The view from Billinudgel

China plates
Tony Abbott was right that fear and greed shape Australian attitudes to China

The Chinese in Australia have always been stereotyped, but at least the stereotypes vary from time to time and from person to person.

The most recent oversimplification came from Tony Abbott, who reportedly told his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, that Australia’s approach to China was based on greed and fear. Apparently this produced great hilarity among the bystanders, although whether they laughed with Abbott or at him remains unclear.

Other politicians have done likewise: Clive Palmer accused the Chinese of being murderers, while Kevin Rudd railed that they had rat-fucked him at the climate summit in Copenhagen. The common thread, of course, is that the Chinese are a bit of a worry, and it was ever thus.

In the 19th-century gold rush they were accused of over-zealous claim jumping, and persecuted and even killed. This led to one of the foundations of the White Australia policy: our first prime minister, Edmund Barton, assured the new federation that the doctrine of the equality of a man was never really intended to include racial equality; it was specifically not intended to include the Chinese.

Many of his compatriots were blunter. The Chinese were simply inferior beings: okay as market gardeners, washermen and the owners of bad (meaning un-Australian) restaurants, but definitely not people like us. They were ching-chong-Chinamen, Chinks; later they became gooks and slopes.

The cartoon villains Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless were widely invoked. But later they morphed into the far more threatening figure of Genghis Khan; after the Chinese revolution the Japanese Yellow Peril was conflated with the Red Menace, presumably to mingle into the Orange Onslaught.

The idea was that the vast Mongol hordes to our north would spill over our white and pristine borders, propelled by to the irresistible force of gravity. A DLP poster in the 1970s warned of a future in which sweating Bondi lifesavers would be enslaved to pull the rickshaws of their Chinese conquerors.

There were light spots, of course: a mad politician named Douglas Darby had the idea of teaching the Chinese to play cricket, not to convert them not to capitalism but to civilisation. However, the overwhelming ethos remained negative.

But then the mining boom changed everything: China was our economic saviour, and a trusted and valued partner. Abbott, fresh from his talk of greed and fear, publicly welcomed them as our great friends. The days when John Howard spoke about too much Asian immigration, giving rise to Pauline Hanson’s diatribes, were apparently long gone.

But the worries remain. The new stereotype is the high-achieving Chinese – not just the heroes like heart surgeon Victor Chang, but the students who regularly monopolise the honour rolls of high-school graduates. And it’s just not fair: the kids are mercilessly tutored by their tiger mums, and what’s worse their superiority must be somehow genetic. It remains a racial characteristic. And that’s the whole point of stereotypes: even when the Chinese in Australia are successful, they still can’t win.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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