The challenge of anti-Chinese resentment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 12:00am


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Australia's 'love-in' with China continues unabated, with Prime Minister John Howard and President Hu Jintao releasing a study on the benefits of a free-trade pact and agreeing to begin what will be lengthy talks to achieve one. And Mr Howard was back in China at the weekend as the keynote speaker at the Boao economic forum on Hainan Island .

But while all appears harmonious on the Chinese-Australian economic front, the broader relationship is still somewhat ambiguous and nebulous. As a new book published this month argues, while Australia no longer bars immigrants on the basis of race or skin colour, there is still unease in some quarters about Chinese and, more generally, Asian migration and cultural influence.

China is shaping up to become a formidable influence over Australia and it is important that this unease does not spill over into political, economic and cultural hostility.

Gwenda Tavan's The Long, Slow Death of White Australia reminds us that for most of Australia's 220-year post-European settlement history, Chinese culture and migrants have been a target of hostility and fear.

As early as the 1830s, authorities were asked to restrict Chinese migration, and resentment peaked in the 1850s gold rushes. As Tavan observes, by the mid-1890s, 'popular hostility towards the Chinese had evolved into a broad doctrine of national identity and sovereignty, and a belief that prohibiting all non-European migration was the only way to prevent Australia being swamped by Asians'.

Since the 1890s, antipathy towards Chinese and, more broadly, Asian immigration has flared up periodically and ignited strong community feelings. Tavan quotes an Australian official in the early 1950s observing that, in his view, Chinese migrants are 'unlikely to make any worthwhile contribution to the economic advancement' of Australia.

The White Australia Policy, which effectively barred non-European migration, was supported by the people and the political establishment. It was finally laid to rest in the early 1970s. But on two notable occasions since then, the xenophobic underbelly of Australian society has reared its head.

In 1984, one of Australia's most popular historians, Geoffrey Blainey, questioned the level of Asian immigration to Australia - an argument then supported by John Howard, although he recanted these views before he was elected prime minister in 1996.

The late 1990s saw the rise of the populist politician Pauline Hanson. She used her first speech in Parliament in 1996 to say that Australians were in danger of 'being swamped by Asians' who form 'ghettos' and do not assimilate. Ms Hanson's One Nation Party, with its unashamedly anti-Asian policies, was highly successful until it imploded four years ago. Although Ms Hanson's political career is seemingly finished, the capacity for Australian politicians to tap into community hostility towards Asian and other non-European cultures has not diminished.

According to media reports this week, a free-trade agreement with China will result in some significant job and investment losses in key Australian industries.

If this spectre looms as a reality, then another Hanson-type populist might emerge to unleash anti-Chinese resentment.

Making scapegoats of the Chinese and other Asians for economic and social change is an age-old Australian habit, as Tavan's book observes. The challenge now is for Australian leaders to ensure that it does not emerge as a result of the decision to hitch Australia's economic wagon to China.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser