Endemic: How anti-Asian racism is entrenched in Australian legislation

By Tim Bamford

Photo by Jason Leung, 2021.

Content warning for mentions of white supremacy, anti-Asian racism, and the Atlanta shooting.

It’s late March, 2020. Victoria has just entered a strict COVID-19 lockdown. To distract myself from what seemed to be the end of days, I was experimenting with baking. I had decided on a lemon meringue pie. A quick google search informed me that I needed eight eggs, which was eight more than I had at home.

At the supermarket, I made sure to check the limit on eggs – it was two cartons. Seeing that there were plenty on the shelf, I grabbed two and made my way out of the store, carrying the cartons in my arms. I had forgotten a bag.

“Typical.” The voice was unfamiliar but I can still recall the anger with which he spoke. I looked up.

“Leave some for the rest of us, will you?” The stranger was speaking to me.

I was stunned, having no idea who this man was. But before I could process his complaint, he brushed past me and muttered,

Fucking gook. Go back to Wuhan.”

I learned later that I was not alone in my experience at this beginning stage of the pandemic. Anti-Asian sentiment was on the rise in Australia and, as we’ve seen recently, around the world. An ANU survey of over 3,000 people found that 84.5 percent of Asian-Australians reported at least one racist incident between January and October 2020. Research conducted in the USA by academics on behalf of ‘Stop AAPI Hate’ reported nearly 4,000 racist incidents over a 12 month period, including nearly 400 physical assaults.

Ultimately, and tragically, this surge in racist incidents has culminated in a deadly shooting in Atlanta, which claimed the lives of eight women, six of whom were Asian.1

This piece is not meant to serve as a response to these recent incidents. Instead, it will highlight a dominant cultural perception of anti-Asian racism which predates the recent violence. 

The perception in question is one of enduring and condescending indifference. A perception that Asians do not experience real racism. It presumes that anti-Asian racism can be reduced to stereotypes about overachieving students or the occasional insensitive joke about Asian drivers. Implicit in this reductionist view is the suggestion that anti-Asian racism is benign. It is believed that white Australians should be able to make a joke or two at the expense of their Chinese colleague, or complain about having an international student in their group assignment, while Asian individuals go about their lives, unfazed.

Anti-Asian racism is not, and has never been, benign. It cannot be reduced to name-calling and stereotypes – although these things should not be excused either. In reality, anti-Asian racism has manifested itself in a centuries-old legislative and political history.

Pre-Federation – 1850-1901

ANU Professor Ian Welch notes that racism in Australia, from an historical perspective, typically manifests itself in a three-stage framework. First, vilification by word and image; then discriminatory legislation and socio-cultural separation; and, finally, acts of violence. We will see that these are but stages in a cycle which appears to have repeated itself a number of times throughout Australian history.

Asian migrants first arrived in Australia around 1850. It is often assumed that said migrants came voluntarily, perhaps aiming to participate in the gold rush. The reality is far bleaker. Chinese migrants were involved in indentured labour schemes well before gold was first found in 1851.2 Often forgotten are the many thousands of Pacific-Islander labourers who became an essential part of the Queensland Sugar Industry since their arrival, first in 1863.

Indentured workers often paid large sums to be taken to Australia and, upon arrival, had to work off large debts for transport, accommodation and other expenses. This includes labourers who did not voluntarily board ships bound for Australia. One estimate held that up to 30% of Pacific-Islanders brought to Queensland as labourers were procured illegally, including through kidnapping. Victims of kidnapping would have their wages garnished to pay expenses incurred by their captors. As a result, even the measly £6 per annum that migrant workers were promised was regularly reduced to nothing. By comparison, white workers in the same sugar fields earned up to £66 each year. White workers could go on strike, bargain for better wages and leave their places of employment. Indentured labourers enjoyed none of these rights and would face serious, often violent, punishment if they sought better conditions.

The use of non-White labour in mining and agriculture invariably led to the vilification described by Welch. The influential Encyclopedia Britannica reflected the prevailing attitude toward Chinese migrants at the time:

A Chinaman is cold, cunning and distrustful; always ready to take advantage of those he had to deal with; is extremely covetous and deceitful, quarrelsome, vindictive, but timid and dastardly. A Chinaman in office is a strange compound of insolence and meanness… (with) total disregard for the truth.’

Colonial newspapers commonly made accusations about Chinese attitudes toward European women. Ah Yea, a Chinese migrant working at Hell’s Hole, near Mansfield, was accused of assaulting a young girl despite a noted alibi. The lack of evidence presented by the newspaper that published the accusation did not deter a lynch mob from forming. The mob was only stopped through the intervention of two mounted constables. Indeed, a Sydney newspaper published the following poem, highlighting the further claim that Chinese migrants were responsible for the outbreak of disease in the colonies:

What do you bring, John Chinaman?

What brings you here, John Chinaman,
Why come to New South Wales?
Why do you sail when breezes fan
The north side of your sails?
“Our native country scarce can hold
The increase of the year;
So we, allured by love of gold,
Will try our fortunes here.”
What do you bring, John Chinaman,
As offering of your heart,
To us who feed, protect your clan,
And let you rich depart?
“We bring you small-pox from our land –
Nay, do not raise your ire,
We opium bring – a noble band,
And to your wealth aspire.”

Various colonial governments responded to the surge in anti-Asian sentiment by swiftly enacting laws aimed at curbing Chinese migration. The Chinese Immigration Act 1855 (Victoria) put a £10 poll tax on all Chinese migrants.3 The number of migrants was also limited by the tonnage of the ship on which they came.4 Thus, prospective migrants faced further increases to the exorbitant fees charged by ship captains. In the two years before the 1855 Act, many thousands of Chinese migrants arrived in Australia. In the two years following, that number reduced to only a few hundred. Other colonial governments passed legislation similar to the Victorian act, with every port in Australia officially operating under a similar act by 1888. That same year, New South Wales authorities had to restrict the landing of the steamer ‘Afghan’ due to an impending riot from local workers who had heard that a number of Chinese workers were on board.

Anti-Asian legislation was not strictly limited to immigration. South Australia and Tasmania required all Asian labourers to enter a period of quarantine and be vaccinated on arrival. An 1878 act restricted migrants from working on the gold fields for three years after their first arrival in Australia, while the Chinese Act of 1881 restricted the right to vote.

Interestingly, some measures were taken to protect migrant workers, particularly in Queensland. The Polynesian Labourers Act 1868 (Queensland) established a contracted labour scheme where migrants signed extended contracts in exchange for a guaranteed wage, accommodation and other benefits such as tobacco and clothing. The Act aimed to curb the exploitation of migrant workers, though migrants reported that the Act was not policed and workers were not protected by contracts, nor did they receive wages. The Act was an attempt to prevent the decent of the migrant labour system into a formalised system of slavery.

The opposition to the practice of slavery in Australia was largely due to the abolitionist stance taken by Great Britain.5 The position was not taken for the kind of moral or principled reasons we might expect. Adam Smith conveyed the dominant argument in his Wealth of Nations, where he argued against slavery, not for its racism and barbarism, but instead for its inefficiency. Specifically, argued Smith, enslaved workers were incentivised to ‘eat as much, and to labour as little as possible.’6 This position facilitated the abolition of slavery while leaving notions of white supremacy entirely intact.  

White Australia – 1901-1973

Edmund Barton made an often-quoted statement during a debate on the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which highlights the white supremacist view and its influence on early Australian immigration policy. I have deliberately included the statement at length:

‘I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races—I think no one wants convincing of this fact—unequal and inferior. The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman. There is a deep-set difference, and we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an equality [sic]. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others.’

Read in full, the statement is striking. Here, we see Australia’s first prime minister, and a man who became one of the three founding Justices on the High Court of Australia, arguing for an immigration policy founded on white supremacy. It is worth remembering that this statement was made in 1901, not 1801.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was one of a number of laws which collectively gave rise to the white Australia policy. The 1901 Act most infamously initiated the 50-word dictation test. Under the Act, any person who failed to write out a passage of 50 words in a given European language would be denied entry at the border. The customs officer could choose any European language when administering the test. Prime Minister Alfred Deakin explained the purpose of the test when debating an amendment in 1905. He noted that,

The language test is administered not to discover the knowledge of an intending applicant, but to give effect to a policy of exclusion’.

It is important to note that Chinese migrants were the primary target of this policy. A 1905 amendment to the Act allowed for the dictation test to include ‘any prescribed language’, rather than only European languages. This was done in order to fulfil Japanese requests for equality with Europeans.7

Pacific-Islander migrants were prohibited from entering Australia through the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901. Concerns were raised over the viability of the Queensland sugar industry without the cheap, often free, labour provided by Pacific-Islanders, but John Christian Watson, another former prime minister of Australia, argued for the exclusion of ‘Kanaka’ (Pacific-Islander) workers ‘even if it means the absolute annihilation of the sugar industry’.

Pacific Islanders were not just excluded from entry, however, and would become the only victims of mass deportation in Australian History. The Pacific Islander Labourers Act 1901 allowed the Minister for External Affairs to order the deportation of any Pacific Islanders found in Australia after 31 December 1906. The number of Pacific Islander workers was already dwindling in Queensland due to word of the horrid conditions spreading among prospective workers, but between 1904 and 1908, 7,068 Pacific Islanders were deported. Some 2,000 Pacific Islanders stayed in Australia, legally and otherwise, and were subjected to dozens of discriminatory laws that curbed their employment opportunities and civil rights.

The Australian government went to great lengths to protect its vision for a white Australia. At the 1919 Paris Peace conference, several states, led by Japan and France, proposed a racial equality clause in one of the five treaties under consideration. Australia immediately rejected the assertion that all races should be afforded ‘equal and just treatment in every respect’, and that states should refrain from making laws ‘on account of… race or nationality’.8 These provisions would clearly threaten the legitimacy of the immigration laws passed in Australia just 18 years prior. Prime Minister Billy Hughes led the Australian delegation, and convinced Woodrow Wilson to require a unanimous vote on the amendment, which was doomed to fail.

The white Australia policy would continue until the Whitlam government introduced the Racial Discrimination Act 1973. It is clear, however, that the 1973 Act merely required a tactical adjustment from those holding anti-Asian sentiment.

Endemic – 1973 – Present

Pauline Hanson famously capitalised on fears about anti-Asian racism to win a seat in the lower house in 1996. In her maiden speech to parliament, she expressed fears that Australia was being ‘swamped by Asians’ who came with ‘their own culture, religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’ Hanson stoked fears of an approaching force, alien in both appearance and values. Little inference is necessary to see the malice that was assigned to these migrants.

While some assume that explicit opposition to Asian migration is a relic of the distant past, a 1996 poll, commissioned with direct reference to Hanson’s infamous speech, found that a large majority – 65 percent – sought the reduction of immigration from the Asian region. Even in 2010, nearly 50 percent of respondents believed Asian immigration should be reduced.

A common argument raised in favour of these attitudes towards immigration is that there is simply not enough work or housing opportunities. We have all heard the complaints of the roads and trains being busy, or the supermarkets a bit crowded. ‘We’re full’, it is argued. This argument is an abstraction and ignores the open arms with which European migrants are welcomed into the country. In 1996, as Hanson was making these very complaints in order to win her seat in parliament, Australia saw greater numbers of migrants from New Zealand and the United Kingdom than from China.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is not the only facet of present-day anti-Asian racism. Even in traditionally welcoming circles, Asian-Australians face exclusion, fetishisation and, ultimately, shame. The emotional toll on gay Asian men was catalogued by Gilbert Caluya, who highlighted the prevalence of the ‘no GAM’ (i.e. no Gay Asian Males) attitude in the Australian gay scene.

On Australian university campuses, Asian international students have consistently reported racist incidents, which Catherine Gomes argues has led to the creation of parallel societies. These societies, according to Gomes, have been created for the purpose of ensuring safety and responding to attitudes of exclusion. Indeed, international students were among the most affected by the government’s response to the pandemic. They were denied financial assistance and bluntly told to ‘go home’ by a Prime Minister who had conveniently forgotten the billions of dollars these students brought into the country.

In epidemiology, an endemic disease is one which retains a constant, persistent presence within a given population. Endemic diseases spread slowly but surely, and occasionally rear their heads in a more serious or widespread way under the right circumstances.

Despite the deserved eye-rolls that a pandemic-related analogy invites in these unique times, to me, the relation is clear and convincing. Contemporary anti-Asian racism does not take the explicit legislative form that it took in the 19th and 20th centuries, but its influence is readily apparent. It bubbles away beneath the surface and, in opportune times, emerges in full strength.

The pandemic was one of these opportune times. The Australian Human Rights Commission found that the response to racist incidents was stifled by structural deficiencies in the reporting of hate crimes. Indeed, while organisations and agencies exist for the reporting of hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals, Muslims, women, Indigenous Australians and even veterans, no such agency exists for Asian-Australians. This means that, as the pandemic began, and as Asian-Australians were being denied service at restaurants, chastised online, or heckled at supermarkets, systemic and legal inadequacies denied the possibility of even basic acknowledgement of these crimes, let alone a just outcome for their victims.

It is unclear how there can be justice or meaningful change in the treatment of Asian-Australians without acknowledgement of the injustice I have just described. It must be acknowledged that unjust treatment of Asian migrants has been an essential feature of this country since its inception and, further, that this injustice is not a relic of the distant past. 

I will finish with the words of Albert Finkielkraut:

‘Barbarism is not the inheritance of our prehistory. It is the companion that dogs our every step.’

  1. I feel it is important to note that while much of the media has bought into the perpetrator’s narrative of fetishization, his victims were not objects and were deeply loved. The outpouring of support from the community is evidenced in this GoFundMe, organised by the teenage son of Hyun Jung Kim, one of the victims, who must now care for his younger brother on top of his school commitments.
  2. See Fitzgerald, J. ‘Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in white Australia’. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=308491.
  3. https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/resources/transcripts/vic4_doc_1855.pdf, article IV.
  4. https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/resources/transcripts/vic4_doc_1855.pdf, article III.
  5. See Griffiths, P. (2002) ‘Towards White Australia: The shadow of Mill and the spectre of slavery in the 1880s debates on Chinese immigration’.
  6. See Book II, Chapter 3 ‘of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive or Unproductive labour’.
  7. See Willard. M. ‘History of the White Australia Policy to 1920’. P. 125.
  8. See Shimazu, N. (1995), ‘The racial equality proposal at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference’, https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:8fd0f80b-a0be-42df-a1a0-7441fb27616b/download_file?safe_filename=602327139.pdf&file_format=application%2Fpdf&type_of_work=Thesis.

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