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Tea Leaves

Anti-China drift imperils Australia's tolerant self-image

Political wrangles threaten to engulf Asia's perfect business couple

These are troubling times for the 1.2 million Australians who claim Chinese heritage, caught as they are in a political set-to between Beijing and Canberra that is testing Australia's reputation as a tolerant, multicultural society.

Chinese Australians make up more than 5% of the population and play a positive role in society, but their loyalty is under question, with sentiment moving against students, tourists and even long-time residents. COVID-19 has wiped out the flow of overseas visitors to Australia, but on the tourist-dependent Gold Coast recently, a local told me, "I'm happy the Chinese are not coming."

Inflammatory rhetoric on both sides doesn't help. Australians bridle when the country is cast as the "chewing gum on China's shoe," just as China finds lectures by Australian leaders on human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang or Hong Kong unpalatable.

I was a young journalist in Hong Kong when Australia established diplomatic relations with China in December 1972. I didn't realize it at the time, but Australia was about to get caught up in something momentous and important -- the relentless rise of China as an economic and political superpower.

Others were more perceptive. Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam, who first visited China in 1971, ensured that Australia was quick to switch diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People's Republic of China when he became prime minister the following year. Whitlam's act was not forgotten. When he died in October 2014, China described him as "the father of China-Australia relations."

From Perth to Pudong, from Beijing to Brisbane, I've watched the relationship grow over the past five decades -- mainly in the business arena, but cultural, educational and tourism links have blossomed too. I remember then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, at a Parliament House lunch in Canberra in April 1983, telling his guest Premier Zhao Ziyang that "the policies of containment and isolationism of the 1950s and 1960s are no more than a bad memory."

Pragmatic leaders such as Hawke and Zhao in the 1980s and John Howard and Zhu Rongji in the 1990s and 2000s were able to steer a steady economic course that benefited both nations. China wanted Australian iron ore, coal, gas, meat, wine, grains, wool and cotton. A free trade agreement in December 2015 seemed the ideal gift for a perfect marriage of commercial convenience.

But through a series of political missteps on both sides over the past five years, Australia is now in the deep freeze with China, and we are all the poorer for it. The Lowy Institute's latest poll finds Australians have lost faith in China, with trust at 23%, the lowest in the poll's 14-year history. More than 90% of respondents want Australia to reduce its economic dependence on China. That cuts both ways, given that Australia sends almost 40% of its total exports to China, and Australian consumers have become used to a steady flow of affordable Chinese products and the money that comes in with Chinese tourists and students.

China no longer wants to tolerate what it regards as provocative Australian policies and pronouncements on human rights, the South China Sea, the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, not to mention legislation against foreign interference in politics that is deemed to be anti-China, allegations of Chinese spying, political meddling and coercion, and a Canberra veto on participation in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Since March, China has been turning the trade screws, using a variety of measures to stifle up to 20 billion Australian dollars ($15.57 billion) in sales of Australian commodities. No one in the Chinese government is taking calls from Australian counterparts. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's response is to say that Australian sovereignty is not for sale, and the two countries should be capable of having a mature and respectful relationship.

While the politicians look for solutions, what should we do at the people-to-people level? We could start by putting more faith in the values of the Chinese people who have made their life in Australia, including the 42,000 students quickly granted permanent visas after Beijing's crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

We could recall the contributions made by the first Chinese immigrants in the early 19th century -- entrepreneurs such as Mak Sai Ying (John Shying), who arrived in 1818 and became a prominent publican in Sydney's west. Other Australian Chinese families go back to the 1850s, when thousands of treasure hunters from southern China poured into the country, eager to make their fortunes on the goldfields of what they called "New Gold Mountain."

They battled hardship and prejudice from other miners, but prospered nonetheless, often by supplying goods and services. Most had returned home by the 1890s, but those who stayed worked as cooks, gardeners and farm laborers, or set up shops in rural Australia, opening money remittance offices and general stores. Others moved to cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, creating the Chinatowns that are now so much a part of cultural life and cuisine in Australia.

While the "White Australia" immigration policy discriminated against Chinese people, and remains a huge blot on the way Australia developed in the 20th century, individuals from more than 200 nations have found a home Down Under in the years since its official demise in 1973.

No one should be happy at the breakdown in Australia-China relations. For now, the overall trade pain for Australia is bearable because liquefied natural gas sales and a booming iron ore trade are offsetting other export losses, though individual traders are suffering badly. Five years from now, though, even iron ore may be at risk. China always plays the long game, and Australia needs to do the same, bringing to the mix the creative talents of 1.2 million Chinese Australians.

Geoff Hiscock is an Australia-based writer.

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