ANTHONY PUN. A response to Gareth Evan’s article on the bamboo ceiling.

Mar 27, 2019

Our former foreign minster, the Hon Gareth Evans, has written an excellent piece about the bamboo curtain.  His thesis is focused on institutional covert and overt discriminatory practices.  To be fair, the fault is not entirely due to discrimination but also the psyche and cultural conditioning of Chinese Australians.  The way forward is to create increased awareness of the short-comings of Chinese Australians, an opportunity to present Chinese Australian community views  and a change of cultural thinking in taking up positions of power whether it is community, business, or political governance.

Gareth Evans has identified correctly the reasons for the existence of the “bamboo curtain” particularly inherent covert and overt racism in Australia.  Memories of wrongdoings during the goldfield days and the White Australia policy do leave a big scar in the psyche of Chinese Australians whose ancestors came to settle in Australia during the gold rush.  Their descendants are “conditioned” not to rebel against authority nor were they were permitted to express dissent in the country, a situation very similar to Chinese citizens during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

The influx of new immigrants of Chinese origin outside China but born in British colonies like Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong in the 1950s onward, were a different breed.  Despite their British influence, the “political psyche” has not changed because, under British rule, you are not to participate in dissent.  In addition,  joining  the police force, the armed forces or even the scout movement was not encouraged by parents.

The next wave of immigrants were Vietnamese of Chinese origin and their cultural attitude towards power politics is no different from British colonial Chinese.

The 1990s onwards brought the next wave of immigrants from China, who are highly educated, followed by “rich” Chinese business immigrants in the last decade.

The bamboo ceiling is not caused just by discriminatory practices alone and it also has to do with cultural attitudes or psyche towards “power positions”.

Lack of unity: This background information on ethnic Chinese migration forms the wide Chinese diaspora in Australia and in many ways, these groups were not that united compared to other immigrant groups such as Jewish, Greeks, Italians and Lebanese who were more involved in Australian political process than the Chinese.

Conditioning of accepted occupations:  After 200 years of living overseas, most Chinese parents prefer their children to take up professions in order of priority, ie. medicine, dentistry, engineering, law, science, nursing (and other allied health), social work and journalism being bottom of the pile.  If you are not good at becoming a professional, the next best thing is to be a small businessman.  Politics is last on the list.

Sinophobia:  Sinophobia in Australia is not a recent phenomenon but an old one.  Sinophobia in the gold rush days was more about being territorial and selfish.  The Chinese worked too hard in the gold fields and the locals did not want to share the wealth.  Hence, an “Overton window” existed for the locals to demonise the Chinese miners culminating in the white Australian policy with the infamous Arthur Calwell quote “Two wongs don’t make a white” (“two wrongs don’t make a right”).

With the welcoming of Chinese immigrants since 1950s, one would have thought that the White Australia Policy was over.  In fact, the bamboo ceiling was maintained, and this ambiguity is worthwhile investigating further.

Current Sinophobia has arisen for different reasons.  The US-China economic and military hegemony, firstly in regional Asia and then globally, is a major cause.  The fear of a rich and powerful China is another.  The rise of nationalistic and alt-right political ideology with western media being an accessory, does whip up Sinophobia to a high pitch.

English proficiency:  The Chinese Australian is stereotyped as lacking English proficiency and this contributes to discrimination in employment and appointment to public decision-making bodies ie. parliament, boards, committees etc.  The English proficiency of the general Australia population is not that high either.  This myth is a real hindrance to equal opportunity employment including access and equity of services.

As a corollary, English proficiency, if demonstrated to power brokers, would be useful.  In my own experience this qualification was able to break the ice when I was appointed to Tribunals, Hospital Boards, Australia Day Ambassador, Admin & Management positions etc.   In my regional Australian experience as the Australia Day Ambassador, I was the VIP speaker and was regarded as totally Australian and nothing else.  In fact, in 1981, I presented a medical paper in Chicago USA to an audience of 500, and I was proud to be introduced as an Australian from down under.

Lack of participant in local branch politics:  Chinese Australians have to learn that the door to politics in Australia is through local party branches (political apprenticeship or apparatchiks).  The notion of getting parachuted into a winnable political position is remote.  Hence, dedication to the political process is a must.  The number of Chinese Australian party branch members is disproportionate to other groups of immigrants.

Ask and you shall be given:  Chinese Australians have to learn how to break the Anglo-Celtic cultural barrier, ie.  if you want something, ask for it.  Waiting for the “boss” to recognise your work and promote you in politics does not work!

Lack of exposure of Chinese Australian community views and opinions:  In my last 50 years of observation, the views and opinions of Chinese Australians, particularly community views, are not often heard despite the Chinese community having four dailies and several weekly publications.  In a way, they are preaching to the converted.

The ability to interact with the mainstream media started in the late 1980s and the success rate is low.  There is an abundance of Chinese Australian community views emerging from American website that is accessible to Australians (  Chinese Australian opinion writers are starting to appear but it will take time for these writers to be empathetic to Chinese immigrants.

The lack of Chinese Australian community views is best illustrated in the reference in Gareth Evan’s article to Lo & Cai.  Their views are important, but they do not encompass the wider community views of the Chinese diaspora.

Chinese Australian writers will be more likely to appear in the prestigious blog (John Menadue P&I) whilst others like ACRI, China Matters, etc are still impervious to Chinese Australia opinions.  Despite these institutions being empathetic to Chinese Australians, the writers cannot get pass their editorial gate  (an editorial bamboo curtain perhaps?).

A convergence of attitudes on both sides is required for a smooth and quick transition to Chinese participation in all aspects of Australian life.  The decision makers or power brokers need to discard discriminatory practice and Chinese Australians need to show their interest by changing their cultural attitudes towards participation in public decision bodies.

Dr Anthony Pun, National President, Chinese Community Council of Australia.

Letter to the Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald.

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