The Chinese presence in Australia 

Speech to Western Sydney University conference on ‘Community Sentiment and Chinese Australian Experiences’

Western Sydney University, Parramatta

1 March 2018

Dr Tim Soutphommasane

Race Discrimination Commissioner


Check Against Delivery

Two hundred years ago, almost to the day, on 27 February 1818, Mak Sai Ying arrived in Port Jackson, on the ship Laurel. Mak was the first known Chinese immigrant to arrive in the colony of New South Wales.

Mak Sai Ying purchased land here in Parramatta and became a carpenter, He worked for John Blaxland, one of the colony’s prominent landowners and merchants. In 1829, he was granted the licence to run The Golden Lion Hotel on Church Street (a few hundred metres around the corner from where we are here at Western Sydney University).

It is fascinating to imagine how Mak Sai Ying, who came to be known as John Shying, was received in the colony. How was he treated by the settlers and convicts of the time? How did he make sense of his life as a Chinese immigrant in this southern land?

Shying left behind no letters or written accounts of his life. What is there on the record suggests he enjoyed some success and happiness in his Australian life. Blaxland wrote a reference for Shying, attesting to his ‘honest, respectable character’. Shying married one Sarah Jane Thompson, and together they had four sons.

But the story of Australia’s first Chinese immigrant was also one that presaged the unequal treatment that other Chinese who followed him would experience. Chinese immigrants were not permitted to retain land. So when Shying left Australia to return to China for a number of years, the land he had purchased was re-allocated to his wife; but upon her death the land was re-allocated.

These would be restrictions felt by many other Chinese immigrants who arrived in the colonies. As we all know, concerns about Chinese immigration would play a role in the colonies federating, and in the establishment of a White Australia policy. You wonder what Shying, in his later life, would have felt about the growing anti-Chinese feeling of the late 19th century.

Much has changed, of course. The ideal of a White Australia has been replaced by one of a multicultural Australia. Today there is an estimated 1.2 million people living in Australia who have Chinese ancestry. Many would agree that old prejudices against Chinese have largely given way to general acceptance of Chinese-Australians.

Yet, ongoing debates make clear there is growing discomfort about the Chinese presence in Australia.

During the past year or so, we’ve had intense focus on the issue of foreign interference with public institutions. The Government has introduced legislation aimed at preventing and curbing improper foreign influence, though it maintains this is not aimed at any one particular group or country. The media has investigated the relationship between some elected representatives and their donors, and the apparent sway such relationships have had on their politics.

Now, some of the commentary has escalated. In his recently published book Silent Invasion, Clive Hamilton argues the People’s Republic of China is conducting a campaign designed to erode Australian sovereignty and to undermine our independence as a nation. This campaign, according to Hamilton, is ‘being perpetrated and shaped by a complex system of influence and control overseen by agencies serving the Chinese Communist Party’.

Today’s conference is timely and valuable, because there has been enormous heat in our public debate about Chinese influence. We need to bring down the temperature. If we are not careful, we will run the risk of setting fire to our multicultural harmony.

Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. The concerns implicate questions of national interest spanning our security, the economy and our political system.

They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state. Where there are forces that seek to disrupt or corrupt our system of government, they must be identified and eliminated. The primary responsibility for this lies with our intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite panic and hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage.

It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Professor Hamilton’s book to ‘panda huggers’, to ‘dyeing Australia red’, to ‘China’s fifth column in Australia’, or to Australia being turned into a ‘tribute state’ by a Chinese ‘silent invasion’.

Such language flirts with exciting an anti-Chinese or Sinophobic racial sentiment. It recalls old fears about yellow hordes overwhelming a vulnerable white Australia. It smacks of The Yellow Peril revisited.

At a time when populist energies are running high, and when debates about immigration are being re-opened, we must not create the conditions for the rehearsal of lazy prejudice. We must avoid a situation where Australian citizens with Chinese heritage are second-guessed about their loyalty and allegiance; where those from Chinese backgrounds have to work twice or thrice as hard as others before they can even be accepted as Australian. It would diminish our nation if Australians with Chinese heritage retreated from participating in the life of our nation, because they fear being smeared as foreign agents of influence or denounced as members of a Chinese fifth column.

Right now, our society needs more participation from its multicultural population – not less. As things stand, we do poorly at reflecting our diversity within our public institutions, and within the leadership ranks of our organisations. Any anti-Chinese or Sinophobic sentiment will only make the task of representing diversity even harder.

Let me conclude by reflecting on the voice of Chinese-Australians. Some may point to how some Chinese-Australians themselves have expressed alarm about the extent of Chinese influence in Australia. That is true. Many who have spoken out about this issue are genuine in their conviction, and are entitled to be heard.

Yet too often there seems only to be selective quotation of Chinese-Australians whose opinions conveniently confirm a ‘silent invasion’.

It’s important that more voices of Chinese-Australians are heard. Those who know anything about the Chinese-Australian population will know it is diverse. It matters whether you are Hong Kong-Chinese, Singaporean-Chinese, Malaysian-Chinese, Taiwanese-Chinese, Lao-Chinese, Cambodian-Chinese or Chinese from ‘the mainland’. It’s one reason why the Chinese-Australian community stands alone among established multicultural communities in not yet even having a national representative body.

So what, then, do Chinese-Australians think of the current debate? The sentiment expressed to me by members of Chinese-Australian communities is clear enough. While there are some who have serious concerns about Chinese influence in public life, there are many, many others who hold more serious concerns about the consequences of stoking anti-Chinese prejudices.

That is why it is so important that we have forums such as this one today. I commend all the organisations who have organised this event. I hope that it allows our public conversation to hear directly from some Chinese-Australians, and not merely those who presume they can speak for them. And I hope that this forum does something to inject a measure of proportion and perspective back into our public discourse.

The debate about Chinese influence in Australia is an important one about our sovereignty and national interest. But it is also a test of our maturity as a multicultural society. Passing it will require a lot less panic, and a lot more sobriety.