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All as One to One for All

Comparing Chinese Australian Responses to Racism during the “Hanson Debate” and COVID-19

In: Journal of Chinese Overseas
Author:
Nathan Daniel Gardner The University of Melbourne Melbourne Australia

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Abstract

The recent racism toward Chinese Australians arising from the COVID-19 pandemic recalls the shape and scale of racism last seen during the “Hanson debate” of the late 1990s – so-named for the anti-Asian immigration and anti-multicultural positions Pauline Hanson advanced in Australian politics and society. Further linking these two moments are the responses to racism coming from Chinese Australian individuals and community organizations. In each period, the different backgrounds of various Chinese Australian communities and their representative organizations influenced their modes of responding to racism. Over the years, however, the prominence of a small number of “community leaders” and organizations responding to racism has increasingly eclipsed grassroots responses to racism. I argue that this shift represents a “professionalization” of Chinese Australian responses to racism; partly explaining the form that present responses take, while also problematizing the relationship between the “community representatives” and the “communities being represented.”

摘要

COVID-19 大流行引发的针对澳大利亚华人的种族主义让人想起了 1990 年代后期 “汉森辩论” 中种族主义的形式和规模 – 在这场“辩论”中,宝琳·汉森于澳大利亚政界和社会提出了反亚洲移民和反多元文化思想。与 COVID 大流行和“汉森辩论”这两个时期相关联的是澳洲华人和澳洲华人社区组织对种族主义的反应。每个时期,各澳洲华人社区组织的不同背景影响了他们应对种族主义的方式。但是多年来,少数“社区领导”和组织对种族主义作出的反应渐渐使占人口多数的草根华人对种族主义的行动黯然失色。我认为这种转变代表了澳洲华人对种族主义反应的“专业化”;部分解释了当前对种族主义反应的形式,同时也对“社区代表”和“被代表的社区”之间的关系提出了问题。

1 Introduction

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese Australians, along with other Australians of East Asian heritage, have become the targets of racism. Instances of vandalism, graffiti, verbal abuse, and physical assault have featured prominently in Australia’s press (Evlin 2020; Fang, Yang and Xiao 2020; Soutphommasane 2020). Reflecting this racist surge, Australia’s Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Tan, stated that one third of all complaints of racism registered between February and May 2020 were related to COVID-19. He believed many more incidents of racism went unreported (Tan 2020). In response to this sharp increase of racism, the Chinese Australian Forum (CAF) released an Open Letter on National Unity During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Accompanying this letter was an online petition of over 100,000 signatures. CAF president Jason Yat-sen Li intended to send both to the Prime Minister as a “clear message that Australians are united against racism” (CAF 2020a; 2020b). The letter alluded not just to the issue of racism itself but also to the way it was handled: “Australians are being targeted because of their Asian heritage or appearance and we cannot allow this disturbing trend to continue unchallenged. We ask for fairness in our national debate, our media reporting and in our communities (CAF 2020b).”

The scale and shape of this current racism has parallels with the increased instances of racially motivated vandalism, abuse and assault against Asian Australians seen during the “Hanson debate” of the late 1990s – caused by the anti-Asian immigration, anti-Indigenous and anti-multicultural positions advanced by Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party in Australian politics and society. Her first parliamentary speech on 10 September 1996, in which she declared Australia was being “swamped by Asians,” has since come to epitomize the controversy Hanson engendered (Kemp and Stanton 2004: 268–72). The moment rattled many for whom experiences of racism had previously been seldom. As a former president of the Australian Chinese Community Association (ACCA) Catherine Chung put it at the time: “I have been an Australian citizen for 20 years and after the Pauline Hanson speech I was verbally abused for the first time, and this was in the city, outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales” (Russell 1996). The responses from community organizations and leaders to these episodes of racism strengthen connections between the two moments. Like his future counterpart, CAF’s president during the Hanson debate, Luan Thiam Ang, issued a media release responding to racism and how it should be dealt with:

In the name of fair go [sic], we who are also Australians appeal to the media to report and discuss race issues responsibly, […] political and community leaders to show leadership, and be reminded that the people hurt in the current debacle are Australians and not just Asians, [and] the average man in the street to speak up when they see any abuse.1

CAF 1996

This paper will compare the responses to racism from Chinese Australian community leaders and organizations – with reference to the communities these leaders and organizations represent – to reveal similarities or differences between those responses during the Hanson and Covid moments. This comparative historical approach draws on the letters, newsletters, parliamentary submissions, interviews, and other materials they produced during these times. It aims to let these leaders and organizations “speak for themselves” and thereby underscore their agency as historical actors during these periods.

Comparison of these materials and modes of responding to racism tell us much about the composition of specific community organizations and the social positions of community leaders. The materials show that current responses to racism are led by a smaller number of community organizations and leaders than that seen during the Hanson debate. As submitted by various community leaders and organizations to the recent Australian Senate inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities, this study notes that the changing composition of Chinese Australian communities and the concurrent “China influence narrative” have influenced today’s responses to racism (Senate Standing Committee 2020). However, this paper also argues that a process of “professionalization” of community representation underway in Australia’s multicultural society is another explanation for this narrowing of Chinese Australian representation.

2 Historical Racism toward Chinese Australians

Australia’s history of racism stretches beyond COVID-19 or Hanson, as does the legacy of Chinese Australian communities and their leaders responding to racism and discrimination. C.F. Yong, Mei-fen Kuo, and John Fitzgerald have each investigated how Chinese community organizations harnessed ethnic, nationalist and class identities to counter institutionalized discrimination (such as poll-taxes or immigration restriction) and more base racism (which fueled incidents like the 1860–1 Lambing Flat Riots). They revealed the roles certain leaders played in mobilizing community support and serving as intermediaries between Sino- and Anglophonic communities in the decades surrounding Australia’s federation in 1901. They also revealed the different modes of activism employed by different Chinese Australian cohorts; such as letter-writing, petitioning, and lobbying politicians by local business leaders, or strikes and boycotts organized by unionized workers (Fitzgerald 2007; Kuo 2013; 2017; Yong 1977). At this time, as in other settler-colonial countries, Chinese emigres typically formed community organizations around family clan connections or common county origins in China – especially those from Guangdong (Kuhn 2008: 197–238). These native place associations were the most common type of community organization before the emergence of Chinese nationalist organizations in the early twentieth century (Kuo and Brett 2013).

For the years beyond federation, there exists less scholarship in this area. However, oral history interviews with prominent Chinese Australians conducted by Diana Giese and held by the National Library of Australia are very useful for filling the gaps (Giese 1992; 1999). Many interviewees were themselves leaders of community organizations and gave great insights into the composition, function, and rationale of these groups and their actions. Because these interviews were conducted before, during and just after the political zenith of Pauline Hanson, they were especially valuable for pre- and post-Hanson experiences and responses to racism.

In past decades, much has been written about the Hanson debate. However, the communities targeted by Hanson’s politics – Chinese Australians among them – appeared predominately as reference points in larger narratives. Prevailing discussion on the Hanson debate typically focused on: interpreting Hanson as a populist politician; “Hansonism,” as a collection of socially conservative and economically protectionist policies based on Anglo-centric, anti-immigration, anti-indigenous and anti-multicultural ideologies; or the Howard government’s exploitation of Hanson and Hansonism for its own political advantage. In particular, scholars pointed to the role media attention and partisan politics played in building Hanson into a national phenomenon. (Hage 2000; Jupp 2007; Manne 1998; Tavan 2005; Walker, Gothard and Jayasuriya 2003). It is perhaps testament to Hanson’s ability to capture the popular and political attention of the country that the narratives created by these scholars focused on the propagators of racism while Chinese Australian or other ethnic minority responses to Hanson’s racism remained in the background.

Historiographical analysis of the Hanson debate echoed that of the “Blainey debate” that occurred in the preceding decade. In a 1984 speech, Professor of History at the University of Melbourne Geoffrey Blainey claimed the Australian government’s immigration program was the “White Australia policy inside-out” for apparently favoring Asian migrants. He later warned Australia’s “Asianization” would inevitably provoke backlash from Australia’s “poorer” and “least-educated” Australians – namely those in rural Australia and the outer suburbs of Australian metropoles (Blainey 1991: 26–30; Darian-Smith and Cathcart 2004: 294–95). Hanson and Blainey are thus often placed by scholars in a continuum of the White Australia mentality that lingers in some sections of public opinion (Bongiorno 2015: 64–73 & 82–83; Tavan 2005: 219–33). As with Hanson, it is discussion about Blainey that dominated the historiography of his eponymous debate, rather than the groups directly impacted by the debate itself.

This imbalance is important to rectify, as the form of Chinese Australian community organizations had shifted since Australia’s official turn to multiculturalism in the 1970s. As organizations geared not just toward maintaining culture and assisting ethnic Chinese migrants to settle in Australia, they also built capacities to follow and respond to socio-political issues – especially advancing multicultural and anti-racist ideals – and were therefore highly active during the Hanson and Blainey debates. Moreover, shifts in immigration patterns saw the emergence of communities and organizations with the majority of members coming from places outside the Chinese mainland – including professional and business migrants from Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as forced migrants from war-torn Vietnam and Cambodia. These different backgrounds galvanized different modes of responding to racism which have hitherto been under-examined.

Yet current discourses hint that varied Chinese Australian anti-racist actions might similarly be subsumed within a new grand narrative owing to the COVID-19’s entanglement with the recent deterioration of Sino-Australian relations. The basis for this deterioration has been a series of recent Australian media exposés suggesting the People’s Republic has been attempting to coerce politicians and business leaders or co-opt Chinese Australian communities into furthering the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interests in Australia (Hamilton 2018; Sun 2020a). Wanning Sun has dubbed this phenomenon the “China influence narrative” (Sun 2020b). Because of this narrative, Chinese Australian community organizations, leaders and advocates have reported that they and others in Chinese Australian communities were hesitant to publicly call out racism when it occurred for fear that their loyalties would be scrutinized by the media or government agencies (Fang and Walsh 2020; Senate Standing Committee 2020; Zhao, Handley and Walsh 2020).

The blending of Covid-related racism with Australia’s fear of Chinese influence can be seen coming from both inside and outside Australia. In the early days of the pandemic, for example, an Anglo Australian man menaced Chinese nationals with a stock whip outside the PRC consulate in Sydney and declared that the virus was a communist conspiracy to take over Australia (McPhee 2020). In another example, China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, and foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed Australia’s concern about Chinese influence, questions about China’s Covid response, and racism toward Chinese Australians were proof of Australia’s “Cold War mentality” (ABC/Reuters 2021). Cheng and Zhao’s words were directed at all sections of Australian society, but their moralizing tone would have particularly resonated with those recent emigrants from the PRC who have established “neo-native place” associations. Formed according to their members’ province of origin, these organizations typically take positions in line with China’s domestic and foreign policy – for example, organizing a protest in Melbourne against the Hague’s 2016 findings on the South China Sea (Wen and Flitton 2016).

A large amount of declassified information created by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) puts the present interest in the PRC’s influence in Chinese Australian community organizations into a longer history of scrutiny.2 According to James Flowers, a past president of the Australia China Friendship Association and member of Sydney’s Chinese Youth League (CYL), ASIO surveillance of both groups from the 1950s to 1970s was due to Australian authorities’ suspicion of communist activities (Flowers and Giese 2000). In particular, ASIO was suspicious of CYL’s connections with the Maoist-aligned Seamen’s Union of Australia, as well as other sailors’ organizations from Hong Kong and the PRC (Chang and Turner 1991; Cottle 2003: 138–47).3 Illustrating the fact that aspects of this historic suspicion persist, Senator Eric Abetz asked three Chinese Australian community leaders to “unconditionally condemn” the CCP at the recent Senate inquest into issues facing Australia’s diaspora communities. One of those community leaders questioned, Wesa Chau, later described the incident as “race-baiting McCarthyism,” a comparison that harks back to the paranoia of communism creeping into Australian and other Western societies during the Cold War (Razik 2020).

Despite differences in domestic and international dimensions, the Hanson and Covid-era racism co-exist within this same Australian history of anti- Chinese racism. However grand narratives like these should not squeeze out the nuance of different Chinese Australian views, or the agency of communities and community organizations to respond to the issues affecting them.

3 Community Organizations Respond to the Hanson Debate

In July 1998, nearly two years after Hanson’s maiden speech and with the Australian federal election fast approaching, an organization comprised largely of former refugees in Melbourne, the Indochina Ethnic Chinese Association of Victoria (ICECAV), circulated a newsletter. In it, ICECAV canvassed a boycott of any party giving voting preferences to Pauline Hanon’s One Nation Party. “All Australia’s Chinese should respond to the boycott action. Melbourne should start a petition [for this], too” (ICECAV 1998b: 3).4 While its call was directed at locals, it was clear from an earlier newsletter that ICECAV’s readership stretched from Victoria to Queensland (ICECAV 1998a: 2). Interestingly, the idea for the boycott had come to ICECAV from Henry Tsang, then deputy-lord mayor of Sydney, who warned politicians not to scorn Chinese Australian voters (ICECAV 1998b: 3). These signs of co-alignment begin to reveal the degree to which different Chinese Australian communities and organizations coalesced into something resembling a broad-based movement against Hanson and the racism to which she appealed. There were other examples.

Town hall style meetings or symposia were another common opportunity for cross-community interactions. Melbourne’s Museum of Chinese Australian History facilitated an anti-racism symposium on 20 October 1996 that was attended by community representatives from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, Chinese Australian politicians, other Asian and non-Asian Australians, and was covered by English- and Chinese-language reporters (“Lengyan” 1996: 6–8). The Museum had also hosted the Chinese in Australasia and Oceania: International Conference the month before (Chinese Museum of Australia 1996). The conference gathered representatives of the community, academia, and arts over the 21–22 September weekend to discuss the history, culture, and social constitution of Chinese in Australia. Among them were five parliamentarians who attended the conference to discuss Chinese Australian political participation: Bill O’Chee, National Party Senator for Queensland; Helen Sham-ho, Liberal Party, NSW Legislative Council; Hong Lim, Labor Party, Victorian Legislative Council; Bernice Pfitzner, Liberal Party, South Australian Legislative Council; and Richard Lim, National Party, Northern Territory Legislative Council. While each had already rebuked Hanson for her maiden speech in parliament or the press, they took the opportunity to collectively denounce Hanson and racism once more at the conference. A month later, they released another joint statement as “five parliamentarians of Chinese descent” (STRB 1996a; 1996c).

There are more examples of interactions among Chinese Australian community organizations. On 14 October 1996, ACCA hosted a meeting with representatives from 17 other Chinese Australian community organizations in Sydney to discuss community co-operation in response to Hanson and the racism she stirred up. One result was a joint letter pushing Prime Minister Howard to show the same kind of strong leadership he had demonstrated during the “gun control debate” months earlier (Chung to Howard 1996).5 The Federation of Chinese Associations (FCA) sent a similar letter to the Prime Minister on 23 September 1996 with signatories representing some 30 community organizations in Victoria (Tchen to Howard 1996). In both instances communities from pro-Taiwan, pro-PRC or anti-Communist camps were signatories to the same letter. This degree of cooperation was not insignificant. Groups representing similar Chinese Australian cohorts almost had a physical altercation at the National Chinese Conference a decade earlier (Chow and Giese 1998). The seriousness of the Hanson issue momentarily eclipsed the significance of these community organizations’ inherent differences.

Indeed, Chinese Australian communities and organizations across the country responded to the issue. The National Archives of Australia, for example, hold evidence of letter writing campaigns spanning the continent. Queensland’s Taiwanese community coordinated an open letter with other Taiwanese groups around the country urging Howard to tackle Hanson “head-on” (Taiwan Institute to Howard 1996). Claudia Cream, an advisor for three South Australian groups composed primarily of ethnic Chinese refugees, also wrote to Howard about concerns over racial vilification (Cream to Howard 1996). One dispatch to Prime Minister Howard from the Museum of Chinese Australian History contained “the first batch of well over one hundred signed letters of concern from the many Chinese Community Organisations all over Australia” – and advised that more were still to come from New South Wales, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory (Au to Howard 1996). Another petition signed by over 500 professionals and graduate students working in a number of different universities, hospitals, government departments, and businesses, registered their fears of racism’s impact on the multicultural society they had “made home.” In another, Chinese student associations from each of Victoria’s universities collectively regretted that the “peaceful and friendly” country in which they had chosen to study had become hostile and dangerous to them and their families. Chinese Australians from all walks of life provided anecdotes of trips where strangers had brought up the racism incited by Hanson, of phone calls from worried relatives overseas inquiring about their personal welfare, and of international businesses becoming wary of the Australian market (Various to Fischer 1996). The rate and variety of responses was impressive. After Hanson’s maiden speech, Howard received close to 1,000 letters a month for the rest of the year, all condemning Hanson’s politics and the racism it stirred.

The great exchange of information and opinions among Chinese Australian communities through newspapers during this period also pointed to a broad community engagement with the Hanson debate. Newspapers with circulations in multiple states like the Sing Tao Daily, or the local Sydney paper the United Chinese Times, provided constant updates on Hanson for readers and a forum through which readers could express their concerns (for example, through essays or letters to the editor). Moreover, newspapers advertised anti-Hanson and anti-racism protests and town hall meetings and provided regular updates on community organizations’ responses to related issues (STRB 1996e; 1996b; UCT 1996b; 1996a). This coverage made readers aware of community organizations’ actions but also might have encouraged them to become involved themselves. Like the role social media would later come to play, the Chinese-language press here went beyond disseminating community information and toward the function of community building and organizing (Sun et al. 2011: 138–41).

Despite marking a moment of racism, the Hanson debate proved to be a moment of communication and cooperation across different community lines. Protests covered by Chinese language newspapers and captured on film by William Yang documented crowds of hundreds and thousands in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane made up of young and old, Chinese Australians, Vietnamese Australians, Indigenous Australians, Asian Australians and white Australians, community leaders, politicians, students, and others coming together under banners reading “Deport Hanson, Not Refugees” and “Asians Welcome, Kick out the Racists.”6 Opposition to Hanson was voiced by community leaders as well as a large, diverse, but co-aligned community base. And ultimately this opposition was successful. Australian voters did not return Hanson to parliament at the following election, and only a single One Nation senator took office.

4 Leaders and Leading Organizations Emerging from the Grassroots

An important part of the opposition to Hanson was the role played by certain media savvy community organizations that became “go to” sources for Chinese Australian commentary and opinions. CAF and the Queensland Chinese Forum (QCF) were two such organizations adept at using the media to air their concerns. This ability of theirs afforded great projection and control of their narratives.

QCF was an umbrella organization of various Chinese Australian community organizations in Queensland. Its purpose was to advocate the social and political interests of these organizations, as well as “be the voice for Queensland’s Chinese community.” Because of this perception of being the voice for Queensland’s Chinese Australians, ABC Radio National and SBS sought the “Chinese Australian perspective” from QCF on matters like One Nation’s immigration policy or critiques of multiculturalism (QCF 1998a). On the Hanson issue, QCF did not wait to be approached and issued its own media releases. It expressed its outrage when the Australian Liberal Party announced its preference deal with One Nation in the 1998 Queensland state election. Hanson’s politics, QCF argued, were fueling racism toward Asian Australians in supermarkets, streets, and schoolyards. Thus, QCF explained:

Since our disgust is total, we have embarked upon a journey to encourage everyone in the Chinese community to withdraw any form of support from the Liberal Party, and to attempt whenever opportune to convince our friends and colleagues in the wider community to do the same.

QCF 1998b

The Courier Mail and Financial Review subsequently covered the “influential” Forum’s call, which preceded those of Tsang and ICECAV later in the year (Franklin 1998; Syvret 1998). Suggesting they had some concern about this, the Liberal Parties of other states distanced themselves from the One Nation preferences that had ultimately wreaked disastrous results for them in the Queensland election (ICECAV 1998c: 3–4).

CAF was another organization that became a source for Chinese Australian opinion during the Hanson debate. Founded in 1985 by a group of well-educated and well-resourced Chinese Australian Sydneysiders, CAF formed on the belief that the best way to combat the racism that targeted Chinese Australians was to increase the understanding and participation of Chinese Australians in the political process. To this end, it also functioned as a training ground for future Chinese Australian leaders. During the Hanson debate, CAF hosted many information evenings, seminars, and public debates on issues of racism, multiculturalism, and Hanson (CAF 1997).

Already a veteran of media campaigns since the Blainey debate, CAF was quickly able to turn its experience and expertise to the emergent Hanson issue. On 13 November 1996, CAF called a press conference detailing the rise in racism since Hanson’s maiden speech which featured on the evening news of Channels 9, 10, and SBS, as well as the ABC’s 7:30 Report. Thiam Ang, president of CAF, also appeared the next day on Channel 9’s Today to further discuss the rise in racism, including a racially motivated hammer attack on a Chinese Australian woman (CAF 1997: 6–7). These appearances soon ensured that Ang and CAF became the media’s “go to” source for Chinese Australian perspectives on the Hanson debate.

This premier position for CAF was given some credence by the scale and scope of its initiatives. CAF organized a survey through the Sing Tao Daily to gauge pre- and post-Hanson experiences of racism among Chinese Australians. Like its media engagements, this was an action that demonstrated the groups’ great organizational capacities and resources. Within a week, the survey had received more than 1,000 responses from the newspaper’s readerships in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria (STRB 1996d). 345 respondents described experiences of racialized abuse before Hanson’s maiden speech compared to 710 who did not. After Hanson’s speech, these numbers changed respectively to 764 and 291. The CAF sent the survey results to Prime Minister Howard for tabling in Parliament. By gathering the voices of many Chinese Australians, CAF thereby provided Howard with that which he had previously said could not be substantiated; an increase in racism since Hanson’s maiden speech (CAF 1996). As a highly organized, skilled, and well-resourced organization, CAF reached for Chinese Australian participation beyond its membership.

Through actions like its survey, media appearances and public forums, CAF raised the voice of Chinese Australian communities. Further, it projected that voice into sections of Australian society that seldom heard it – just as QCF did. But these actions coincided with a swathe of organizations undertaking their own actions. Across media engagements or the letters to parliamentarians, the common fear was of racism growing in Australia and the common demand was for anti-Asian racism to be stopped. An array of individual citizens, community leaders, coalitions of community organizations and so on were actively airing their concerns. Thus, when CAF or QCF spoke as a “voice” of Chinese Australians in this context, they were not just speaking on behalf of others, but as one among many.

5 Community Leaders Respond to Covid-19 Racism

Today, in the context of Covid-related racism, we see CAF reprising its skillful role in the media. In response to the escalating racism directed at Asian and Chinese Australians, CAF instigated an open-letter and petition campaign to send to Parliament. And while it has not itself run a survey of racial abuse suffered by Asian and Chinese Australians, it has publicized the survey recently completed by the Asian Australian Alliance (AAA) within its own campaign. What we do not see, however, is the same degree of diverse and intra-ethnic community engagement as that seen during the Hanson debate. The town hall meetings, large scale public protests, letter campaigns and so on appear to be absent.

In fact, the terms of CAF’s community engagement took a different tone. Despite providing the platform for the Open Letter on National Unity, CAF’s signatories seemed to downplay its community credentials. Jason Li’s position as CAF president or Benjamin Chow’s as CAF’s immediate past-president, for example, was not noted. Instead, they, along with four other signatories, were listed as company directors. Six more well-known signatories, Cindy Pan, Claudia Chan Shaw, Benjamin Law, Annette Shun Wah, Jieh-Yung Lo and Adam Liaw were described by terms such as author, writer, journalist, commentator, or TV presenter. Additionally, Tony Ayres was noted as a screenwriter and director, and William Yang as a photographer. Pediatrician John Yu appeared as “Australian of the Year” and Wesa Chau as an “Innovator” (CAF 2020b). They were projected as the impressive, successful individuals that they are. But this depiction was at the expense of projecting their community connections and histories of community service – which many undoubtedly have. Instead of appearing as representatives of the diversity of Chinese Australia, they appeared as a selection of exceptional individuals. By extension, instead of community service, the reader is led to believe that it is their exceptional status that legitimizes their presentation as figureheads for Chinese Australian communities.

Of course, community support is necessary for legitimizing community leadership. To this end, CAF’s online petition on change.org reached out to like- minded individuals to reject racism under its slogan, “choose unity over fear” (CAF 2020a). The high number of responses indicated broad public support for their anti-racism campaign. However, it is difficult to discern what community, if any, the petition hopes to unite “over fear.” Unlike the signatories to the numerous petitions seen during the Hanson debate, the change.org signatories and their comments appear as atomized and often anonymized, obscuring any hint of class, age, gender, linguistic, cultural or historic backgrounds between them. Moreover, due to the inclusion of overseas signatories, CAF’s petition seems to have exceeded its national focus. While it found new signatories by way of international anti-racist movements like #stopasianhate or Black Lives Matter, CAF seemed to be drifting away from the delimitations of the Chinese Australian community it otherwise claimed to represent. After reaching 100,000 signatures in three months, it stayed at this number for another three before the #stopasianhate campaign in the USA saw CAF’s petition was boosted by another set of signatures. As of August 2021, the number of signatories is 150,000 but remains 50,000 signatures short of its target (CAF 2020a). Because petitions to Australian parliament must be completed within four weeks and signatories must confirm that they are citizens or permanent residents of Australia, it is unlikely that CAF’s petition will now be valid if submitted.

On another front, AAA’s recent survey offered a way for Asian Australians from all walks of life to share their lived experiences of racism in the wake of Covid. Its findings have been promoted by CAF in conjunction with its petition (CAF 2020a). Though it provided an invaluable window into the lived-experiences and realities of racism in Australian society, the survey also revealed a difference of community engagement with the issue of racism when compared to the rate of respondents to CAF’s survey after Hanson’s maiden speech. Whereas CAF’s week-long survey attracted over 1,000 responses in a week, AAA’s received about 400 responses over two to three months (Chiu 2020: 5).

A reason for the falling rate and diversity of community responses to racism was offered by CAF and other community leaders at the recent Senate Inquiry into Issues Facing Diaspora Communities. Like the open letter, petition, and survey, the senate inquiry offered a formalized method by which to engage with government authorities and policymakers. As noted in the submissions from four community organizations (including CAF and AAA) and six Chinese Australian individuals or community leaders, the Covid pandemic has intensified racism toward Asian Australians, and Chinese Australians in particular (Senate Standing Committee 2020). According to these submissions, the concurrent Chinese influence narrative unfolding in Australian politics and media was impeding the ability of Chinese Australian community organizations to respond to the racism arising from the pandemic. As Wanning Sun rightly explained in her own submission, Chinese Australians were hesitant to call out present racism, for fear of being labelled by jingoistic media commentators and politicians as tools for the PRC to use in pursuit of its own national interests. Other community leaders and organizations agreed and pointed to the comments of Senator Eric Abetz, Prof Clive Hamilton, and the journalist, Peter Hartcher, as evidence. The racist feedback loop between Covid and the Chinese influence narrative is plainly evident in examples of racism like the whip-cracking white man in front of the PRC consul-general or the cries of PRC influence coming from influential white commentators. The reluctance of some Chinese Australians to call out racism is therefore understandable. Jieh-Yung Lo, as director of the ANU Centre of Asian-Australian Leadership, described the difficulty for community “advocates” to escape association with this influence narrative: “I feel very saddened by [the situation] because [racism] is a legitimate issue here in Australia, and there are advocates out there working day and night to try and find solutions to create a more cohesive society” (Zhao, Handley and Walsh 2020).

However, it should be noted that the Chinese influence narrative has not dissuaded all Chinese Australian community organizations from calling out racism now or in the recent past. In 2014, Senator Clive Palmer made racist remarks about China and Chinese wanting to “take over Australia.” In response “the concerns and anger” of the Chinese Australian community was quickly shown by some 40 organizations demonstrating on the lawns of Parliament House (Lam 2014). As a result, Palmer apologized to the Australian public and China’s ambassador for his comments soon after. The influence narrative also did not stop some community organizations from publicly taking positions that were ostensibly pro-PRC. As previously mentioned, in 2016, Chinese Australian community organizations protested the Hague’s ruling against the PRC’s territorial claim over the South China Sea. According to one such group, over 3000 people from more than 100 community organizations attended (though video footage of the event suggests far fewer attendees) (Australian Chinese Workers Association 2018: 240; Ruptly 2016). More recently, 128 community organizations signed an open letter condemning the Australian government for revoking businessman Huang Xiangmo’s permanent residency in 2019. Huang had also been the president of the Australian Council for the Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC). In both instances, the community organizations involved were overwhelmingly “neo-native place” organizations led by the ACPPRC. While these examples preceded the pandemic, they took place during Australia’s preoccupation with the Chinese influence narrative – indeed, they were examples that the likes of Abetz, Hamilton and Hartcher have claimed as “proof” of PRC influence in Australian society (Hamilton 2018; Hartcher 2021).

Undeniably, this narrative dissuades many Chinese Australian community organizations, leaders, or individuals from calling out racism – but not all. As an explanation for why some organizations respond and others do not, the China influence narrative can therefore inadvertently construct Chinese Australians as either “model migrants” or “undesired others” – some are “more Australian,” others less (Yukich 2013). As Ien Ang argues, Chinese, Australian, and therefore Chinese Australian identities are all contingent, emergent, and equally valid. This necessarily means there are no Chinese Australian communities, organizations or individuals who are any more or less Chinese or Australian than any other (Ang 2014; 2001). However, this understanding does not erase the different “ways” of being Chinese Australian irrespective of place of birth, language, class, historical experiences and so on. To find an explanation for the differences in communities and organizations’ responses to racism during Hanson and Covid then, it pays to look at the compositions of the communities and organizations responding.

6 Intra-Ethnic Cohorts and Community Representation

The opposition to the racism that followed Pauline Hanson or Covid was more complex than what could simply be termed a “Chinese Australian response.” There are strong intra-ethnic delineations of Chinese Australian communities around the country and even within cities; according to language and dialect, place of origin, class, and political ideology (C. Feng 2011; Gao 2006; Kee 1988; Pan 2018). This community heterogeneity necessarily impacts organizations’ claims to represent the community (Kwok 2011). As the size and number of Chinese Australian communities continues to grow, so too does the number of organizations representing them. In Victoria, for example, 53 community organizations with the word “Chinese” appearing in their names were registered during the 1980s. In the 1990s, the number of newly registered organizations was 117, in the 2000s, 150, and in the 2010s, 310. Of the total, 441 organizations remain registered.7 Across this 30 year-period, organizations with typical social-welfare, religious, sports, and business or professional interests were represented. Toward the end of this period, in which the greatest growth occurs, there was a noticeable increase in niche-interest or leisure groups (for example fishing, bodybuilding, or caravanning), further hinting at the diversity and broadening interests among Chinese Australian communities. Additionally, there are many “neo-native place associations” emerging during this period of growth. The growing number of these organizations aligns with the increased number of emigrants from the PRC.

This growth in migrants from the Chinese mainland in recent decades has altered the composition of Australia’s Chinese communities (Simon-Davies and McGann 2018). For example, Mandarin has displaced Cantonese as the most spoken form of “Chinese” in the home and the simplified script used by the young emigres from the mainland competes for public and digital space with the traditional script used commonly by the longer-established, dialect- speaking cohorts from Hong Kong, the former European colonies of Southeast Asia or the once war-torn Indochina (Sun 2016; Sun et al. 2011). This new migrant cohort is also particularly well-educated and digitally literate. The cohort brings with it new forms of community networking and political activity, namely through the social media platform WeChat (Sun and Yu 2020; Yu and Sun 2021). From this diversity, patterns emerge in the community organizations formed and their modes of responding to issues like racism.

Many, if not the majority, of the most visible and vocal community organizations during the Hanson debate – in English- and Chinese-language media, political lobbying or (ethnic) community arenas – comprised Chinese Australians born in Australia or at least extensively educated there after arriving from former territories of the British Commonwealth, in particular, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore (Carruthers 1996; Das 1998). Accordingly, the figureheads speaking on behalf of these community organizations overwhelmingly fit this mold. ACCA’s former president Benjamin Chow was born in Shanghai in 1946 but raised in Hong Kong from 1949. He began secondary education in Australia in 1962 before undertaking tertiary study there too (Chow and Giese 1998). QCF’s secretary and media spokesman, Chek Ling, was born in Sarawak before coming to Melbourne on a Colombo Plan scholarship and eventually followed his career path as an engineer by going to Brisbane (Ling 2020). CAF’s president, Thiam Ang, was born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia. He moved to Australia in 1979 to launch his career because both his old and new homeland shared the same British commonwealth system for tertiary degrees (ACF 1994: 4–5). These people shared this educational and British commonwealth background with many others in their respective organizations.

This pattern reflected the size and length of establishment of Hong Kong, Singaporean, and Malaysian cohorts in Australia. In the decade before the Hanson debate, Pookong Kee correlated respective levels of education and English proficiency with degrees of social integration and participation. Chinese cohorts from former or current Commonwealth territories, for example, integrated more easily than cohorts from the PRC, Taiwan or Indochina which lacked the immediate advantages of English proficiency. Likewise, immigrating professionals more quickly established themselves than those arriving as refugees from Vietnam or Cambodia. Commonwealth cohorts also had the advantages of being longer established. Many of their members arrived during the 1960s as part of education programs like the Colombo Plan, and established community organizations in the 1970s as the nation turned away from the White Australia policy to multiculturalism (CAV 1992: 39–47; Kee 1988). From this understanding, it can be seen how some communities might produce organizations with inherent advantages over others.

The pattern of Australian or Commonwealth backgrounds and Chinese Australian community leadership was present among the signatories of CAF’s Open Letter, too. Australian-born Jason Yat-sen Li and Jieh-yung Lo and Hong Kong-born Wesa Chau have combined their community advocacy roles with political aspirations as Labor Party candidates in various local, state, and federal elections. Moreover, in 2015, Lo and Chau together launched the advocacy group Poliversity to increase the ethnic representation among Labor Party candidates (“Poliversity Inc.” 2020). But interestingly, each signatory of the open letter is locally born or comes from a former Commonwealth territory (except for Macau-born Tony Ayres) and was predominantly educated in Australia or at least in English. Additionally, each signatory is presented as a leader in their field or profession, rather than their community. None of the signatories came from the recent PRC migrant communities despite their current size and continued growth, or the large and now multi-generational Chinese communities that came to Australia as refugees from Indochina. The absence of a signatory from one of these new mainlander communities is especially surprising as many of them are highly-educated and wealthy professionals and businesspersons (Collins 2002; Ying Lu, Samaratunge and Hartel 2011).

While the signatories speak to the common experience of racism shared by all Chinese Australians, we must keep in mind from which among the many Chinese Australian communities they come, which are being represented, and whether these two things are the same. Moreover, we need to consider the “types” of Chinese Australian the White majority of Australia (including its politicians, community leaders, journalists and so on) wish to engage with under the banner of multiculturalism, and the hierarchical structures this reveals in Australian society (Berman and Paradies 2010).

In its open letter to Parliament and its submission to the Senate inquiry, CAF claimed the 200-year heritage of the Chinese emigrants as the basis of Chinese Australians being “deeply loyal citizens” (CAF 2020b; CAF 2020c). At a time when Chinese Australians are targeted by overwhelmingly white Australian racists, it is patently unjust that Chinese Australians should have to prove their “loyalty” in such terms at all (and especially so in the context of a Senate inquiry into issues affecting diaspora communities, as Senator Abetz demanded of Chau, Osmond Chiu and Yun Jiang). Yet invoking this type of patriotic, historicized rhetoric, can inadvertently play into a racial hierarchy as it constructs some Chinese Australians as “model migrants” and others as not (Yukich 2013). CAF claimed Australian “loyalty” on a shared community history that has “contributed to the building, defense and welfare of our nation” for centuries (CAF 2020b). But what does this say about other Chinese Australian communities – namely Indochinese or recent PRC emigrants – who are not represented in the open letter, or even other ethnic communities who do not share such a history?

As Wanning Sun reminded us in her own submission to the inquiry, Chinese Australians are “rights-bearing citizens in multicultural Australia” who deserve to be treated equally regardless of their backgrounds or views. But in doing so, she made special reference to those newest Chinese Australians:

There is a high level of enthusiasm among first-generation migrants to learn about [Australia’s] democratic values, practices and process. The best way to ensure that this high level of enthusiasm is sustained is to promote social inclusion and encourage fair representation, so that this community develops a sense of political belonging.

SUN 2020b

Just as other cohorts of Chinese Australian migrants had done during previous decades and “debates,” the newest emigrants from the PRC seek a place and a voice in Australia’s socio-political space.

The absence of voices from this new mainland migrant cohort from CAF’s open letter and its senate submission is thus surprising because many have been active in responding to the racism brought on by Covid-19, as well as to the pandemic in general. For example, new migrants have formed WeChat “neighborhood watch” groups up to 2,500 members strong in some cities, while others used WeChat groups to procure groceries for neighbors during Australia’s civil lockdowns arising from the pandemic (Boscaini 2020; Hartley 2019). In another instance, it was primarily through WeChat that hundreds of Chinese and non-Chinese Australians gathered in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall to protest against the increase in anti-Asian racism. This was an example of inter-ethnic solidarity, but also a response to the China influence narrative – the predominantly new mainland migrant organizers prohibited the appearance of any county’s national flag lest the message of the protest be co-opted (Zhao, Handley and Walsh 2020). As Haiqing Yu has pointed out, there are many Chinese Australian individuals, especially recent migrants from the PRC, who bring nuance to discussions around racism and “Chinese influence” without the need for community organizations or leaders acting as advocates. Their problem, as Yu described, was that their voices do not receive the same attention as those of others (Yu 2020). What Lo’s lamentation about advocates “working day and night” to build a cohesive society does not acknowledge but at the same time evinces, is that this work of speaking out as an advocate has been professionalized: individuals speak for communities rather than communities speaking for themselves.

Between the Hanson debate and the current Covid crisis, community representation appears to have been concentrated into an ever smaller number of people. In the mid-2010s, leaders of peak ethnic community organizations repeatedly came together to oppose the weakening of Australia’s racial vilification laws. This included a moment in 2013 when nine such bodies came together to issue a joint statement of condemnation to the press, among them, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the Arab Council Australia, the Australian Hellenic Council, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and CAF (Freri 2013).

While not a national body, CAF described itself as “the most highly regarded Chinese community group in Sydney” attending to “issues of public policy affecting Chinese Australians, including racial discrimination and racial vilification” (CAF 2013). Presumably, and perhaps with good reason, CAF thought itself best placed to represent the Chinese Australian perspective in this statement. At the time, CAF president Patrick Voon said he “hadn’t seen so many community leaders joining forces” since the Hanson debate. In 2017, leaders of 31 peak ethnic community groups came together to issue a joint statement to strengthen laws against racial vilification in NSW (Whitbourn 2017). Again, among the other peak bodies, CAF was there to speak on behalf of all the Chinese Australian communities of New South Wales. With its well-resourced, skilled, and erudite membership, CAF was certainly able to perform these functions. Still, we must consider the degree to which CAF’s membership represented or encapsulated the diversity of Chinese Australians – especially if it was the only organization speaking or having the opportunity to speak.

In response to Covid-related racism, the representation of community organizations is similarly narrow. Of the familiar modes of engagement utilized by community organizations, ACCA made a statement in response to a widely publicized racist attack in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, but it was unclear to whom this release was sent other than ACCA’s own membership (T. Feng 2020). The Chinese Association of Victoria (CAV) wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other politicians to express concerns about racism in the wake of COVID-19 and published these letters, as well as a response from Chinese Australian MP Gladys Liu, in its newsletters. Signaling some inter-organizational cooperation, CAV also encouraged its membership to sign CAF’s petition (CAV 2020a; 2020b). While noteworthy, these examples seem to be a far cry from the actions these community organizations undertook during the Hanson debate.

Online campaigns offered opportunities for grassroots participation, but it was unclear whether such actions were effective. When Hanson returned to Australian politics as a senator in 2016, CAF initiated an online campaign to combat the spread of her “intolerant and racist ideas,” encouraging people to upload photos of themselves with signs reading “#SayNoToPauline” to social media (Gerathy 2016). Unfortunately, as documented by the Australia Institute, the initial media interest and community support for this campaign dissipated “after little more than a month” (Dorling 2017: 4–5). This online stagnation is interesting to note when we consider that the primary mode of social and political interaction of the new migrants from mainland China is on social media platforms (Sun and Yu 2020; Yu and Sun 2021). Indeed, it is likely many signatories learned of CAF’s change.org petition through WeChat or other social media platform.

This brings us to consider new configurations of “community engagement” beyond community organizations. Due to this new PRC migrant cohort’s high online presence, it might have no need for the “traditional” network systems as represented by existing Chinese Australian community organizations. Perhaps communities are now more willing to organize themselves without the guidance of formal organizations; hence the mixed results of CAF’s online campaigns and the success of a spontaneous, grassroots action like that at Rundle Mall. Or perhaps the decision to publish an open letter as “sixteen prominent Chinese Australians” rather than assembling representatives of sixteen different Chinese Australian community organizations also hints at the slipping relevance of these organizations in modern Australian society.

At any rate, the new migrant cohorts’ attraction to different community networks and organizational structures is not surprising when there exists a perception among Chinese Australian communities that some self-styled leaders use the community representational status of organizations to pursue personal gain. Whether true or not, this perception has affected QCF and another “peak” organization, the Queensland Uniting Chinese Council, as each compete to be the organization representing Queensland’s Chinese Australian community (Kwok 2011). Interestingly, this perspective does not seem limited to either old or new Chinese Australian cohorts. From his experience as president of the umbrella organization FCA, Wellington Lee complained that this scenario playing out between organizations or individuals is not uncommon: “Everyone wants to be an emperor…. They have built up CVs but have done nothing for it” (Lee and Giese 1998).

This perception is unfortunate as there are still community organizations, like CAF, doing important anti-racism work. And by highlighting their personal accomplishments in the open letter, the signatories put themselves forward as more than just an ethnic category. Indeed, no one should need to qualify what they say or do “as a Chinese Australian” or “community leader” because normally it should not matter. But sometimes it does. And when it does – like during a period of heightened racism – it should be clear who or what community one represents. Because these signatories were all wealthy, successful, tertiary educated, locally born or came from former Commonwealth territories (almost all were Sydneysiders, too), only a very narrow section among the diversity of Chinese Australian communities was represented. Those ignorant of the signatories’ community credentials could simply see them as elite. Others, who are aware of the signatories’ backgrounds, could see them as the “type of Chinese Australian” who is always standing up to speak for others. If this is the case, other communities might rightly wonder why their own voices are not being heard or being given space.

7 Conclusion

It is obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic has given latent racism in Australian society the opportunity to rise to the surface once more. Furthermore, the Chinese influence narrative is exacerbating this problem – either by directly stirring racism itself or by inhibiting Chinese Australian communities and community organizations from responding. However historic examples of Chinese Australian community organizations opposing white Australian racism during the Hanson debate showed a previous willingness to combat populist racism. More recently, community organizations publicly taking anti-racist or pro-PRC stances, even amid the Chinese influence narrative, complicate this picture further. Indeed, wading too deep into the Chinese influence narrative brings some setbacks. One is the risk of judging some Chinese Australians as “model-migrants” who are deserving of Australian-ness and others who do not fit the profile set by some prominent, well-educated, native-English-speaking (or nearly so), and wealthy community representatives. Another risk is that of turning Chinese Australian communities and organizations into reference points in another larger narrative, as seen in most of the scholarship about the Blainey and Hanson debates. Such narratives do not leave much room for the agency of Chinese Australian communities.

This situation leads us to problematize the relationship between those who step forward as representatives of a collective “Chinese Australian community” and those multiple communities that are ostensibly being represented. When “professionalized” responses to racism began emerging during the Hanson debate – like those of CAF and QCF – they did so in the context of an array of Chinese Australian communities and organizations of different backgrounds each adding their own voices to the debate. The large size of public protests or the large number of responses to CAF’s Hanson survey, for example, were evidence of how much the issue was galvanizing communities into action. In effect, this broad movement of different Chinese Australian communities legitimized the public statements and political actions of Chinese Australian community leaders. In the context of COVID-19 in Australia, this relationship seems to have broken down. In comparison to similar actions seen during the Hanson debate, AAA’s survey or the nebulous public engagement with CAF’s survey showed less Chinese Australian engagement with these methods of responding. However, this should not be interpreted as signifying less resolve to respond to racism. As the demonstration in Rundle Mall showed, concern about Covid-racism was indeed broadly and deeply felt among Chinese Australian communities and others. The issue at hand might also be one of representation.

The leaders who put themselves forward to lead the Covid-era responses came overwhelmingly from a very narrow and elite type of Chinese Australian community, exemplified by CAF’s “professional” media response and the open letter from prominent Chinese Australians. This situation is in striking contrast to other contemporary broad-based movements. The recent #stopasianhate protests that sprang up across the USA in response to a racist and misogynist mass murder in Atlanta, Georgia, in March 2021 provide one example. The Black Lives Matter movements provide another. Like the Hanson debate protests, these movements comprised broad cross-sections of society and incorporated different communities – both inter- and intra-ethnic and from different strata of society. If we compare the racism during the Hanson and Covid moments, we see that while there were once many communities speaking in chorus, now there are fewer representatives speaking for more.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank JCO editor Min Zhou and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, Yu Haiqing for reading an earlier draft, and Jiyuan Luke Yin for his helpful edits. I am also very grateful to the National Library of Australia for making much of this research possible through its Summer Scholarship Program.

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