Over the hills lies China


A response to the sweeping attack on all things Chinese in Paul Sheehan’s Amongst the Barbarians

Bob Gould

In the first years of settlement in the harsh penal colony of New South Wales, many convicts had the vague idea that China lay somewhere not too far north of the Blue Mountains, and quite a few escaped into the mountains from the colony, hoping to walk to China!

Most theories as to the reason for the settlement in NSW include the proposition that one of the objectives was to have a safe British colony in the South Pacific as a centre for trade with China. China, therefore, as both idea and place, is present in Australian consciousness from the very first moment of settlement.

In Paul Sheehan’s book, Amongst the Barbarians, two chapters are devoted to a quite bizarre and sweeping broadside against China, and pretty well all things Chinese. Throughout his book, he grabs hold of other authors who confirm his views, and christens them “authorities”. In the Chinese case, his main “authority” is another journalist, Sang Ye. Sheehan’s main discovery is that, according to Sang Ye, many Chinese migrants to Australia he interviewed had a chauvinistic attitude to Australians. Wow, what a discovery!

Well, in my discussion of China and Australia, I would list some authorities. My authorities are Eric Rolls, who wrote Sojourners (University of Queensland Press, 1992); Stirling Seagrave, who wrote Lords of the Rim (also mentioned by Sheehan); C.Y. Choi, who wrote Chinese migration and settlement in Australia (Sydney University Press 1975); Andrew Marcus, who wrote Fear and hatred: Purifying Australia and California, 1850-1901 (Hale and Iremonger 1979); Gregory Clark, who wrote In fear of China; Shirley Fitzgerald, who wrote Red tape, gold scissors, the story of Sydney’s Chinese (NSW State Library 1997); C.F. Yong, who wrote The new gold mountain, the Chinese in Australia (1977) and James Coughlan and Deborah McNamara, who edited Asians in Australia. Patterns of migration and settlement (Macmillan Education, Melbourne, 1997).

These well-researched and thoroughly documented, serious works are real authorities.

China and me

When I was a kid in the 1950s, my father was a school teacher, and therefore had fairly short working hours and a number of holidays a year. One side effect of this was that my family, in the time-honoured Australian way, had a small business on the side, and used to grow gladioli in a small market garden at Beverly Hills and sell them from the stall of a friend in the Sydney Flower and Vegetable Market in the Haymarket area.

I spent part of my childhood going into this market with my Dad three times a week at five o’clock in the morning, dragging many boxes of gladdies on to the electric train. The stall next to ours was run by a lively old Chinese man who was very kind to me and who I remember with affection.

On the way in on the train, we used to go past Cooks River. Between Turella and Tempe, on the mud flats, there was in those days a vast area of Chinese market gardens. In the early morning, from the train you could see the market gardeners carrying the night soil in the ancient way on their backs.

In fact, right up until the late 1950s, many areas of sandy or swampy soil around Sydney contained traditional Chinese market gardens. There is one of those left still on West Botany Street, Rockdale, and it is now quite properly National-Trust listed. It may come as a surprise, but in the 1890s, the mud flats at Rose Bay, which now contain the Royal Sydney Golf Course, were Chinese market gardens, and there were also Chinese market gardens at Rushcutters Bay and other similar places.

A bit later in the 1950, when I became involved in politics, I was mightily excited by such books as Red star over China by Edgar Snow and China shakes the world, by Jack Belden, both of which books gave an essentially accurate, if slightly romantic account of the enormous revolutionary upheaval that had just brought Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Communists to power in China, leading a peasant revolution against western imperialism and feudalism, embodied in the regime of the warlord Chiang Kai-Shek.

I was a part, in those days, of the left-wing caucus in the ALP Youth Council, and we used to fight it out “to the death”, so to speak, with the then-dominant right-wing Grouper majority of that body over such questions as the diplomatic recognition of China. (Our left faction contained, among many others, Bruce Childs, later a senator, Doug Sutherland (now, unfortunately, of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy) and Dorothy Isaksen, later an MLC. The right wing included, at various times, John Ducker, Barrie Unsworth and later, Leo Macleay and Bob Carr.)

After these heated meetings our leftist faction would conduct our post-mortems in the Lean Sun Low Cafe in Dixon Street, down the road from the Trades Hall (where the Youth Council meetings were held). This encounter with Chinese cuisine actually changed my life.

Like many other Australians, I acquired a taste for Chinese food, and by the time I was 30, in culinary matters I had become a kind of honorary Chinese, in the sense, that like most Chinese people, the truism applies to me, that unless I’ve eaten white rice (and in my case, a strong curry) once a day, I don’t feel I’ve eaten.

I wonder if the ravings of Pauline Hanson against multiculturalism apply also to the culinary “race treachery” of myself and hundreds of thousands other more or less white Australians in deserting a total attachment to fish and chips and meat pies!

Just recently, under the Freedom of Information Act 30 year access rule, I squeezed my ASIO file out of the government, and was rather amused to be reminded of the fact that in the early 1960s I was a member of the Australia-China Society and participated on the side of the pro-Chinese grouping in a very intense faction fight with the pro-Russian Stalinists who were trying to hang on to control of the society after the Sino-Soviet split.

ASIO obviously regarded the affairs of the Australia-China Society as being of enormous importance, because they had this industrious little agent taking massively detailed notes and my ASIO file contains about 50 pages recording every detail of the chop chop at the interminable meetings of the China Society, in this titanic struggle.

As it happens the side I was on ultimately won, and there it all is in my file. Maybe the informant bloke was paid by the word! Anyway, as a result of all this industry, this protracted year-long war is recorded for posterity. I may even use some of this material as part of a novel.

In this period, along with a few other left-wingers, I occasionally went down on a Sunday night to the, by then, rather inaccurately named Chinese Youth League premises on the second floor over a cafe in Dixon Street, to watch Chinese films. The main feature was usually some exotic Chinese revolutionary opera like The white-haired girl, backed up by grainy documentary shorts of the new China, masses of peasants building dams, the building of factories, etc.

Alongside our half-dozen young Aussie left-wing enthusiasts, the overwhelming majority of the audience of a couple of hundred at these films were the members and supporters of the Chinese Youth League (founded in 1937), overwhelmingly old Chinese men smoking like chimneys and displaying quite infectious and touching emotion and identification with these films from China, particularly when Chairman Mao appeared in a couple of the documentaries.

They mostly lived in the residences that in those days were ubiquitous upstairs around Dixon Street and the Haymarket over the restaurants, and they worked in the markets, the cafes, the laundries and the market gardens around Sydney. The striking thing about this audience at the Chinese Youth League films was that they were pretty old, and there were almost no women.

The reason for this strange old, women-less audience is explained in cold hard print in Choi’s book, Chinese migration and settlement in Australia. After the White Australia Policy was adopted in 1900, because the Australian authorities recognised that despite their adoption of the policy, some Chinese were still needed to maintain significant trade with China, and to run market gardens and restaurants, a vicious regulation was adopted allowing a small number of Chinese to be brought in under licence, without the right to become citizens.

The licences had to be renewed frequently, and the licence renewal regulation was so designed as to make it virtually impossible for all but the richest Chinese to bring in their wives. So, for the whole period from 1901 to 1947, when the regulations began to be relaxed a little, there was a steady small immigration of Chinese to Australia, essentially without any real civil rights and with almost no women. (On page 137 of Shirley Fitzgerald’s wonderful book on the Chinese in Sydney, there is a very poignant photograph of a gathering of the Chinese Youth League about the time of its formation in 1937, with about 100 Chinese men wearing their Sunday best, and only three women, all Caucasians, seated at the committee table. Many of these young men were probably the same men I used to see as old men at the films 20 years later in the 1950s, still womanless.)

The Australian Commonwealth, in fact, inflicted on the Chinese who emigrated to Australia between 1900 and 1960 the same sort of atrocity that the British government inflicted on the 168,000 convicts who were deported to Australia before the end of transportation in 1867, of whom only about 28,000 were women.

In both cases the overwhelming majority of these men either died without wives or children, or went back for female companionship and children either to the British Isles or China, in the relevant instance. Thus, probably the most atrocious feature of our own awful convict origins was reproduced by the obsessively race-conscious British-Australian Commonwealth government against our unlucky Chinese migrants 100 years later.

No wonder Paul Sheehan is so obviously hostile to Robert Hughes’ wonderfully informative book about our convict origins, The fatal shore. Hughes’ account is obviously a bit too close to the bone for Sheehan. Choi’s book assembles, in a very accessible way, every piece of useful information about the application of the White Australia Policy to Chinese migration to Australia, and the most telling and painful part of the book is the bald recounting of the vicious regulations and the graphs and tables that express in statistical terms the effect of all these White Australia Policy regulations.

The net result of this was the steady decline of the number of Chinese in Australia. To quote Choi, on page 54: the number of Chinese females in Australia remained very small. This was mainly because Clause 3(m) of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, which permitted the entry of dependents, was suspended. Moreover, forbidden to become naturalised after 1903, Chinese immigrants were not able to exercise the right, as Australian citizens, to introduce their dependents.

The separation of Chinese families and the difficulties in living a de facto bachelor life probably provided strong reasons, in addition to their loyalty towards their family lineages, for large numbers choosing to return to China.

In the 1901-47 period, then, there was a major decline of the Chinese population. The 1947 census counted the lowest number of Chinese – less than 10,000, of whom only 5400 were foreign-born.

Before the adoption of the White Australia policy at the time of Federation in 1900, Australia’s relationship with Chinese migrants was stormy and complex. The turbulent mobilisations against Chinese migrants in Australia under the rubric of preserving “British” Australia, are pretty well-documented, with unpleasant highlights such as the Lambing Flat riots.

There were some courageous Australians who stuck up for the Chinese. Two who stand out being the redoubtable pioneer Melbourne bookseller, E. W. Cole, and the feisty, courageous and belligerent Irish-born Sydney catholic prelate, Cardinal Moran, who defended the well-known Chinese merchant Quong Tart, when he was under attack.

Moran is quoted in Sojourners thus: Cardinal Moran, newly arrived in Australia by the Royal Mail steamer Orient told a reporter from The Age he knew many places that would be entirely without vegetables if not for the Chinese, who encountered obstacles no white man would have attempted to overcome.

In stopping the Chinese the colonies were excluding an industrious class of people, whose industry was of great advantage. The two books, Sojourners and Fear and hatred, between them, thoroughly document the unpleasant episodes in Australian history that culminated in the adoption of the White Australia Policy.

Changes to the White Australia Policy after 1947, and their effect on Chinese immigration to Australia

Once again, my authorities. The changes to the White Australia Policy, culminating in its final abolition during the Whitlam Government, are documented in the following books: Choi, mentioned above; From fear to friendship” by S.K. Fung and Colin Mackerras (University of Queensland Press, 1985); The white peril. Foreign relations and Asian immigration by Sean Brawley (University of NSW Press, 1995); Ideology and immigration. Australia 1976 to 1987 by Katherine Betts (Melbourne University Press, 1988).

These books describe in detail the complex interaction of factors that brought the White Australia Policy to an end. Simply stated, over the period between 1947 and 1973 steady pressure from our newly developing trading partners in Asia, combined with complementary pressure in Australia from interests involved in trade with Asia, began to wear down governments in Australia.

As well, the absurd administrative problem of trying to decide degrees of “whiteness” created constant problems of implementation for the Immigration Department. In addition to this, what you might call the moral climate of the times began to change, particularly after Australia’s alliance during the Second World War with the Asian Chinese against the viciously racist Nazis, and a large lobby group developed, mainly of intellectuals, campaigning for the ending of the White Australia Policy.

In addition, a significant section of the Australian business community looked to Asia as a substitute source for necessary labour as immigration from Europe dried up, and they tended to associate the virtues of Asian immigration with a quest for Asian investment in Australia.

The story of how these various factors interacted on each other to produce first the modification and finally the overthrow of the White Australia Policy is well described in these books, and is full of incident, drama, and complex diplomatic and political conflict and manoeuvre.

Katherine Betts’ book is, in a way, the most interesting of all. She belongs to the rather patrician Robert Birrell, keep-Australia-British school of thought, and she expresses a certain amount of anger at the different groups and interests that, in her view, conspired to massively change immigration policy and practice in favour of mass immigration from far wider sources, including Asia.

Among her worst villains is Malcolm Fraser! The Fraser government presided over the first massive increase in Asian migration, and she is pretty crooked on that. Her anger at the process of change leads her to document it in great detail, in every aspect, as in her view, a conspiracy of the elites to change the nature of Australia. Well, I reject her conspiracy view, but her description of the effective and skillfull administrative steps taken by assorted civilising influences to bring about a non-racial migration policy makes fascinating reading. More power to all their elbows, say I!

Betts assembles, fairly systematically, a lot of the statistical evidence of the results of these changes, (the main one being a steady increase in the proportion of Asian immigration), which is quite informative, and she keeps reiterating Charles Price’s demographically valid point that what is significant statistically, in assessing real immigration numbers, is what Price terms “net permanent and long-term migration by place of birth”.

Sean Brawley’s book is also useful in this respect, but as well, it albeit rather dryly, documents the complex diplomatic pressures on Australia over the period to ditch the White Australia Policy. Among the incidents that contributed to illustrating the inhumanity of White Australia, were a series of attempts to deport various families and individuals of prohibited degrees of colour, including many Chinese who had come here as refugees during the Second World War.

A very significant part of the change was the success of the Immigration Reform Group in persuading the ALP to ditch White Australia, the pivotal point of which was the ALP Federal Conference at which Arthur Calwell reluctantly seconded the successful motion to drop White Australia from the ALP platform.

Ultimately it was the Whitlam Government of 1972-75 that officially abolished White Australia as government policy.

Chinese immigration to Australia after 1947

From 1947 on, migration regulations were changed, allowing the number of Chinese migrants under licence to slowly increase, Chinese women to migrate more easily, and Chinese to become Australian citizens. From this point on the number of Chinese coming to join the primarily trading community in Sydney and other cities increased rapidly.

In the first instance, many Chinese trading families from New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, a number of whom had been refugees here during the war, transferred their trading activities to Australia. A little later, the Colombo Plan produced a steady stream of ethnic Chinese from all over Asia coming to Australia to study and, as is the habit with humans, quite a few of them married Australians and stayed.

A considerable number of others, doctors and dentists etc, were allowed to stay because of their professional skills. The view, now well-established among the Australian middle class that Chinese dentists and doctors have spectacular medical skills, began to form, and in particular Chinese dentists became almost ubiquitous in major Australian cities.

These Colombo Plan students and other professional migrants began to carve out a significant influence in Australian professional life, and this factor, itself, contributed to a further undermining of the racism that underlay the White Australia Policy. By the 1970s, a steady stream of professional and business migration of ethnic Chinese from all over Asia began to change the popular view of Chinese Australians as just people who ran restaurants, market gardens and laundries.

In addition to this, the second, third and fourth generations of the cohort of Chinese migrants who had worked in the produce markets and market gardens, with the educational preoccupation common to many poor migrant communities, went on to university and enjoyed the spectacular academic success often seen in the highly motivated children of striving, working migrants.

A further factor that reduced hostility to Chinese migration from the 1960s to the 1980s was the watered down effect of the widespread Western mystification of Maoism in China, among young people, radicals, a large slice of liberal opinion, and even a big section of the media. While revelations since 1976 have shown a lot of this to be rather eccentric and sad illusion, and the more critical stance of such China scholars as Simon Leys has been proved much more correct a view of the devastating, cruel and counterproductive effect of the Cultural Revolution, nevertheless, this widespread Western enthusiasm for China and Maoism contributed substantially to a decline in the fear of China and hostility to the Chinese.

I’ll never forget until the day I die, sometime in the heady year of 1968, that enormous Falstaff of popular Australian Maoism, Albert Langer from Melbourne, sleeping on the floor of my house during some conference or other in Sydney, playing The east is red interminably on our record player, and being jumped on playfully by my seven-year old daughter.

Also in the 1970s, particularly after Mao’s death and the emergence of a new regime, mass tourism from Australia to China gathered very large momentum, further reducing antagonism to China and Chinese immigration. In the 1980s, developing trade and diplomatic relations with China itself led to a dramatic increase in the number of students from mainland China, largely the moderately affluent children of the Stalinist bureaucracy, who monopolise political and economic power in China.

At this point, an unforseen factor intervened. The political struggle inside China for democratic change culminated in a political upheaval, the end point of which was the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The large Chinese student community in Australia was caught up in an emotional and fiery response in support of these developments at home in China.

After the crushing of the students in China by the authorities, and massive demonstrations of Chinese students in Australia against the massacre, Bob Hawke, in a for-once entirely commendable moment of emotion, pledged that all those students who felt threatened by developments at home and wished to stay in Australia, could do so. At that point, a number of thousands of students, including possibly quite a few who may not have been mainly motivated by events in China, behaved in the entirely predictable human way and grabbed permanent residency in Australia with both hands.

As the political upheaval in China, for the moment quietened down, most of these students discretely re-established practical family relations with their relatives in the bureaucracy back home, and as is the way with migration, another major stream of family reunion commenced, this time of moderately affluent younger sons and daughters of the elite who run China.

This migration in the 1980s and 1990s formed a big stream, along with the equally vigorous influx of frequently moderately affluent middle-class overseas Chinese from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines. One feature of these divergent streams of Chinese migration is that the stream from China added a very large component whose primary language is Mandarin, adding Mandarin speakers to the previously predominant Cantonese and Hakka speakers in Australia.

There are now probably approaching three quarters of a million people in Australia with some Chinese ancestry, out of our nearly 19 million people, and this infusion of Chinese is particularly obvious in Sydney, where maybe half of the Chinese in Australia live, and the speed and vigour of this new Chinese migration has produced a certain amount of the hysteria of which Paul Sheehan’s book is one of the symptoms.

For a hotshot investigative journalist, Sheehan isn’t always terribly careful about his facts. For instance, on page 69, he says there are about 300,000 ethnic Chinese in Australia. Well, he hasn’t kept up with the developments too carefully. If you study the figures given in the book Asians in Australia. Patterns of Migration and Settlement, eds Coughlan and McNamara, the number of people with some ethnic Chinese ancestry is now much more like 800,000 than 300,000.

Australian ethnic reality is getting a bit past Paul Sheehan. Maybe the idea of 800,000 ethnic Chinese being here already is a bit hard for him to cope with! Anyway, the relevance of this higher figure, combined with a strong tendency amongst ethnic Chinese to marry Australians of other ethnic backgrounds, gives rise to the real prospect of a very racially mixed population within a generation or two in those cities where Chinese migrants are concentrated, particularly Sydney.

This process is now more or less inevitable, and personally, it seems like a very good prospect to me, although it obviously upsets some people. I believe we have to acknowledge and come to practical terms with the likelihood of such a development, which, in practice, will be healthy for Australia.

Recent Asian migration to Australia. The “monstrous regiment of women”

One of the fascinating features of the recent Asian migration to Australia is the numerical preponderance of women in this migration. The excellent book by Coughlan and McNamara, mentioned above, is comprehensive and definitive in its study of the recent Asian migration.

This book documents thoroughly this numerical preponderance of women in recent Asian migration which, in fact, appears to be increasing. What a wonderful and ironic corrective this development is for the brutal exclusion of Asian women from Australia in the period 1900 to 1947. There are a number of reasons for this preponderance of women from different regions of Asia, and this preponderance is uneven, ranging from a massive preponderance of women in Filipino and Thai migration to a significant under-representation of women in the first Vietnamese migration in the 1980s, but nevertheless, women predominate more or less in all regions of current Asian migration to Australia.

One consequence of this female preponderance is that many Asian women marry Australian men, and combined with the fact that quite a few Asian men marry Australian women, the amount of intermarriage is becoming statistically quite spectacular, which is confirmed when you walk through the streets of Sydney, and is obviously one of the things that fuels the paranoia of the diminishing group of largely grey-haired anti-Asian racists.

It is rather fascinating the way history repeats itself in some matters. As I point out elsewhere, the similar preponderance of women in the Irish migration to Australia in the 19th century drove anti-Catholic bigots like John Dunmore Lang mad, and contributed to the increased weight of Irish Catholics in Australian society, and it’s highly likely that the similar predominance of women in the current Asian migration will similarly increase the social weight of Asian Australians in Australian society.

A further fascinating demographic fact is that in both China proper and all South-East Asian societies, a shortage of women is developing because of the cultural bias of those societies towards male children, combined with modern medical developments, making the prior selection of the sex of children quite possible.

An interesting demographic inference, therefore, is that the steady drift of Asian women to Australia will accentuate this trend. When you combine this fact with the other fact that the next generation of all migrants, including Asian migrants in Australia, tend to assume the reproductive pattern prevailing in the new country, it’s an obvious demographic fact that Asian migration to Australia actually has the effect of reducing world population growth, which ought to please all those who are quite legitimately concerned with the global population explosion.

Addressing Paul Sheehan’s urban myths about the current Chinese migration to Australia

Simply stated, those who object to further migration, particularly Asian and Chinese migration, often start of by whingeing about the obvious fact that young Chinese, and indeed other Asians, do spectacularly well in higher school examinations and at universities, as published school and university examination results clearly reveal. In his book, Sheehan says he doesn’t mind this, but the emphasis he gives it seems to be directed at stirring up a perceived popular resentment against this phenomenon.

It’s worth remembering that when I was a kid at a Catholic school, in the 1950s, equally backward sentiment was directed against the obvious success of kids from Catholic schools in external exams, and this was associated in the prejudiced mind with Papist plots to take over the country. With his Irish name, Sheehan ought to remember this too.

In both cases, all these results underline is the tendency of those at the bottom of the social pyramid, or the most recent group of migrants off the boat wishing to advance themselves in Australian society. The people out of the Catholic school system in the 1950s and the 1960s elbowed their way up in Australian society via the education system, as the children of Italian, Greek and other European migrants did then and later, and as the Chinese are doing now.

No doubt other new immigrant groups will do so in the future. What’s wrong with that! In fact, it is the time-honoured Australian way, and for that matter, the American way. The collective memory of this process, held by Catholic Australians, and by the children of the wave of postwar European migration, is the obvious reason why many people in both these groups are resistant to the hysteria about Asian migration that the Paul Sheehans and the Pauline Hansons are attempting to stir up.

The hard-core urban myths about Chinese migration

These are, again, simply stated:

  • Migrants take jobs.
  • Mass migration is bad for the economy.
  • Chinese migrants are chauvinistic and don’t assimilate.
  • Chinese migration brings in people whose connections and loyalties are with China and the overseas Chinese communities in Asia, and this is bad for Australia.

There is also a racist undercurrent that actually contradicts the argument about Chinese not assimilating, and is often not stated too clearly by opponents of migration who also like to be seen as liberal and civilised. This is the racist view that intermarriage with Chinese and other Asians is bad and dilutes the “British” race.

Well, in my considered view all these things are myths, and in each case something like the opposite is true, and the falsity of these myths can be demonstrated with a bit of study and consideration of current Australian and world realities. The two authorities I would refer to in this context are Living with Dragons. Australia confronts its Asian destiny,” edited by Greg Sheridan (Allen and Unwin 1995) and Lords of the Rim. The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese, by Sterling Seagrave (Bantam, 1995).

The argument about migration taking jobs and being bad for the economy is the most frequently expressed. Many studies by economists, for instance a recent monograph by Professor Bruce Chapman of the Australian National University, indicate that this is nonsense. In this context, the obvious question arises. Sydney, in particular is the chosen point of entry for a large majority of the current Asian migration to Australia, and the magnitude of this migration is clearly having an influence on Sydney life in a multitude of ways.

If the migration was economically bad, Sydney should be the worst off Australian capital economically, but in fact the opposite is the case. Sydney, over recent years, has usually been at the bottom of the unemployment statistics of all capital cities, and towards the top of the statistics for economic activity.

On any reasonably careful objective examination of the effect of Asian migration on Sydney, the reasons for this better economic performance by Sydney begin to emerge. A significant part of this Chinese migration is poorer people, who have nothing to contribute to Australia except their energetic labour, which is no small thing.

In addition to these poorer Asian migrants, however, a very large part of the Asian migration is middle class Chinese families from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the managerial layer in mainland China. By and large these families come with a modest package of capital, somewhere between a quarter and three quarters of a million dollars per family, and this is usually invested either in real estate or in a small business.

This constant inflow of medium-sized chunks of capital associated with Chinese migration supplements the more obvious, larger elements of investment and commercial activity emanating from Asia, and collectively these economic inflows make up a very large part of the buffer that insulates Australia, and particularly Sydney, from the current vagaries of the world’s economic system.

A headlong assault on Chinese migration and capital inflow into Australia would, in fact, plunge Australia, and Sydney in particular, into the midst of a dramatic economic depression. Those who attack Chinese migration are, in fact, playing with fire economically, in the current circumstances of global economic turmoil.

Further to this economic angle is the question of trade. China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, all Chinese societies, are among our major trading partners. The other South-East Asian countries are also among our major trading partners, and the overseas Chinese who are a major part of the commercial elites in those countries are intimately involved in the trading activities of those countries.

If any actual actions directed against these Chinese societies were to flow from the diatribes against China and the Chinese, such as those in Paul Sheehan’s book, the economic effects on Australian trade would be disastrous, and again we would plunge into depression and collapse.

In Sheehan’s book he makes the obvious point that many Asian political and economic regimes are dictatorships and contain large elements of corruption. He waxes positively lyrical about Sydney beating Beijing for the Olympic Games, implying that in some way Australia was more deserving than Beijing, because our political regime is better. (This ludicrous triumphalism looks increasingly bizarre as I write, as the information inexorably becomes public, about the questionable duchessing tactics adopted by all bidding countries, including Australia.)

Well, I live in Sydney and run a business here, and I shared the general satisfaction of Sydneysiders when we won the Games, with the underlying realistic view common to many of us that it would probably be good for Sydney and Australia economically.

But why overload that significant but episodic conflict of interests with China, with all the nasty emotion that Sheehan does? What’s the purpose of that, except to excite hostility against the Chinese and Chinese migration?

Sheehan’s xenophobia towards the Chinese in relation to the Games is really extraordinarily dangerous. All of this raises the question of the Chinese regime and, indeed, all the other reactionary, dictatorial regimes in Asia. I’m an old rebel and radical. I’m very sad that the Chinese Revolution, for instance, has degenerated so far into the technocratic Stalinist-capitalist bureaucratic regime that runs China now.

It saddens me that the first action of the Beijing regime on the reunification of Hong Kong with China was to partly abolish electoral democracy in Hong Kong. For what my modest support is worth, I will support all struggles inside China and Hong Kong and, for that matter, Indonesia and Taiwan, against censorship, for real trade unionism and for representative political democracy, and I believe that in all those countries mass demands and struggles will eventually erupt for these kinds of things.

I can’t predict precisely when those developments will take place, but they inevitably will. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, democracy and human rights can’t be imposed from outside, and are ultimately the business of the masses in those countries themselves. I believe, however, that we have to separate matters of trade and immigration from the question of what regime runs those countries currently.

Whatever regime is in charge in China — at the moment the bureaucratic Stalinist Beijing regime — is the regime that Australia has to deal with on a day-to-day basis, in terms of trade and migration. Paul Sheehan’s chauvinist huffing and puffing about the regime in China does not impress me at all. It repells me when his implication is clearly to curb immigration from China and the effect of his diatribe is to reduce and damage our trading relations with China.

It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this kind of chauvinism towards China and the Chinese is to the real interests of ordinary Australians.

The question of assimilation

The racist undertone to the arguments about “assimilation” are really quite bizarre. For a start, anyone who walks around the streets of Sydney, or through the grounds of high schools and universities, or sits on a bus with their ears and eyes even half open, will notice a lot of interesting, apparently contradictory, but in fact, complementary things.

For a start, they will hear a lot of people talking to each other in Mandarin, Cantonese and a heck of a lot of other languages from all over the earth. They will notice and hear, however, many of the younger people of apparently Chinese or other migrant origin, talking to each other as well, in Australian English, with Aussie accents as broad as mine.

If they listen a bit carefully, they will often hear people break from Aussie English to another language and back again, many times. In fact, many overseas Chinese from South-East Asia, some of whom speak Indonesian or Cantonese, or Mandarin, or Vietnamese, and no other language except English, use English as a lingua franca (common language). People in migrant communities will tell you that the major language problem, in fact, is not to get the young of migrant communities to speak English, but to persuade them to keep up with the old language to maintain contact with the cultural traditions of their old country, and for future use if they travel to the ancestral homeland.

I know several ethnic Chinese without a word of their old language, who are busily studying Mandarin or Cantonese for this kind of reason. I also know young Australians of Italian and Greek background who are studying those languages in adult life for the same reasons, after assiduously avoiding learning them while they were at school.

Teachers in the schools will tell you of the fantastic ethnic and cultural mix now in most urban schools, and of the relatively small scale of any obvious racial tension, considering the diversity of the school population. This, of course, is what lies behind the current utterly laudable mass rebellion of high-school students against the mad racial hysteria being peddled by some of their elders.

The reason high-school kids are so stirred up in opposition to the current racism is that in their day-to-day relations among themselves, they feel none of the absolute hostility that the Pauline Hansons claim exist between different racial groups. Another thing your intelligent urban observer will notice walking around Sydney, is many, many, many inter-racial couples, straight and gay, and every conceivable racial combination and mix under the sun.

In the real world, racial purity is a stupid, objectionable myth. While national groups have a natural sense of identity, nevertheless, the mixing and interbreeding of racial and national groups is as old as the human race, and in fact, opposites often attract, and the offspring of intermarriage between national groups and races are often the most vigorous because of the rich stimulus that comes from the interaction of cultures.

Even the rather chauvinistic French recently faced a moment of truth in relation to these matters when the victorious French soccer team in the World Cup turned out to be spectacularly multicultural, and this in fact led to a sudden dramatic extension of French national identity to include all the newer migrants and to a rapid drop in racism.

Again, look at the way the world identifies with the the defiantly mixed-race champion golfer, Tiger Woods, as an expression of the new cosmopolitanism. It seems absolutely obvious to me that the participants in the current mass Chinese immigration to Australia will both preserve a certain multicultural identity as Australian Chinese, but also assimilate to the broad Australian culture, at pretty much the same time, and what’s wrong with that!


I believe that we should mobilise all civilised and progressive Australians, of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, to defeat and disperse the current politically motivated outburst of racism. We should mobilise public opinion against this racism, both because it is morally right to do so and because the defeat of this racism is beneficial to the Australian economy and trade, and therefore, in that sense, beneficial to the interests of all Australians, new and old.

Defeating this racism necessarily involves a determined defence of multiculturalism, and defence of reasonably high rates of immigration on a non-discriminatory basis.

March 23, 1999


One Response to “Over the hills lies China”

  1. Various lockdown hacks and escapes — 65 — thinking about Newtown | Neil's Commonplace Book Says:

    […] is from a remarkable wide-ranging essay “Over the hills lies China” which Bob wrote in 1999. It is still very relevant as background to where we are today. Bob reviews […]

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