JOCELYN CHEY. Caught in the middle: Chinese Australians feel unwanted

International disputes between contending powers frequently result in persecution of local ethnic minorities.  Look at how local German and Japanese communities were treated during the two World Wars, for instance, or how people of Middle Eastern background have been profiled since the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS.  As suspicions of China predominate in Canberra, and stand-offs occur, for instance in the South China Sea, the loyalties of Chinese Australians have been called into question.  This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first Chinese immigrant to settle in Australia.  The Chinese community will celebrate that event, but the contributions of the growing Chinese community to the nation and to our developing relationships with Asia are under-appreciated.

How to cope with China is a key question for Australia’s future.  While there are a handful of doomsayers, forecasting its imminent collapse due to internal political divisions and financial problems, most analysts believe that China will continue to grow and become more technologically advanced and militarily powerful, and we in Australia have to accept this fact.  It is not simple or easy.  China’s competition with the United States is becoming more stringent, marked by trade disputes and flexing of military muscle and it seems the Trump administration has decided that China’s rise should be curbed militarily and economically.  I am reminded of how the US tried to rein in Japan when its economy was developing rapidly in the 1980s.  When the security and defence establishment in Washington promotes containment, their counterparts in Canberra trot out the same line.  Christopher Wray, the Director of the FBI told the US Senate in February this year that all Chinese academics and students were potential spies, and similar views have been expressed by ASIO Director General Duncan Lewis, although he did not explicitly name China.  As a sign of the growing distance between the government and the Chinese Australian community, earlier this year the Prime Minister broke with tradition and did not send any message to congratulate them on their major festival, the Lunar New Year.

Clive Hamilton has noted that Chinese Australians are the target of Beijing’s “United Front” tactics and that there is a proliferation of pro-Beijing associations and groups in the growing Chinese Australian community but that smear is now being liberally applied.  Neither Beijing nor Taipei, nor many another government is innocent of exploiting love of homeland and patriotism among their diaspora.  Equally, I believe none thinks much about the potential consequences of their policies for those communities.  In Australia, these are substantial.  Of those who answered the optional question in the 2016 census, 5.6 percent claimed some Chinese ancestry, and the total ethnic Chinese or part-Chinese population of this country numbers around 1.2 million.  Many have ties to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam or South East Asia rather than to the People’s Republic of China, and naturally within such a large group there is a great variety of opinions, political beliefs and allegiances.  If some rely on the pro-PRC Chinese language media, they could be influenced by Beijing views on certain matters, but they also surely cherish Australia’s political freedom and democratic system.  That is a large part of why they choose to remain in this country.  Unfortunately, a vicious loop has led to some recent instances of racism affecting Chinese Australians being blamed on the Australian government by their media, and it is increasingly common for members of this community to say that they no longer feel welcome in this country.

Many Chinese Americans feel the same.  Distinguished American diplomat Charles (Chas) Freeman condemned “spiralling xenophobia” in an important speech on 5 May to the Committee of 100 –  a leadership organisation of Chinese Americans founded by architect I.M. Pei.

It is against this background that Chinese Australian community organisations are coming together to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the settlement in Sydney of John Shying, also known as Mak Sai Ying, a carpenter who worked for Elizabeth Macquarie at Elizabeth Farm.  Shying later built the Peacock Inn in Parramatta. He made a solid career and settled permanently in Australia.  A gala evening will be held at Sydney Town Hall on 20 May to celebrate not only Shying but all those who followed him, through the 19th century Gold Rush years, through the dark days of the White Australia policy and up to the present day.  The evening will celebrate Chinese Australians who fought for Australia in two World Wars, and those who have contributed to this country in science, education and the arts.  One who will certainly be mentioned is Charles Que-Fong Lee, born in Darwin and educated at the Southport School and the University of Queensland.  The wartime work of Australia’s first legation in Chungking in the 1940s owed much to him.  These days, Chinese Australians play a vital role in commerce, investment and government relations, and contribute in many ways to the development of our relations with China and other Asian nations.

At a time when much of the world is becoming inward-looking and xenophobic, it is good to note that Canberra is resisting lobbying from the right to reduce our immigration intake and to restrict foreign investment.  In contrast, President Trump is leading America down a blind alley of national self-reliance (“Make America Great Again”).  It is ironic to note that Trumpian self-reliance (zili gengsheng) and isolationism were the very policies that Mao Zedong espoused in his lifetime but were abandoned by his successors because they led to economic stagnation.  China’s rapid development since the 1980s is entirely due to the “Open Door” policies of Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping and Chinese leaders since that time.  Australia also needs an Open Door and should not let the parameters of our international relationships or multicultural policies be set by Washington.  There are many reasons for Australia to cooperate with China and to expand our trade and diplomatic ties in Asia, and there are many reasons for us to cherish the role that Chinese Australians play in these relationships.

Jocelyn Chey’s last diplomatic posting was as Australian Consul General to Hong Kong 1992-95.  She was the founding Director of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University 2016-17.




Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and UTS. She formerly held diplomatic posts in China and Hong Kong. She is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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5 Responses to JOCELYN CHEY. Caught in the middle: Chinese Australians feel unwanted

  1. Anthony Pun says:

    Prof Chey has captured the essence of the feelings of the 1.2 million Chinese Australian diaspora of being wedged in between a rock and a hard place, caused by the recent “China Panic” reports in the Australian media.

    The Chinese Australian community has made appropriate public responses to this matter. Sadly, these reactions are seldom reported in the Australian media despite their publications elsewhere. (References 1-3).

    I have previous made 2 points in my public participation in ACRI forums ie. (a) The Chinese Australia community accepts the core Australian values of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech and has pledged our loyalty to Australia; (b) The “China Panic” is caused by Washington leaning on Canberra to contain of China.

    I am gratified and relieved that Prof Chey’s views are sympathetic to mine, particularly on point (b).

    Recently, the Chinese Community Council of Australia held a Forum (Chinese Australians: Complexities and Challenges) at the NSW Parliament House and moderated by Ms Geraldine Doogue AM from the ABC. The speakers include Mr Peter Cai (The Australian), Prof Wanning Sun (UTS) Mr Jackson Kwok (China Matters), Clr Kun Huang, Prof John Fitzgerald (Swinburne U) Mr Tony Kevin, (ANU Emeritus Fellow); the participating audience was diverse political views.

    The work of the community are often under reported in the mainstream media and it would be appreciated if our views be included or published in “China think tanks” institutions (or independent websites).

    A collaborative plan of action between these Institutions/Websites and the Chinese Australian community is a good start.

    Together we would be united in a common effort to maintain warm Australia-China internationally and to restore and maintain community harmony domestically.

  2. Jim KABLE says:

    There have been Chinese in Australia for longer than the families of many of our political class – a fact many seem to have forgotten – as indeed they have forgotten the indignities suffered by mid-latter-19th century Chinese who arrived to do what all other arrivals of the time from around the world were here to – seek gold. And otherwise engage in other crafts and farming and land-clearing work – and businesses – despite the kinds of legal inequities and hoops they were forced to jump.

    I am moved to some personal reflection. My mother was widowed in 1951 (my father killed in a car accident – a passenger he was – seeking with his brother to effect a move from Sydney to a rural location). The move was made after the death. The first landlord and generous in many ways my mother gratefully recalls – was a Chinese business family – several generations. The elderly couple arriving in colonial New South Wales already married in Hong Kong (or maybe it was “Canton”) in 1900 – slipping in before Federation (January 1, 1901) and the vile exclusionary Dictation Test of what was called colloquially the White Australia Policy – designed to keep out folk of colour (racial, political and moral – as it came to be applied). I remember this family too – of watching the elderly matriarch – tiny – with tiny slippered feet hobbling to her pew in our church – of a bound-feet era and class. Her gently whispered greetings in an accented-English. Occasional church functions in the family home.

    At Sydney University I sat in my first year English class with three young women – one was the daughter of Harry CHAN of Darwin – a hugely respected son of the Northern Territory. She mentioned that she spoke no Chinese – with a tone of regret I still hear. Another of the Group of Four had grown up in Harbin till aged 10 or 11 when Chairman Mao turfed out all the “White” Russians – and many elected to come to Australia. In my third year at the university I boarded in a large and WEA-Higgins associated household with Stewart – from Hong Kong – studying Engineering. A part-time student job at a chemical production plant in Leightonfield (near Villawood) brought me into contact with a young chap who several times offered me a lift back to Forest Lodge on the back of his bike (no such requirement then for helmets) and the first time as he rode from the plant told me that he was an ABC. What’s that, I asked? And in broad Strine he flung back at me over his shoulder – laughing at my naïvety – Australian Born Chinese. It was 1968.

    In the early 1970s I travelled briefly in parts of Asia (Eastern) – the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan – Siberia – and in India and in Malaysia/Singapore. I worked people from Laos and Viet-nam – and taught many, too – many of them I discovered actually ethnic Chinese – a diaspora fleeing unstable times and persecutions stretching back into the 19th century – seemingly always moving southwards (no Yellow Peril, though). From China to south-east Asia – out of PNG and South Pacific places too – I occasionally met. Oh, and I lived close to two decades in Japan – more nuanced perspectives as a result.

    So many stories, so many reasons – all human and moving. My siblings of another ethnicity – if you like. And the Tiananmen time and Bob Hawke’s tears and this latest movement – and some of Clive Hamilton’s fears and no doubt evidence – multi-millionaire Chinese arrivals allowed to buy their residencies and their harbourside residences – too. And all of us wondering about this influx and unsure of what lies behind it – for there are sure to be hidden and selfish and political agendas somewhere. And yet anxious for my old students and friends who “look” Chinese – that they will suffer racist attacks and bullying because of the lax political/politician positions on so-called free speech – Hansonite/shock-jock picking at the old racist scabs…

    And then the nonsense springing out of the Trump tweets on whatever thread of ugliness can be exploited by that ratbag and his WMD mob of hangers-on – wanting wars or threats of war to bump up their share/dividends – supported by a weak PM and Ministers – Foreign and Defence – here in Australia. It’s all far too “relaxed-and-comfortable” dog-whistling for me. We need to get rid of the US installations (spy and drone-directing) and so-called rotational base for US troops in Darwin (already ugly stories about the sexploitation emanating from that place into the community are being published by the NT News) and stop following every direction of the tweeter Trump as his echo/Deputy. And we need a proper engagement with China with proper diplomatic and political representation – not celebrity joggers or the kinds of personnel currently representing us there. We need long term goals – not off-the-cuff statements serving the forth-coming election.

    Thanks for the essay, Jocelyn – it’s always good to read those who have experience and understanding on such arenas.

    Re the Japanese in Australia keep in mind that through the Great War – the Japanese were part of the Allied “coalition” – in fact the Japanese Imperial Navy help guard convoys of ANZAC troops to the Middle East/Egypt. It was during and through post-war WWII that Australia followed the lead of the US in demonising and locking up both those who had come to live in Australia from Japan – and those who were the business representatives posted here. The whole history of that still needs proper investigation – particularly those who did not want to be sent/sent back to post-war Japan – whose homes, businesses and bank accounts were confiscated – as if they personally were responsible for the political and military directions of a country they had left. It might have been better to confiscate the estates of an earlier Australian PM whose misbehaviour at the Versailles Peace Talks post-the Great War many have blamed as in part responsible for the rise of the militarists in post-war Japan.

  3. R. N. England says:

    Though all cultures are fragile, the evidence suggests that Chinese culture and its present political/economic system are more robust than Western Liberal Democracy, which is showing strong signs of imminent collapse. In contrast to the ignorant xenophobes, I predict that those who try most effectively to rescue their communities from that calamity will be looking to China for help.

  4. mark elliott says:

    until the murdochs depart this earth for places unknown, australian politics, both parties, will continue to do his bidding.his antipathy towards all things asian, especially china, will continue to be foolishly followed by his lackeys in canberra.we need to deal effectively with china on a daily basis and surely having chinese australians is a great and ongoing advantage for us here in oz.good article, timely too.

    • DAVID HANCOCK says:

      I certainly hope that the bastard’s bones done come back here to be ensepulchred.

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