone who doesn’t conform to the fascist world view.
I don’t for a second believe this abhorrent doctrine is shared by the wider community, to the point where I hesitate to conflate the two. But it is, unfortunately, impossible not to see these events as related to a broader reassertion of the forces of intolerance.
Local anxieties are likely fuelled by wider fears about the rise of China, played out on the stage of federal politics. Australia has raised objections to China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and, in partnership with the US, has committed to redeveloping a naval base on Manus Island with the express purpose of countering Chinese expansionism. In January 2018, Labor senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign after he contradicted his party’s position on the aforementioned issue and warned a Chinese businessman, a party donor who had paid Dastrayi’s travel expenses, that he may be under surveillance by Australian intelligence. Partly in response, parliament passed foreign donation laws widely viewed as an attempt to curb Chinese influence (whereas American or Saudi influence, for example, appears to be of less concern). Soon afterwards, the government excluded Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from contributing to the 5G network due to security concerns.
It would be naive to argue that China is an innocent party in these matters. Beijing has militarised contested islands in the South China Sea, and has rejected an international tribunal’s ruling on the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea that found its territorial claim ‘has no historical basis’. Numerous Australian security experts, including the head of ASIO, have warned that China is involved in large-scale military and industrial espionage. And by most reports, China is an authoritarian regime that routinely persecutes political dissidents and minorities. There are even reports of monitoring and intimidation of Chinese democracy campaigners residing in other countries, including Australia.
But there is a double standard in these anxieties that points to pervasive Sinophobia. Indeed, examples abound of Australia’s hypocrisy when it comes to China. Although the long-running dispute has now been resolved, Australia was reluctant to engage in international arbitration with the tiny nation of Timor-Leste over crucial gas and oil fields, in a way that mirrors China’s actions in the South China Sea. Australia even went as far as bugging the Timorese ministerial offices to obtain an advantage in negotiations. Australia opposes China’s expansionist activities in the South China Sea, but materially supports the United States despite its illegal invasion of Iraq, its network of official and unofficial military bases around the Pacific, and its campaign of drone warfare, which regularly involves incursions into sovereign states with the purpose of carrying out targeted assassinations, often with significant civilian casualties. Australia criticises China for its absence of free speech, then restricts media access to Manus Island and Nauru so as to hide the human cost of its indefinite detainment of asylum seekers.
Even safeguarding the integrity of our democratic system is enforced unevenly. In 2004–05, Lord Michael Ashcroft, former treasurer and deputy chairman of the British Conservative Party, donated one million dollars to the Liberal Party, one of the single biggest donations in Australian political history. Rather than increase scrutiny around international donations, the Coalition government increased the non-disclosure amount for all political donations by a factor of six.
If curbing vested interests was a genuine concern, industry donations as well as foreign donations would be banned from politics. According to an analysis of foreign donors by the University of Melbourne’s Joo-Cheong Tham and Malcolm Anderson, in 2015–16, the financial year leading up to the last federal election, an estimated $850,000 came from Chinese nationals or entities. This is dwarfed by donations from the resources industry, which splashed almost $1.9 million across political parties – and that figure doesn’t include individual donations, such as the $1.8 million given to the Liberal Party by mining entrepreneur Paul Marks. Considering the policy paralysis on emissions reduction and transitioning to renewable energy, it’s apparent what type of donations has had the more nefarious influence.
Again, this isn’t to defend China’s abuses of power. What it shows is that the claim that Australia’s distrust of China is based on conflicting values in the realms of international law, freedom of speech and national sovereignty doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Another conversation that highlighted local tensions took place with two Anglo-Australian mothers who regularly come to the park. We shared lunch and caught up as our kids played chasey. When I asked whether they would send their kids to the school in question, they hesitated and glanced at each other. Eventually one responded: ‘We don’t think we would send our kids there. It seems too … academic.’
When you are part of a minority, you become attuned to looks and pauses, to the familiar terms that indirectly – yet far from subtly – refer to ‘your people’. One of the most pervasive Chinese stereotypes is that of the robotically academic child, whose strict parents drive them to excel at maths, science, a second language and a musical instrument, and for whom the only acceptable professions are doctor or lawyer. It’s an image perpetuated by Amy Chua in her bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which popularised the idea of a mother who would threaten, shame and harangue her offspring to ensure they achieved perfection.
Certainly, there are many Chinese parents who take a more laissez-faire approach to parenting and who encourage their children to choose whichever profession makes them happiest. I would count my father among them – which is lucky considering I aspire to enter the highly lucrative profession of writing. Conversely, there are parents of all ethnicities who place very high expectations on their children.
But there is some support, both anecdotally and statistically, for the stereotype. In ‘Perfect Chinese Children’, Vanessa Wood’s piece for Growing up Asian in Australia, the young narrator proudly presents her mother with a maths test in which she scored 96 per cent. ‘What happened to the other four per cent?’ her mother demands to know. To another Chinese parent, a 99.9 ATAR isn’t satisfactory. The story tells of Chinese parents sitting around at yum cha, bragging about their children becoming – you guessed it! – doctors and lawyers, as well as the salaries and the gifts they are now able to bestow.
Statistically, children of Asian backgrounds tend to perform better academically. A 2017 OECD study found that students from China were more likely to achieve baseline academic proficiency than their Australian-born peers. While not specific to those of Chinese ancestry, students who speak a language other than English at home tend to score higher in NAPLAN testing. A study by Sydney’s University of Technology found that over 90 per cent of students at selective entry schools in NSW were from non-English-speaking backgrounds. And while not the most scientific method, a quick scan of any year’s VCE High Achiever’s List finds names of Chinese ancestry disproportionately represented.
This tendency towards excellence may be driven by necessity as much as any other factor. In 2009, a study at the Australian National University, in which 4,000 identical job applications were submitted across various industries, found that applicants with non-Anglo names were significantly less likely to obtain an interview. Chinese-named applicants would have to submit 68 per cent more applications than Anglo-Australian job seekers to be granted the same number of interviews. While I would like to believe things have gotten better in the last decade, I am not optimistic. Chinese people need to be better to gain admittance to, and progress in, privileged spaces. As a family friend put it, ‘Because you are Chinese, you need to do 110 per cent better.’ The bamboo ceiling is still very much a reality.
And while the image of the studious, hard-working Asian isn’t in and of itself wholly negative, it can – like all stereotypes – be employed to belittle and dehumanise. For those from mainstream Australian culture wanting to maintain a sense of superiority, it makes available the caricature of the hyper-competitive, borderline-abusive parent who steals their offspring’s childhoods to create academic automatons programmed to generate status and wealth. Rather than being lauded for their excellence, Chinese people are vilified.
It’s a narrative that goes all the way back to the gold rush, when Australia experienced its first significant influx of Chinese migration. As well as unfounded accusations of bringing disease, opium and gambling, or of trying to corrupt white women, Chinese people on the gold fields were resented for their industriousness, especially when they were able to extract gold from claims abandoned by other miners. In an attempt to stem the flow, the Victorian parliament passed a bill to tax each Chinese migrant ten pounds on arrival, an astronomical sum. On 15 January 1857, the Argus reported on parliamentary speeches in which both the government and opposition characterised Chinese migrants as ‘semi-barbarians’:
[The speakers] reported the same cuckoo story that the Chinese … are Pagans, that they are all of the male sex, that they indulge in debasing vices, that they spoil the water for the diggers, that the diggers do not like them, and that they take the gold away from the country. The most gloomy anticipations were also indulged in as to the corruption of the people and the deterioration of the inhabitants by the Chinese being allowed to mix and marry with Europeans.
Such attitudes led to the formation of anti-Chinese leagues, assaults, and harassment of Chinese people and businesses, including mob violence in Buckland (Victoria) and Lambing Flat (NSW), where Chinese were driven off their claims, badly beaten and, in some cases, killed. This anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 – one of the first Acts passed by the new Australian parliament – which formed the basis for the White Australia policy.
In 2007, China overtook Japan as our largest trading partner, largely thanks to its demand for mineral resources. We were able to weather the 2008 financial crisis both due to well-timed government stimulus and China’s appetite for our resources and
services. In 2015, Canberra and Beijing entered into a free-trade agreement, and by the 2016–17 financial year, nearly one third of exports for Australian goods and services were to China.
After minerals, Australia’s largest export industry is education. Where once higher education was entirely publicly funded, it’s now dependent on a continuous flow of international students, with Chinese making up the largest number. In the tourism sector, too, China is the main source of revenue, responsible for over a quarter of the money spent in the last financial year.
The final conversation that shaped my thinking took place with a mate. Our wives had met through a local mother’s group and our children had become close friends. We were watching our kids run down the slope towards a tall gum tree at the bottom of the park.
‘I am not sure I would send my kids there. It’s almost, like, 70 per cent Asian,’ he said.
While this was probably the bluntest statement of the three, it was substantially different for one major reason: my friend is ethnically Chinese, born in Taiwan, having migrated to Australia as a child. He still remembers attending school overseas and that has shaped his current attitudes: ‘It was so competitive and strict. I prefer the more rounded education here, where kids can follow their interests.’
To me, this illustrated a gross generalisation, one I have been guilty of glossing over to this point – the misconception that Chinese-Australians are monolithic. Like most minorities, Chinese-Australians are often stripped of their individuality, blamed collectively for the actions of persons with whom they only share socially constructed identifiers, or held accountable for the
activities of foreign governments with which they have no association. The reality is that the Chinese-Australian community is incredibly diverse, encompassing numerous countries of birth, ethnicities and relationships to Australia.
Firstly, ‘Chinese’ can refer to both an ethnicity and a nationality. People of Chinese ethnicity may trace their origins to Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines or anywhere else that has a Chinese community – which, as one of the world’s great migrating peoples, is everywhere.
Within the nation of China, the majority of the population is of Han ethnicity, but there are actually over fifty recognised minorities, among them Zhuang, Hui, Manchu, Uyghur, Miao, Yi, Tujia, Tibetan and Mongol, to name a few. And while officially part of the Chinese state, some citizens from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Tibet may resist the notion that they belong to China at all.
Of the approximately 1.3 million Australians identifying as Chinese in the 2016 census, only around 510,000 (42 per cent) were born in mainland China. These expats may have varied political attitudes to the government of their birth country, migrating not just for greater economic and educational opportunities, but perhaps also for a more liberal political environment.
This isn’t to suggest that there are somehow good Chinese and bad Chinese. Newer residents from mainland China don’t deserve the suspicion directed towards them for engaging in activities which, for many Australians, would have them considered good members of civic society. I have experienced locals questioning the source of funds for two Chinese-Australian politicians who have stood at both the council and federal level, a question I have never heard of other candidates. Even Kevin Rudd was labelled a ‘Manchurian candidate’ for his openness to Beijing and fluency in Mandarin. Chinese-Australian business people who make donations to political parties are seen as trying to exert sinister influence. Media reports often imply high-profile Chinese expats have nefarious links to the Chinese government, ignoring the fact that government connections are necessary to conduct business in China.
It should also be asked whether it’s sinister to promote positive relations between adopted and birth countries. Australia allows people to hold dual citizenship (unless they are parliamentarians) and in an increasingly multicultural society and globalised world, it will become more common for people to belong to multiple countries. Obviously, if there were conflict between these two countries, this could result in divided loyalties, but we aren’t currently at war with China.
Then, of course, there are – to use the in-community term – ABCs: Australian-born Chinese, including those of mixed race like myself. Our families may have been here for one generation or for several. The first recorded Chinese migrant to Australia arrived in 1818, and though marginalised, the story of Chinese-Australians is interwoven with the nation’s modern history. We have been lawyers like William Ah Ket, who fought against discriminatory laws; soldiers like Billy Sing, who served at Gallipoli; lauded writers like Alice Pung and Melanie Cheng; and popular politicians like Penny Wong, leader of the opposition in the senate.
It would be dishonest to reach this point and not reveal where I plan to educate my children. Like my friend, I probably will not choose the school in question. I tell myself that my reasons are ideological and practical: the school makes students cram for the NAPLAN test, and there is another good state option within easier walking distance. The preferred school is still multicultural and is attended by many Chinese-Australians, just not in the same high proportion.
But I wonder if I, too, am affected by unconscious racial bias. After all, I have been raised in a culture with a long history of anti-Chinese sentiment. It’s a difficult process to decolonise the mind. But this uncomfortable possibility must be confronted because it’s only by being vigilant to entrenched racism that we can hope to see past it, and thus move towards a less fearful future.
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