This piece first appeared in The Financial Review on 9 October 2015.
The 2011 Australian census reported that 866,200 Australians or 4.3 per cent of our population identify themselves as having a Chinese heritage. And 74.3 per cent of those Australians are first generation. I am one of them.
It is interesting that the debate on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which has also disappointingly taken on a racial overtone, had not in any meaningful measure involved the 4.3 per cent Chinese-Australians. Nevertheless, Chinese-Australians are intimately involved (whether they choose to be or otherwise) not only because they are Australians, but also by mere association, being Chinese. No one has asked Chinese-Australians for their views and they have, to date, not, publicly or directly, been involved or have given voice to the China FTA issue.
If it is of any interest, I am able to report (perhaps, more to the point, offer a view) that the Chinese-Australians that I have come across and spoken to are mostly in support of the China FTA. I believe this view is shared by a great majority of the rest of the 4.3 per cent of Chinese-Australians. This view cuts across political affiliations or allegiances.
Generally, the Chinese know a good deal when they see one and most Chinese-Australians believe that the China FTA is a fair dinkum darn good deal for Australia and not to be missed. They know that it has enormous potential to raise Australia's economic fortunes into the future, for all Australians.
Australians, (including Chinese-Australians) agree that we need to protect our local jobs and the employment standards that we have fought hard over many decades to achieve. There are, however, mechanisms and ways of doing this without jeopardising the signing of the deal.
The China FTA will create economic prospects, prosperity and opportunities. It will expand and create more jobs and industries and grant to most Australians economic and employment security and advancement: more than they have ever experienced before. We need to keep one step ahead, for our children if nothing else.
So, is a race card being played by those who oppose the China FTA?
A kind view is that those who seek to stir up sentiments against the FTA by resorting to old cliches of fear of differences, such as, "the foreigners will flood the market as cheap labour and take your jobs" or more precisely, "the Chinese will take your jobs", are either indifferent or ignorant (or both and perhaps recklessly so) as to the consequences and ramifications of their actions – unintended or otherwise.
These jaundiced racial views and attitudes are not new and have shadowed the Chinese in Australia for a long time, as long a the Chinese have been in Australia, going back to the GumSan gold-field days. Just as well, the Chinese are a long suffering people.
The psychologists tell us that the mind makes no distinction between what is fact and what the mind believes to be fact. A prejudiced and demonised reference to, "the Chinese" is as good as a reference, in the minds of many people, to all Chinese living in Australia and who call Australia home. The insidiousness of this spectre is its contagious and inimical capacity to replicate quickly into other aspects of Australian lives.
Suddenly, Australians are waking up in the suburbs to a neighbourhood "invaded by the Chinese"; parents, teachers and pupils are beginning to notice that the schools are overrun by Chinese students (who are not only academically scoring well but also taking away our marks too). And, have you noticed that Chinese and Indian doctors (sorry to my Indian friends) have infected our medical system in plague proportions. And never mind that they are good in what they do, that is not the point.
It wasn't that long ago, in Australia, that we were paralysed by the fear of the invasion of "yellow hordes" and the "yellow plague" from the north. Well, I suppose a good Chinese movie is worth repeating.
The net outcome of any strategy, tactic, or campaign, which embeds in its message the inter-play of adverse racial connotations (no matter how peripheral and innocuous) is always likely to create a climate of distrust, discord and ill-will. Such feeling will be directed at a particular group – in this case, the Chinese – who will be unfairly and unjustifiably expected to bear the brunt of unthinking Australians' resentment and insecurity.
Leaders and protagonists in the battlefields of the China FTA war, need to inflect and reflect on their actions to avoid harm and hurt. Not only to a group of Australians like the Chinese but to our society as a whole.
Let's move on and get it done. The FTA is ours, not China's.
Chin Tan is former chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, former president of The Business and Professional Association of Victorian and former secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. He is a member of the La Trobe Asia advisory board.