Now at last, the return of the legendary Telek
There are no more reds under the bed

Australia should rid itself of its fear of China

It was not until 1973 and  the Whitlam Labor government that Australia formally rejected race as in any way relevant to immigration. The ‘yellow peril’ idea was discarded, but it remains active in the Australian imagination and is easy to revive

Chinese migrants arrive in South Australia, ready to walk to Victoria to begin mining in the 1850s gold rush. If they disembarked outside Victoria, they didn't have to pay immigration tax

| Pearls & Irritations

BRISBANE – Australia must overcome Sinophobia and rejoice in a future in the Asian region.

As a child growing up in Sydney in the 1950s, I recall my elders showing me a map of our region, with big red arrows pointing downwards from China to Australia.

It was almost as if gravity was helping the evil red menace to conquer Australia.

Of course, we all know the earth is a sphere, but the red downward thrust seemed to jibe with the traditional yellow peril to generate a strong image of fear of China.

Naively, I thought we’d overcome it in the decades following 1972. And yet here we are again and Scott Morrison, among others, had no trouble bringing it back!

One can’t help wondering why this Sinophobia is so persistent.

Racial white supremacy goes back a long way in Australia.

There is a great deal of uncertainty spawned by the fact that the British simply took over this enormous continent and then ‘settled’ it, initially largely for convicts, without asking anybody’s permission.

The lack of self-confidence has clung to us, making us hanker after England on the other side of the world and forgetting or regretting that we are in the Asian region, and always shall be.

Who could have imagined that over 250 years later, the head of the Australian state would still be the English king?

As for the Chinese, their history in Australia is only a little shorter than that of the British.

They did not come as conquerors, yet they were regarded with distrust. Indeed, hostility towards the Chinese was one of the driving forces behind the push for federation.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’, was specifically directed against Asians, in particular Chinese.

That was a very good example of the ‘yellow peril’ notion.

But the British-derived Australians looked down on them as inferior.

China itself was large, looming over our region, and dangerous.

The Americans had the notion of the ‘yellow peril’, even formalising it into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and Australia was happy to agree.

And it was part of European colonialism to fear threat from the very people the Europeans threatened and to call them insulting names based on race.

It was not until 1973 that the Whitlam government formally rejected the idea that race was in any way relevant to immigration.

The ‘yellow peril’ notion was discarded but it remains active in the Australian imagination and easy to revive.

When some politician comes along and sees it as useful to exploit Sinophobia for political gain, it’s easy to press the right button and bring it back again, though not under that name.

Pauline Hanson is not the only one who has been able to do that. Though it would not say so, a 2018 law demanding transparency in foreign influence was aimed largely against the Chinese.

Fortunately, the number of Australian residents of Chinese origin has expanded greatly.

The 1986 census gave the number of people of Chinese ancestry as 201,331.

Reporting on the 2021 census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics stated that 1,390,637 Australian residents identified themselves as having Chinese ancestry, accounting for 5.5% of the total population. That’s a big rise and very good for Australia.

Then there’s the other side of the coin: the way we cling to allies like the United States. This is historical too.

The United States did indeed save Australia against Japan in World War II.

But to imply an equivalence between the new and rising China to imperial Japan, as some like the current leader of the opposition Peter Dutton have done, is dangerous nonsense.

Not only was China the most seriously affected victim of Japan, but it has never behaved like Japan.

Unlike the United States, which has been at war most of its history and repeatedly sent troops to conquer others, China has not sent troops outside its borders since the short border war with Vietnam in 1979.

Unlike the United States, China has never exported its ideology.

I would point out that Australia’s dependence on great allies like the United States has little benefit for us.

Most of the wars into which we have followed the United States have little or nothing to do with us.

I think there is something cultural, maybe even racial, in the way our leaders fawn on - and our media follow - American counterparts while keeping their distance from Chinese.

Last Friday, referring to an interview former Australian prime minister Paul Keating had given two days earlier, an article by Greg Sheridan in The Australian was headlined, ‘Alas poor Paul Keating, for he hath truly lost the plot’.

I have to say I think it is Greg Sheridan and The Australian that have lost the plot.

Keating is dead right to say we must respect China, get away from the Anglosphere represented by AUKUS and stop outsourcing our strategic sovereignty to the United States.

We followed the United States into the delusion that China would democratise and become more ideologically like us, rather than follow its own path.

We are happy to trade and make money out of China. But as for power, the US seems to find it impossible to deal with China on an equal basis and too many of Australia’s leaders are influenced by this attitude.

We have got far too used to a comfort zone in the Anglosphere, despite our multiculturalism.

And I fear there is more than a tinge of racism that helps to keep the fear of China not only alive but sometimes even strong.

We must overcome this Sinophobia and rejoice in a future in the Asian region.

Colin Mackerras AO is professor emeritus at Griffith University in Queensland. He has visited and worked in China many times, first working there as a teacher of English from 1964 to 1966 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Arthur Williams

Yesterday's BBC News:

17 Oct 2022 - 'Hong Kong protester dragged into Manchester Chinese consulate grounds and beaten up' by Lok Lee at the consulate in Manchester and Elsa Maishman in London:

"A Hong Kong pro-democracy protester was pulled into Chinese consulate grounds in Manchester on Sunday and beaten up. Unidentified men came out of the consulate and forced a man inside the compound before he escaped with the help of police (video showed Brit cops in tug-of-war to save him) and other demonstrators. The protester told the BBC: "They dragged me inside, they beat me up."

The UK government called the reports "extremely concerning". The consulate says protesters displayed an insulting portrait of China's president. The Foreign Office said it was urgently seeking clarity on the incident. Greater Manchester Police has launched an investigation.

Speaking after the incident, the protester, called Bob, told BBC Chinese that "mainlanders" - people from mainland China, as opposed to Hong Kong - had come out of the consulate and destroyed their posters.

"As we tried to stop them, they dragged me inside, they beat me up," he said, adding that he was then pulled out by the UK police."

Surely that's Ok in this modern world after all a non-BBC story I saw this morning on Al-Jazeera reported: 'Malaysian media says Israel’s Mossad behind kidnapped Palestinian'
"The New Straits Times reported that a Palestinian man was abducted in ‘snatch-and-grab’ operation in Kuala Lumpur."

PNG's nearest western neighbour used to do it through the two nations' porous border. Surely they wouldn't do it now or do they?

Chris Overland

Professor Mackerras rightly refers to how Australia's lamentable history of Sinophobia has, in the past at least, led to racially prejudiced and unjust policies such as the deplorable White Australia Policy.

I am old enough to remember the 'Reds under the bed' scare campaign that once influenced Australian political thinking, notably amongst conservatives.

There was at least some basis for this at that time (the 1960's) when the USSR's avowed mission was to export its version of communism to the rest of the world.

However, the world has moved on since that time and, at least until recently, Australian governments have displayed a far more nuanced and subtle understanding of the world, including relations with China.

Unhappily, the Morrison government reverted to the sort of anti-Chinese rhetoric that was common in the 1960's. I doubt that this was a conscious policy decision in the first instance.

It seems to have been an artefact of Morrison's unwise and ill-advised megaphone diplomacy over the origins of Covid-19, which was subsequently compounded by the Chinese government's equally unsubtle and self-defeating policy response.

In any event, the Albanese government has gone to some pains to tone down the rhetoric and there has been some reciprocation on the part of the Chinese government.

The two governments now are at least talking to one another again and there seems some hope that the relationship can be rebalanced, albeit based upon respectful disagreement upon some issues.

On balance, despite the alarmist rhetoric of the Morrison government, I do not think that there has been a significant resurgence in Sinophobia in Australia. Even where such sentiment exists, it is likely to be confined to a very small minority of the 'usual suspects'.

I think that it is an error to assume that because of our lamentable history of Sinophobia, this type of thinking therefore is still significant, socially or politically, in Australia.

With about 5% of Australians being of Chinese origin, they are represented very broadly and deeply within modern Australian society.

Many Australians of a non-Chinese background know, work with and socialise with people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, and this makes it much more difficult than in the 1960's to generate the 'fear of the other' that is the basis of racist thinking.

That said, I think that there is well founded belief that the Chinese government, and the Chinese Communist Party of which it is composed, are organisations that should be regarded with considerable suspicion.

This suspicion is a rational response to the actions and words of Chinese government and CCP representatives, not evidence of resurgent Sinophobia.

Like any emerging great power, China is beginning to throw its weight around. It actions towards Australia are clear evidence of this propensity.

It is therefore an entirely rational response for a medium sized power like Australia to seek to ally itself with an existing great power with whom it has strong and friendly relations extending back nearly 80 years.

This does not mean surrendering our independent capacity to make policy judgements in our own national interests.

This is a fallacy much beloved of the progressive left of Australian politics.

Admittedly, the decisions of some former Australian governments, such as Liberal prime minister Harold Holt's assertion that we would go 'All the way with LBJ' in Vietnam and John Howard's decision to involve us in America's misadventure in Iraq, do give this idea some force.

However, I think that it has never been a necessary precondition of our relationship with the USA that we must fall into line with its foreign policy objectives.

In this context, I note that Labor governments have been much more inclined to take an independent outlook, notably the Whitlam and Keating governments.

Consequently, I expect that the Albanese government will pursue our national interests with China even if, at times, this may not meet with the approval of the Americans.

For the reasons mentioned, I think that Professor Mackerras is unduly pessimistic in his analysis, but I agree that we should be prudently watchful for the re-emergence of unhelpful thinking based on racial stereotypes.

Such thinking can only lead us into error and does a considerable disservice to our many loyal citizens who originate from other than English speaking countries.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)