Never before have there been more people of Chinese origin in Australia, or the nations’ economies so tightly linked. Yet for many Australians a fear of China is proving difficult to overcome.

by Mark Mulligan

By the time she was about 10 years old, Erin Chew had had enough of looking Asian.

Born in Australia of Malaysian Chinese parents, hers was a time when non-European or non-Indigenous faces stood out around the public housing estates of Mount Druitt, in Sydney’s outer west.

The Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese of Cabramatta and Cantonese-speaking clans of Haymarket’s Chinatown might as well have been 10,000 kilometres away, for all their presence helped Chew feel about herself.

“I suffered a lot of racial bullying and a lot of physical bullying,” she recalls.

Canberra Grammar Northside Junior School students learning Mandarin.
Canberra Grammar Northside Junior School students learning Mandarin. Karleen Minney

“I even had kids’ parents telling me to go back to China, even though I’m not from China.”

She remembers that during the tricky pre-pubescent and teenage years she “tried not to be Asian”.

“I even told my parents, ‘I want to change my last name’,” she says.

Chew survived the childhood taunts and shame to make it to Sydney University, where amid expanding cohorts of Chinese, Indian, Korean and south-east Asian students, she learned to celebrate her identity and fight prejudice and discrimination. In 2013 she helped found the Asian Australian Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of Asian communities.

Complex relationship

Benjamin Law says "to make that assumption – that something has gone away just because we will it away – is putting your ...
Benjamin Law says “to make that assumption – that something has gone away just because we will it away – is putting your head in the sand.”

Australia has also changed dramatically in the past two decades. Never before have there been more people of Chinese origin in Australia, or the nations’ economies so tightly linked. Yet deep cultural and historical differences, and the obvious physical ones, mean the relationship will always be complex.

“Australia is a multicultural society, but not necessarily a tolerant one,” Chew says.

Of the 6.6 million Australian residents born overseas, about 8 per cent hail from mainland China and Hong Kong, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for June 2014 show.

Chinese students account for another 150,000 or so, while there are many other first-, second- and third-generation Australian-Chinese from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore and even a smattering of descendants from the first wave of arrivals during the gold rush of the mid- to late-19th century. In the 2011 Census, Mandarin surpassed ­Italian as the most-spoken language in ­Australia after English.

Conversely, Mandarin teaching is increasingly on offer in high schools around the country, something identified by successive federal governments as crucial to the country’s engagement with China.

On the surface at least, around Chinese neighbourhoods across most of Australia’s large cities everyone seems to be getting along.

Racial violence targeting ­Chinese residents is not a special policing issue, as it became for Indian students in Melbourne in 2009 and 2010. Young mixed couples are a common sight now on city streets, and Australians by and large ­appreciate China’s contribution to the ­country’s prosperity.

The 2015 Mapping Social Cohesion survey by the Scanlon Foundation, which researches the transition of migrants into Australian society, found an important drop in reported experiences of discrimination across all immigrant groups, to 14.5 per cent of the sample total in 2015 from 18 per cent in 2014 and 19 per cent in 2013.

This, however, is not to say the Chinese always feel welcome in this country. In fact, the same survey found that 25 per cent of Chinese-born immigrants had experienced discrimination in the workplace, on public transport, at sporting events, in the street, at social gatherings, at school or university or while shopping.

Australia has a long history of anti-Asian and anti-Chinese feeling, starting with “roll-ups” of Chinese diggers in the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s and the infamous race riots at Lambing Flats, in Young, NSW, in the 1860s. Colonial immigration rules springing from this bloody period, during which hundreds of Chinese miners were badly injured, were the precursor to the country’s notorious White Australia Policy, which prescribed non-Asian immigration for the first 60 years of federation.

Although not as openly vilified and demonised as the country’s increasing Muslim population, the Chinese diaspora in Australia today are still subjected to the full spectrum of abuse, from casual racism and name-calling to workplace and official discrimination and physical attacks.

Despite boasting one of the West’s biggest Asian populations as a proportion of the total, Australia appears to lag countries such as Canada and the United States in integration. Asians, and people of Chinese descent more specifically, seem under-represented in government, the judiciary and many types of business.

Bamboo ceiling

This, lobbyists such as Chew say, is what needs to be addressed in modern Australia.

“Discrimination is there. What we call racial bias and, to use the trendy term, the bamboo ceiling, do exist,” she says.

“You can look at the major banks and companies such as Telstra and you see a lot of Asians, but they are sitting in middle management.

“Where are the directors?”

Former Labor foreign minister and NSW premier Bob Carr, who is director of the Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) at Sydney’s University of Technology, agrees Australia still has ground to make up in the integration of its Chinese residents and other large Asian groups.

However, he says his experiences over the years suggest there is a growing awareness, at least, of the issue within corporate Australia.

“The fact that corporations are talking about the number of people of Indian and Chinese background and how that’s not reflected in the leadership shows that the contradiction is being acknowledged,” he says.

Australia’s brand of multiculturalism

And it’s not that Anglo-Celtic Australia’s relationship with the Chinese and Asia has ever been smooth, says academic and author Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, whose works include the lauded For Those Who’ve Come Across the Sea, about Australia’s brand of multiculturalism.

“During the White Australia, Red China period most Australians were racist about Chinese, supercilious and terrified of the military potential but unaware of the economic,” he says.

These views gradually waned, he says, until the crackdown on dissidents in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 ignited global indignation and renewed criticism of Chinese power. Australians, by then assimilating increasing numbers of ethnic Chinese and enjoying the savings offered by cheap exports from the economic powerhouse to the north, reverted to eyeing the nation of a billion people with suspicion.

As Australia emerged from recession in the 1990s, the mood was right for One Nation founder Pauline Hanson to build a political career on revived fears of an Asian “takeover” of Australian jobs, land and culture.

“They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate,” Hanson warned in the mid-1990s.

“Of course, I will be called racist, but if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.”

Her words resonated with great swathes of the Australian population at the time, and seemingly picked up on the views of esteemed and often controversial Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, who also questioned Australia’s preference for Asians in its official immigration programme after White Australia.

Action and inaction

Helen Sham-Ho, Australia’s first elected Chinese parliamentarian, remembers the Hanson era as a particularly divisive period in the country’s political and cultural history. She quit the Liberal Party in disgust at its inaction against a rising tide of official xenophobia, accusing then-Prime Minister John Howard, who in 1988 had advocated a slowdown in Asian immigration, of, at best, complacency.

“Anti-Asian feeling had always been there, but it was always latent, always swept under the carpet,” she says.

“When Pauline Hanson started, I thought [Howard] was endorsing her views, because he never stamped it down. He never said, ‘you shouldn’t say that’.

“That’s why I actually resigned from the Liberal Party, because I felt that my colleagues were looking at me a bit differently.”

Not surprisingly, Bob Carr also recalls the period with some distaste, but insists Australia is growing up.

Although critical of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s early missteps with the Chinese government, he describes the evolution of the relationship with China over the years as “normalisation”. Few disagree that Gough Whitlam’s early advocacy for recognition of communist China and then his 1973 state visit marked the beginning of Australia’s modern relationship with the Middle Kingdom. Most successive prime ministers have managed to build on that platform, although handling the relationship has never been straightforward.

As any Australian foreign minister or prime minister would know, doing this without upsetting Japan and the United States requires the deftest of diplomatic overtures.

“I think in terms of nitty-gritty diplomatic work, we are showing that we can manage differences,” Carr says.

“We are showing that our alliance with America is not a barrier to a fruitful relationship with China.”

Increasingly relaxed

At the street level, he says, Anglo-Celtic and European Australians appear to be increasingly relaxed about sharing their country with Asians, and more likely to celebrate it.

“Where’s the front page of the tabloid that announces to a shocked public that our biggest source of migration is China,” he says. “It’s been that way for, I’m guessing, a decade.”

However, things are far from perfect in multicultural paradise.

The rise of so-called “citizen journalism”, which allows anyone with a smartphone to record and publish what’s going on around them, has given fresh insights to the sort of prejudices that still endure in Australia.

One of the most watched of the genre showed Karen Bailey, 55, in July 2015 launch a vile racist attack against a young Asian woman on a commuter train travelling between Sydney and the NSW Central Coast.

She was hauled before the courts and later apologised, but not before hundreds of thousands of people around the world were exposed to the sort of virulent racism against the Chinese and other Asians on show in 21st century Australia. More recently, an Aboriginal teenager was filmed on a Sydney suburban train threatening a Chinese man with a chisel.

Head in the sand

Well-known author and journalist Benjamin Law, the son of immigrants from Hong Kong, is no stranger to this sort of abuse, despite a popularity and public profile that transcends race.

He says today’s digital technology acts as a safeguard against complacency.

“A lot of this has to do with smartphone access, which is a good thing,” he says.

“Because it reminds us that just because we decided in the 1970s that women and men should be equal, it doesn’t mean that sexism goes away.

“Or just because we decided that Indigenous people should have the same voting rights as the rest of the Australians in the 1970s, it doesn’t mean that racism towards Aboriginal people goes away.

“Or just because this generation has decided that homophobia is bad, it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

“And to make that assumption – that something has gone away just because we will it away – is putting your head in the sand.”

More than often, however, anti-Chinese feeling in Australia often manifests itself more subtly, in people’s discomfort with our trade relationship with the country, or the perception that the Chinese are crouched, waiting to pounce on all our farmland and real estate.

Resentment and adoration

Each Chinese purchase of mining assets or agricultural companies raises the temperature in suburban shock-jock land, while growing interest from mainland China is often blamed for pushing up residential property prices in Sydney and Melbourne.

By the same token, most Australians are aware that many of our most important economic sectors will always lean heavily on Chinese investment and custom.

Whereas 50 or 60 years ago the Chinese were viewed with suspicion because the republic was communist – despite immigrants to Australia then coming overwhelmingly from British-ruled Hong Kong – the Chinese in Australia today are damned for being too financially powerful and acquisitive.

The modern Australian view of the world’s second-largest economy is a confused blend of awe and grievance, Jakubowicz says.

“The total and growing dependence of the Australian economy in its four largest sectors – mining, education, tourism and agriculture – on China has produced a state of extreme anxiety and resentment, expressed often as fawning adoration,” he says.

He also suggests there is a “growing sense that Chinese soft power and its rock-hard grip on the Chinese diaspora may have created a political arm of China in the heart of Australia”.

To be sure, segments of Australian society remain critical of China’s human rights record, and uneasy about its totalitarian system of government, record on intellectual property theft and sophisticated electronic spying network. Many Chinese-Australians, particularly those not from the mainland, are also wary of the economic and political might of the People’s Republic.

Touchy subjects

Canberra’s 2012 barring of telecoms giant Huawei from tenders for the national broadband network made Beijing unhappy, as did the refusal of the Rudd and Gillard governments to treat China’s state-owned enterprises as private-sector companies under the foreign investment review regime.

The Abbott government’s concessions in this area helped it secure the free-trade agreement with China, which was ratified by Parliament in 2015 after more than 10 years of choppy negotiations.

The FTA was well received in Australia, although in its lead-up and aftermath there were plenty of warnings from trade unions about cheap Chinese labour undercutting Australians’ wages.

In one television advertisement, which has embarrassed sections of the Labor Party, a young man is told by his father that Tony Abbott “stuffed up” the FTA with China, by “letting Chinese companies bring in their own workers”.

Abbott at the time accused Labor and the unions of “spreading racist lies”, while Trade Minister Andrew Robb described the campaign as “dishonest, vile and racist”.

The campaign has also been rounded on by a range of think tanks and organisations such as the Australia China Business Council.

Ownership matters

However, it is property – a popular dinner party topic in mortgage-mad Sydney and Melbourne – that most often grabs the headlines when it comes to Chinese investment in Australia.

“I’ve been to a couple of auctions to see what happens, and the Chinese are often at the forefront of bidders,” says George Wing Kee, a third-generation Hong Kong Chinese who runs a small real estate agency in Sydney’s bustling Chinatown.

“But when they talk about the Chinese paying record amounts for property, the person selling can’t be unhappy.

“We like to pick on Asian people because they are buying property, but they’re bringing money into the country, which is a good thing that makes the country more viable and prosperous,” he says.

Although established luxury properties are within the scope of China’s new rich, the regulatory hurdles in the secondary market are high, so a lot of buying is concentrated in new apartments and units in high-density inner-city areas, many directly marketed to the Chinese in China. Some buy to rent out to Chinese students or to give their offspring a base while studying.

In inner Sydney, one-bedroom units can fetch $400 or more a week in rent, offering tidy yields to ­cash-paying investors or those with small mortgages – and that’s before taking into account the turbo-charged capital ­appreciation that was available before the Sydney and Melbourne markets began to cool.

The depreciation of the Australian dollar against the yuan should keep interest alive, even as the Chinese economy slows, and its increasingly liberalised currency also loosens its peg to the mighty American dollar.

Nationalist response

That Chinese demand has been partly responsible for double-digit house price growth in Australia’s two biggest cities has not sat well with everyone, particularly would-be first-time home buyers who feel priced out of the market.

The phenomenon has also provided fuel for right-wing nationalists such as Nick Folkes and his Party for Freedom.

Although better known for his anti-Islam activism, Folkes has also railed regularly against Chinese investment in Australia’s property markets, occasionally stirring up trouble at Sydney house auctions. For $19, anyone can buy a set of “Foreign Ownership is Economic Genocide” stickers, one of which shows a unit or office block draped in a Chinese flag.

However, most people, including economists and politicians, recognise that Chinese demand, particularly for off-the-plan apartments in Australia’s main capital cities, has been partly responsible for reviving construction activity as the mining investment and commodity price downturn arrests growth and threatens the job market.

This is particularly true of NSW and Victoria, whose economies are doing much better than mining states such as Western Australia.

“Chinese investment has unblocked a new supply pipeline, and spurred a development boom,” says Simon Henry, co-founder of Juwai.com, a website ­dedicated to matching Chinese residential property buyers with sellers around the world.

“The NSW government would like to take credit for apartment starts in that state, but you wouldn’t see the historic levels of new construction that we have today without Chinese buyers being so willing to purchase off the plan,” he says.

“For years, we just didn’t have enough off-the-plan buyers for developers to build enough homes.

“Because they are willing to buy off the plan and give developers the pre-sales they need to start construction, every new home bought by a Chinese investor enables four other homes to be built.”

Still, such is the passion around the issue that a parliamentary committee was formed in 2014 to look at how to close loopholes in investment rules around house ­purchases by foreigners, or even impose controls.

One result was December’s introduction of application fees for all foreign residents wanting to buy residential property in Australia, and higher fines for those seeking to get around stringent controls on the purchase of established dwellings.

A pre-emptive crackdown on rule-breakers made headlines across the country.

In one high-profile case in 2015, Chinese billionaire Hui Ka Yan was forced to sell a $39 million harbourside mansion in Sydney because its purchase the year before had contravened Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board rules on foreign ownership of established properties.

There have been a smattering of smaller-scale forced sales since then. Joe Hockey, while still Treasurer, once said there were 100 such cases under investigation.

Whatever the upshot of this, Australian home buyers will have to learn how to ­compete with China’s rapidly expanding wealthier classes.

Although economic growth rates in the country are slowing, the government is committed to loosening controls on the movement of capital in and out of the country, which should ultimately make it easier for the Chinese to step up investment, not just in Australia but around the world.

“When they do cut back on the capital controls, a complete removal would deliver an extra estimated $75.7 billion to Australia’s residential real estate markets,” Henry says.

“This figure depends on a reasonable estimate that wealthy Chinese individuals allocate approximately 10 per cent of their total assets to international real estate, and on Australia receiving the same amount of that investment as in recent years.”

As market turmoil again this week has shown, when the Chinese economy sneezes, Australia can catch a cold. And nobody doubts that if worse-case scenarios of a “hard landing” for the Chinese economy come true, Australia could head close to recession.

None of this is lost on Chew, who agrees most Australians accept that their economic fortunes are at least partly tied to China’s. Her main concern, however, is that Australia formally recognises the contribution its Chinese – and Asian – immigrants have made to the country’s rich culture and wellbeing.

One precursor to the creation of the Asian Australian Alliance was lobbying Canberra for an official apology, or statement of regret, for the White Australia Policy.

Although such a symbolic act would have been more likely under Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard, the alliance is still pursuing it with the Turnbull government. It is also pushing for university degrees in Asian-Australian studies and trying to organise more events celebrating the Chinese and Asians in Australia.

“Australia today is a more egalitarian society, so we’ve come a long way as a nation,” Chew says.

“However, it has not always been this way.

“We need to get a statement of regret from the Australian government to recognise the contributions of our early Chinese and other migrants who came during the White Australian Policy days and to bring closure to a long period of blatant discrimination.”

Financial Review

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