From Yellow Peril to Red Alert

Mar 17, 2023
American, Australian and Britain flag in room.

Although it is in America’s interests that we are urged to prepare for war against China within three years, the graphic image that accompanied the ‘Red Alert’ alert series in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald was designed to speak directly to Australia’s own deep and distinctive historic fears and sense of geographic isolation.

Just as 19th century scare-mongering focussed on ‘Chinese hordes’ allegedly pouring south into the Australian colonies, so Chinese fighter jets in large numbers are now seen to be heading our way.

Fears of being ‘swamped’ by Chinese ‘hordes’ led to the passage by the Australian colonies of race-based restrictive immigration laws from the 1850s and the enactment of the White Australia Policy at the federal level in 1901. The same historic fears are now being called up to justify something even worse- a war against China.

In the late 19th century, when Australian writer and former liberal politician Charles Pearson analysed the changing world order in his book National Life and Character: A Forecast, he wrote presciently that with its large population – 400 million by the 1890s – and the rapid spread of civilisation, China was destined to become ‘a great power in the world’, ‘greater even than the United States’. ‘The day will come’, Pearson prophesied, when white men would wake to find black and yellow races, no longer under tutelage, but forming independent governments, in control of their own trade and industry, invited to international conferences and welcomed as allies by the civilised world. When that day came, Pearson forecast, the white man’s ‘pride of place’ ‘would be ‘humiliated’. President Biden clearly finds himself in that place now.

In 1901, our first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton held Pearson’s book aloft in the federal parliament when he introduced the key legislation that comprised the White Australia Policy. The Commonwealth of Australia, he declared, had resolved to ‘make a legislative declaration of our racial identity’. The same year Attorney General Alfred Deakin affirmed, in words that anticipate the Labor government’s warnings today, that in the creation of the White Australia Policy nothing less than ‘self-preservation’ was at stake: ‘it is nothing less than the national manhood, the national character and the national future that are at stake’. Prime Minister Albanese promises today’s national manhood tens of thousands new skilled jobs.

From 1901 Chinese would be excluded from the new Commonwealth, using the ruse of a dictation policy, a move justified by the preservation of our white man’s standard of living. When the first Asians began to come to Australia, in the 1950s, under the Menzies government, only those deemed sufficiently educated or highly qualified and able to easily assimilate were admitted. For the first time, resident Asians were able to become naturalised and in 1958 the infamous dictation test was abolished.

Since the demise of that pernicious, racially discriminatory policy, Australians have, over several decades, worked to come to terms with an ascendant China and forged constructive, productive and mutually beneficial relations with the new great power in our region that has become our major trading partner. We have also welcomed hundreds and thousands of Chinese immigrants, who have contributed to the prosperity, educational attainment and cultural diversity of our communities and families. It is an achievement we should celebrate.

But the United States – humiliated it seems by China’s new status as a great power – possibly the great power – is determined to recruit Australia into its mission to contain and constrain its rival, calling AUKUS into existence, a new white man’s alliance, proudly invoking their shared values and heritage, put on display in San Diego this week, where Rishi Sunak, of Indian descent and the richest man ever to serve as Prime Minister of the UK now stands in for the original white man, Boris Johnson.

The sensationalist propaganda-style image printed on the front page of our newspaper in which Chinese jet fighters depart Red Communist China heading straight for Australia, constitutes a shameless and shameful invocation of past racial fears and antagonisms that will do great harm.

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