Chinese presence growing fast as history begins to repeat itself

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am


Drive around Australia for a while and it won't be long before you come across a Chinaman's Creek. It may reek of political incorrectness, but the place name is surprisingly common and reflects the huge numbers of Chinese who flocked to the Australian goldfields during the 19th century.

A century and a half on, the Chinese presence is again making itself felt in Sydney and beyond.

Chinese have been settling in Australia for decades, but the pace of immigration has recently stepped up. Figures released this week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that more than 12,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in the financial year 2006-2007, up from 10,500 the year before. That made them the fourth-largest group by nationality behind New Zealanders, Britons and Indians.

The most popular state for Chinese migrants was New South Wales - including Sydney - already home to a large diaspora.

Like so many countries in Asia and Africa, Australia is becoming ever more enmeshed in China's expanding web of influence.

A clutch of stories from the last few days illustrates the point. Last week the New South Wales government announced that the study of Mandarin would be made compulsory in some public-funded schools from next year.

Private schools are already offering their pupils Mandarin, including Sydney's Saint Ignatius' College Riverview.

'Mandarin is going to become a subject of choice as the Chinese economy becomes more important, and jobs onshore and offshore will depend on students being conversant in other languages,' said headmaster Shane Hogan.

Australian school-leavers with knowledge of Putonghua may find themselves working for the growing number of companies selling their products to China.

At a trade show at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre this week, 800 Australian businesses showed off their food and beverage exports. Of the 250 buyers from around the world at the Fine Food Australia trade show, the biggest single group was from China.

'The interest in Australia is partly driven by China's growing middle class and urbanisation, including a massive expansion of the country's freeway and railway network,' said Peter Osborne, a Beijing-based spokesman for the government export agency, Austrade.

'Among the products in demand are Australian wine, seafood, dairy and dry grocery products such as snacks, confectionary, biscuits and cereals.'

In the past year, the volume of Australian exports has increased by more than 20 per cent.

Eating and shopping are top priorities for the rising number of Chinese tourists. About 300,000 Chinese came to Australia last year and the number is expected to triple within five years.

The head of Beijing's National Tourism Authority told a recent conference in Sydney that Australia can expect more than a million Chinese visitors a year by 2012.

Australia is also reaping rich rewards from its new-found status as 'China's quarry'. Billions of dollars' worth of iron ore, coal and other minerals are being gouged out of the Outback and shipped north. Chinese corporations are investing in joint ventures in dusty desert mines, feeding the mainland's insatiable demand for raw materials.

The boom is having a massive impact on the domestic economy, with the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland enjoying a bonanza, while the service and manufacturing sectors of New South Wales are in the doldrums.

Labour shortages in the mining industry are proving tempting for many. 'I could jump on a plane tomorrow and earn A$250,000 (HK$1.68 million) a year,' said Mike, a Sydney electrician. 'Out west, they're crying out for tradies [tradesmen].'

Back in the days of the gold rush, Australia's mining industry was built on the backs of Chinese coolies; now it's Chinese credit.