Hundreds of years of racism have merged in the Australian governments response to the Corona virus.
The former Attorney General, George Brandis, was right on one thing: some Australians do believe they have the right to be bigots, and his government and its successors have their backs. The position of the federal government helps explain why the attack on Chinese people — Australians and foreigners — has been so vitriolic, virulent and, yes, viral.
Since the internet burst into our lives around the turn of the millennium, communication has been transformed and the flow of opinion, hyperbole and hate has accelerated in ways we could not have imagined. Australia has exemplified this efflorescence of bile, as unlike any other country in the West we allow race hate speech to flourish unrestrained by criminal sanctions, and barely touched by civil remedies. Meanwhile, the current federal government has cut back on funds for anti-racism work and tried twice to remove or dilute the frail protections accorded targets of racism by the Racial Discrimination Act.
Watching Prime Minister Scott Morrison double down on the government’s purported opposition to racism even as the new Race Discrimination commissioner Chin Tan cries poor (he has had a report funded by one of his predecessors, advocating a series of actions to contain online racism, from which no initiatives have been taken) invokes key elements in dissolution of social cohesion we see being enacted around us.
What is racism in this context? We can make a number of distinctions. “Race” has history as a bio-political definer of difference. Biologically, there is little evidence that genetic distinctions (and those between “race” populations are usually smaller than those within those populations) have behavioural or cultural expressions — which is to say, nurture is at least if not more important than nature. However, “race” has taken on political meanings — some of which refer to apparent biological differences, some of which refer to culture. In societies where there are a number of “races” for historical reasons, perceptions of difference become racialised.
Racialisation may be benign, or it may be destructive and oppressive. Some people argue, for instance, for “colour blind” imaginings of the social world, and to “remove” race altogether. Others argue that race has real social consequences and should be recognised as a serious issue.
“Racism” thus refers to situations in racialised societies where race is identified as a discriminating characteristic. Racism may be structural — particular “races” are restricted in their opportunities, have poorer life outcomes and lack social power. Usually this means there is a hierarchy of races with the dominant groups running the society to fit their racial proclivities and sectoral interests. Australia looks a bit like that. Racism may be interpersonal — directed through action against people: that’s what we mean in Australia by “racial discrimination.” Racism may be intentional — designed and planned to harass, intimidate, exclude and oppress. Racism may occur because of unintended consequences of behaviour that is designed to achieve other ends. So we can engage in political critiques of regimes, as many do of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). If such critiques could be made of other states but are not, and are only made of the Chinese state, then that is racist. However just because the critique is racist does not mean it is invalid: the PRC oppression of Uyghur people in Xinjiang — forcing them to adopt the Han language and Beijing-directed political behaviour — is often given as an example.
There are many ways we “imagine” our society and what holds it together. Conservatives point to tradition and civility and individualism; progressives to community and sociation. We know how fragile both of these visions are when violent contradictions are unleashed — a situation towards which we are moving quickly. The racialisation of interactions in a multicultural society contributes to one of the major lines of potential conflict, and we have learned to some extent how to manage such tensions by drawing back from overt racist hostility — apart from the One Nation senator from Queensland who has turned the opposite tactic into the key to her political survival.
If we look at the past decade, as the Chinese population of Australia has grown and blended into the many different ways we have of being Australian, there have been a series of “shocks” — some based in reality, others fictitious and tendentious, that have rocked the sense of security that Australia’s Chinese-origin population have previously felt. As many have expressed since COVID-19 first erupted, they feel the target of a visceral hatred they thought impossible in a country as open and “fair-go” espousing as Australia. As I have argued previously, identity within and attachment to Australia for ethnic immigrants depend on how well the system they enter protects their human rights from the omnipresent threats from racists and xenophobes. They will not release their grip on the old if the new emerges as threatening and potentially dangerous.
A brief history of Chinese–Australian relations
The conflict of the “meanings” of Chinese people has been part of Australian society since Flinders spotted Macassan traders on Torres Strait beaches, drying trepang for the Chinese market as he scurried around the continent in 1803 (not so much Cook, who did no such scurrying, despite the Prime Minister’s vision splendid of a bogus re-enactment for the 250th anniversary of the white invasion). Whether a ship from the fleet of a eunuch Muslim Chinese admiral Zheng He did or did not land near Darwin in the mid-fifteenth century, Australia has sat at the centre of two intersecting imperial circles even since the Admiralty had Cook go off and claim the Great Southland three hundred and fifty years later.
Imperialism had its contradictions from the time the first Chinese “coolies” turned up in the colonies after the treaties extracted by the British from the Qing Emperor in the 1840s — treaties which had as their converse “rights” the right of subjects of the Middle Kingdom to travel freely in the empire of Victoria. Chinese workers and contractors cleared many of the sites for the rural towns along rivers like the Murray, grew the fresh produce needed for the health of the emerging colonial societies and, of course, competed with esoteric technological skill and economic commitment in the extraction of gold from the forests of the tropics to the winter ranges of the south.
One of the driving forces in the creation of a federated Australia was the imagining of a Mongol-free white nation, with its enforcement of a uniform policy of exclusion on the Middle Kingdom and its diaspora. Many Chinese learned about democracy and the rights of man while in Australia and, though disappointed at their suppression and harassment in the new nation, carried their lessons back into the struggle against the Manchu — resulting in the Republic in 1911.
Chinese Australian relations reached a nadir after the Second World War, when Arthur Calwell under the Wartime Refugee Removal Act of 1949 tried to expel all the Chinese given refuge in Australia during the war. With the establishment of the People’s Republic there was a low level of contact, including members of long-established Chinese Australian families returning to China to teach English after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Initially China was seen as a market rather than a population source, and indeed significant Chinese immigration only really occurred after the events of 4 June 1989. China bought our minerals for their industries to process and use, while their youngsters came here to learn English and gain Western certified educations.
After 1990 and the settlement of 40,000 students — whom Prime Minister Bob Hawke insisted should be given shelter from the storm in their homeland — regular immigration grew, tourism spiralled up, student numbers expanded and the home unit industry skyrocketed to accommodate. Back then a Queensland millionaire, by the name of Clive Palmer, attacked the Australian government for racism for refusing actively to encourage Chinese investment in the development of ore mines. A departing Chinese ambassador hailed the Australia–China relationship as wonderful, with never any points of dispute between them.
Over the past twenty years, as the PRC has matured as an authoritarian state-directed, imperially-inflected, post-capitalist society, and thereby thought and acted more coherently in its corporate interests, Australians have found it hard to sort out in our own minds the parameters that do, should or could, separate the Chinese state, the Republic of China, Chinese nationals, Han Chinese and ethnic Chinese diasporic populations. For Australia, as I wrote a decade ago, the turning points in both the internal and external relations occurred when China took on for us the same large parameters that had long characterised the relationship with the UK — both a major trading partner and investor, and a major source of immigrating population. For the most part Australia’s economic and immigration histories had seen separate hierarchies of importance. Now China has become de facto, if not de jure, the new imperial power in Australia’s sphere, an investing, purchasing, supplying and colonising powerhouse.
Can the Sinophobic contagion be contained?
When the implications of these changes began to seep into the public sphere, the contradictions that were emerging within the many strands of Australia–China relations, with the multiple racialised perceptions (both Chinese and Australian) intertwining and staining each other, caught the attention of different critics.
Our contemporary bio-racists just saw the yellow peril writ large, reactivating the tropes of the early 1950s which linked communism and the Chinese race into a package wrapped in disease metaphors and infection hyperbole. Our leftist anti-fascists saw a neo-fascist regime of foreign mind-set and its agents, with scant regard for their own citizens’ rights, intruding into the Australian political space, buying political influence and seeking to extend both their economic gains and their political agency. Some saw China as the new United States, remembering how Australia had been manipulated into a series of wars designed to protect American interests.
Many Chinese Australian scholars and community leaders were dismayed by the effect these two attacks on a “Chinese” presence in Australia were having on the cordial relations and beneficial integration of the different “Chineses” into the not necessarily always welcoming space of post-multicultural Australia. Others relentlessly defended the world viewed from Beijing, rejecting all criticisms and denying authoritarian and anti-humanitarian actions by the PRC.
Light the blue paper and stand back. Coronavirus was the flame and the twisted anxieties generated by all these precedent events provided the wick. Interestingly, the deeper structural racisms that continued in Australia, often denied by the anti-PRC elements in groups such as the Australian Values Coalition, have now been recognised and more publicly discussed. People not so identified, such as Prof Kam Louie, protested to a recent Senate inquiry that the “pale male and stale” leadership of Australia was unable to recognise just how politically educated and democratically aspirant so many Chinese migrants to Australia have proved to be.
A couple of years ago, two groups of China scholars took opposing views: one given voice by David Brophy and his colleagues, warning that the debate had a racial dimension and that there were racist consequences, if not overt intentions, in the fear-mongering about PRC influence; the other, led by Adam Ni, not only denied racism, but also claimed that “racism” was just a Beijing tactic to divert criticism of the PRC. It is worth noting that Adam Ni has now come out and retracted his earlier view, worried by the increasingly rampant Sinophobia and its negative impact on the Chinese Australian communities.
Hundreds of years of racism have merged in the Australian government’s responses to the coronavirus — for instance, the relocation of “Chinese” from Wuhan to Christmas Island for quarantine, and the rendition of “Australians” from the cruise ship to Darwin for the same purpose. More broadly our local Chinese communities are devastated, often with their own communities self-isolating and businesses failing everywhere. The universities are in melt-down, and the tourism industry has been king-hit. The media have had a field-day with juvenile racial slurs and anti-Chinese “jokes.”
The billions of dollars and thousands of people affected by drought and bushfire and flood have rightly now been offered support by government and community agencies, with carefully considered and reasonably resourced resilience strategies put in place. The current crisis of Sinophobia is vastly more destructive of our economic infrastructure and social capital, affecting many more people with much longer-term effect.
There is no sign that governments are aware of what sort of social investment and cultural engagement will be necessary to recover from the viral virus and its adverse social consequences: perhaps if the virus “goes away”, we will all pretend everything is fine and we don’t really have any intercultural issues. But the ember sprays from the virus fire will continue to leap ahead of the containment lines, and ignite further continuing hot spots of racism and alienation. A few words condemning racist speech with no action to push back against it, are unlikely to form enough of a fire break to protect the rest of society from the over-heated scorched landscape we all share.
Andrew Jakubowicz is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Technology Sydney.