The ‘China Threat’: Can we escape the historical legacy of anti-Chinese racism?

Marilyn Lake

29 Jun 2023

How ironic that mainstream newspapers and conservative commentators should lambast former prime minister Paul Keating for living in the past when he denounced the AUKUS agreement and the Labor government’s fulsome support of it. It was, of course, the AUKUS agreement itself, entered into by Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden in 2022, that was the real blast from the past. Their declared solidarity in confronting what they defined as Chinese ‘assertiveness’ echoed white men’s defensive transnational identifications of more than 120 years ago when first faced with ‘the rise of Asia’.

Indeed, the ‘Chinese threat narrative’, as it has recently been labelled, was constitutive of Australian nationhood. But in recent decades this paranoia had been thankfully overcome, transcended in the late twentieth century by fresh thinking, a series of diplomatic initiatives and the building of new cultural, educational and trade relationships. Now, however, in 2023, with the ‘yellow peril’ revived and recast in the Nine newspapers as a ‘red alert’ in a series of articles accompanied by graphics depicting scary Chinese fighter aircraft heading south, we seem once again to be seeing Chinese ‘hordes’ coming in our direction. But whereas the White Australia Policy—the building of the great white walls—was a defensive, insular policy, now we are being enlisted by the United States into an aggressive ‘force posture’ militarism, aimed at containing China and aggrandising the United States as the dominant and unrivalled power in the Asia-Pacific region.

In 1901, our first prime minister, Edmund Barton, rose to his feet in the new federal parliament to quote Australian intellectual and erstwhile Liberal politician Charles Pearson on the humiliating consequences for white men of coming Chinese global power. Holding aloft Pearson’s work of prophecy, National Life and Character: A Forecast, Barton quoted him in support of the foundational Immigration Restriction Act. Restrictive measures were necessary, Barton argued , because of the global rise of the ‘black and yellow races’. Postcolonial assertions of racial equality spelled unmitigated doom for the white man in a post-Western world.

‘The day will come’, Pearson had written,

and is perhaps not far distant, when the European observer will look around to see the globe girdled with a continuous zone of the black and yellow races, no longer too weak for aggression or under tutelage, but independent, or practically so, in government, monopolising the trade of their own regions, and circumscribing the industry of the European.

Invited to ‘international conferences, and welcomed as allies in the quarrels of the civilised world’, the rise of China as a global power meant that white man’s ‘pride of place’ would be ‘humiliated’.

In such a changed world, Pearson elaborated, we would ‘wake to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom we looked down upon as servile, and thought of as bound always to minister to our needs’. Now, in 2023, it is clear that US president Joe Biden thinks that American ‘pride of place’ is threatened with humiliation in the Asia-Pacific region by Chinese ‘assertiveness’. Australia is being militarised to help the United States avoid that unthinkable fate. Our traditional fear of China is being deployed afresh to ensure that we are willing allies in the fight to maintain American ‘pride of place’ and primacy of race.

In National Life and Character, Pearson had predicted China’s ‘inevitable position as one of the great powers of the world’: ‘With civilisation equally diffused the most populous country must ultimately be the most powerful; and the preponderance of China over any rival—even over the United States of America—is likely to be overwhelming’. His historical understanding of shifting world forces in a postcolonial world had been decisively shaped by his residence in Melbourne among large and literate Chinese migrant communities and their writings on Chinese history and demography, notably The Chinese Question in Australia by Lowe Kong Meng, Cheok Hong Cheong and Louis Ah Mouy, published in 1879.

In that widely circulated publication, the Chinese Australian colonists had informed Victorian readers that they came from the oldest empire in the world and that they were the products of a proud civilisation, whose population had been recently calculated by the census as reaching almost 400 million. Australia’s population, Lowe Kong Meng et al. noted, was just over 2 million. In China, they reported, famine and starvation had recently caused the deaths of ‘millions of men, women and children’. Fairness and justice demanded that Chinese be permitted to settle in Australia.

Pearson, a former lecturer in history at Kings College and Cambridge, had migrated to the Australian colonies—first South Australia and then Victoria—to make a new man of himself, as he put it, and as a self-styled radical democrat, he proposed to help build a new society along the lines of equality. His startling work of prophecy about changing world forces, published by Macmillan in London and New York in 1893, caused a great stir internationally. Theodore Roosevelt wrote from the United States to tell him of the ‘great effect’ of his book on ‘all our men here in Washington’ and reviewed it at length in the Sewanee Review, acclaiming its ‘deep and historic insight into the world-forces of the present’.

British reviews of his ‘remarkable’ and ‘strikingly original’ work noted the importance of Pearson’s location—in the colony of Victoria in the south-west Pacific—in shaping his perspective. ‘His view is not purely or mainly European’, noted the Athenaeum, ‘nor does he regard the inferior races as hopelessly beaten in the struggle with Western civilisation. The reader can indeed discern that Mr Pearson’s point of view is not London or Paris, but Melbourne’.

In Melbourne Pearson had encountered a strong political mobilisation on the part of Chinese Australians, who considered their rights and capacities as colonisers to be equal to those of their fellow British colonists and who invoked international law to argue their case. The Australian colonies had a long history of discriminatory legislation aimed at barring Chinese immigrants, beginning in Victoria in 1855. As a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly and a government minister, Pearson had supported new Victorian legislation in 1881 which in an amendment also disenfranchised Chinese Australian men, some of whom had previously been exercising their right of manhood suffrage since the 1850s.

In his speech to the Legislative Assembly, Pearson drew on the information supplied by his fellow Chinese Australian colonists:

The population of China was nearly 400,000,000, and the mere natural increase of that population in a single year would be sufficient to swamp the whole white population of the colony. Australia was now perfectly well known to the Chinese, communication between the two countries was thoroughly established; and in the event of famine or war arising in China, Chinamen might come here at any time in hordes.

Pearson repeated this passage about Chinese ‘hordes’ the following decade in National Life and Character, but there he included the larger context of modern Chinese mobility and their movement into the Pacific as far as Hawaii, South America and South-East Asia, including the East Indies and the Straits Settlements. Drawing on the work of imperial travel writer Baron von Hubner, Pearson was able to show that Singapore, to the north of Australia, had quite suddenly become a Chinese settler colony. ‘On my first visit to Singapore in 1871’, Von Hubner had written, ‘the population consisted of 100 white families, of 20,000 Malays, and of a few thousand Chinese. On my return there, in the beginning of 1884, the population was divided, according to the official census, into 100 whites, 20,000 Malays, and 86,000 Chinese’. Census figures enabled a new global history. ‘Chinese colonisation of the Straits Settlements’, Pearson concluded, ‘shows what the race is capable of’.

White claims to ownership of temperate territories across the globe were fuelling a new ‘religion of whiteness’, which, as the African American observer W. E  B. DuBois noticed, was fundamentally proprietorial: ‘Whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, amen’. This new global colour line was creating an oppressive relationship of ‘the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea’. Canada and New Zealand had passed discriminatory laws against the Chinese and the United States had enacted new immigration restrictions in 1888.

At an international conference—the Universal Races Congress—in 1911 in London, the Singapore-born barrister and Chinese delegate Wu Ting-Fang decried the new ‘White Policy’ and its spurious rationalisations:

I have noticed that this cry of a ‘White Policy’ has been raised, not by the aborigines, who might have some excuse, but by the descendants of the settlers who had conquered and, in many cases, killed the aborigines of the country, which they now want to keep for themselves, and by politicians who recently migrated to that country. Is this fair or just? To those who advocate such a policy, and who no doubt call themselves highly civilised people, I would remark that I prefer Chinese civilisation.

Du Bois’s key insight was that these proclamations of white ownership were a defensive response to new claims on the part of colonised peoples—the ‘black and yellow races’—for equal treatment and an equal place in the world.

After 1905, when Japan defeated Russia in an historic naval victory, it replaced China as the main Asian target. ‘Do we sense somnolent writhings in black Africa’, wrote Du Bois in his essay ‘The Souls of White Folk’, ‘or angry groans in India, or triumphant “Banzais” in Japan? “To your tents, O Israel”. These nations are not white. Build warships and heft the “Big Stick” ’. US President Theodore Roosevelt, alerted to changing world forces by Pearson’s National Life and Character and espousing the strategy of ‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’, was pleased to send his Great White Fleet to Australia in 1908 at Alfred Deakin’s request, to demonstrate his country’s naval power. As DuBois recognised, the transnational proprietorial claims of white men’s countries were defensive reactions to the geographical mobility and political mobilisations of colonised and coloured peoples.

In the Australian self-governing colony of Victoria, home of radical liberal politicians Pearson and Deakin, Chinese Australian communities had not simply resisted racist discrimination and exclusions, they had also proposed a different vision for a future Australia as one animated by ‘cosmopolitan friendship and sympathy’, in which Australians from different backgrounds would enjoy ‘common human rights’, as they put it—probably the first human rights claim in Australian political history. Their vision anticipated what we would later call ‘multiculturalism’, but unfortunately this early political contribution of Chinese Australians in the 1880s is little known by present-day students of Australian political history. If our historical writing were more inclusive and imaginative, Australians today might be better able today to understand the ways in which past encounters of subjects of the Chinese and British empires in Australia were mutually formative. Visions of white self-governing nationalism on the one hand and cosmopolitan friendship and sympathy on the other were each shaped in response to the other.

The ideal of multiculturalism would finally replace race-based nationalism as preferred national policy in Australia in the late twentieth century. Immigration restrictions would stay in place in the white settler countries until enormous international pressure led white men’s countries to begin to dismantle their racial exclusions. From the 1970s, under the Whitlam government, Australia became more outward-looking. Diplomatic recognition of China was followed by the establishment of new cultural, educational and trade relationships. But it was Prime Minster Keating’s determined engagement with Asia in the 1990s that marked a decisive break with our colonial past and looked forward to the new era of multiculturalism and multilateralism that we inhabit today.

The dramatic economic growth of China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia represented, Keating noted, ‘a profound shift in the balance of power’ in the world. He recognised that the economic transformations to our north had profound implications for strategic power as well. We had to actively engage our neighbours, to find security within rather than from our neighbourhood. ‘If we do not succeed in the Asia-Pacific’, Keating memorably proclaimed, ‘we succeed nowhere’. Diplomacy, open-mindedness, language proficiency and negotiating skills would be key to building a secure future in the Asia-Pacific world.

At the same time, burgeoning Chinese migration has been transforming Australia, and the large enrolments of Chinese students in our universities are remaking our culture, economy and society. The Chinese-born population is now the third largest migrant community in Australia after the United Kingdom and India, comprising 7.9 per cent of our overseas-born population, and is increasingly influential in Australian elections.

Just as Australia has become more integrated with our Asian neighbourhood and more Asian in complexion, however, the American and Australian defence establishments and their political and media minions have become more strident in revivifying the ‘Chinese threat narrative’ to persuade Australians that we must join the United States in militarising Australia, confronting China with military force, taking the fight to the South China Sea. Impossibly expensive and impoverishing American nuclear-powered submarines are the new ‘big stick’ foisted on us so that we might join the next American war at the American president’s bidding. Having spent decades establishing our independent multilateral relationships in a multipolar Asian neighbourhood, Australians are being dragged back into a past world in which transnational white Anglo-Saxon solidarities are reinvigorated to ensure the pre-eminence of the United States and the supremacy of the white man.

Fuelling ‘The China Threat’

Scott Burchill, Sep 2020

The new moral panic about ‘the China threat’, and the comparative indifference in Australia about significantly more intrusive forms of foreign interference by the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, is orientalist and often racist: China is not a member of the Western club, so it is suspect.

About the author

Marilyn Lake

Marilyn Lake is Honorary Professorial Fellow in History at the University of Melbourne. Her books include Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, co-published by Cambridge University Press and Melbourne University Press and co-authored with Henry Reynolds, and Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and American Exchange Shaped American Reform, published by Harvard University Press.

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