Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Asian immigration

No hotter button can be pressed in Australian politics than the two words “Asian immigration”. And raising the temperature still further here is the (almost never voiced) reality that the phrase itself is a euphemism, of the swept-under-the-rug variety. “Asian immigration” presumably arrived in Australia from the 1960s UK, where the phrase – understood as referring predominantly to Indian and Pakistani immigrants – clearly served a useful purpose as a neutral bridging term. In the context of Australian immigration since the mid 80s however, the omnibus phrase is redundant – most so-called “Asian” immigrants to Australia have been Chinese, either from Greater China itself, or from Chinese-identifying ethnically-discrete communities elsewhere (particularly Indonesia and Malaysia).

The only possible reason I can see for the continuing use of the euphemism, in lieu of “Chinese immigration”, is that the latter phrase may fan dormant flames of racism from decades ago, or even the last-plus-one century. There is no doubt that “Chinese” was widely used as a term and criteria of racial exclusion in the second half of the 19th century, and into the early part of the 20th. While this history of the use of the phrase is deeply shameful, surely it is now time to cut loose and cast off any vestigial demons here, and so rehabilitate use of the word “Chinese” into its ordinary meaning.

My thoughts today have been prompted by this Op Ed by Ross Gittins in today’s Age (SMH also). Gittins puts forward a plausible, although inadequately followed-through, argument that PM John Howard is playing both sides of the Asian/Chinese immigration hot-button. The stats bare this out, too – in absolute numbers, immigration is booming, and Chinese immigrants (Greater China, Indonesia and Malaysia) are 50% of the total. To which, the logical answer is “so what?” – a sentiment with which I largely concur. To talk about race and percentages in actual immigration stats is a matter of genuine public interest; to talk about the same in regard to immigration policy – future immigration intakes – is simple racist claptrap. I note in passing though, that the very-recently front-page newsworthy again Pauline Hanson campaigned against “Asian immigration” (as far as I am aware, she never used the phrase “Chinese immigration”) for the 1998 election, arguing that levels of 40% were too high.

Tonight, Pauline Hanson is more finished as a political force than ever. The Coalition has without doubt inherited her former voting constituency. Of course, this doesn’t in itself mean that John Howard is some kind of invisible, secret racist. My theory, apropos of Gittins’s article, as to how PM Howard manages to appease former One Nation types is this: he doesn’t actually talk about Asian immigration in a positive sense (nor, of course, in a negative sense). What PM Howard does judiciously talk about is “Australians of Asian (or “Chinese”) descent”. Perhaps I am reading too much into the distinction here, but I see a careful pattern emerging of PM Howard only talking about Asian/Chinese immigration as a fait accompli – as opposed to taking (future) immigration policy by the horns, and aggressively shaking it until nothing remotely racist could still be alive within it.


“Australians of Asian descent”:

“Australians of Chinese descent”:

(this last link is also interesting for another reason – it is a snapshot of the respective minds of Washington DC and PM John Howard on the evening of 10 September 2001)

Update 21 August 2003

The “Is John Howard anti-Asian?” question was a subject of some blogging action and reaction last November.

I also recommend (while only having skimmed through it) this academic article on the topic.

Finally, yesterday I unsuccessfully searched for a John Howard quote that I’d read in Judith Brett’s new book on the Liberal party. It turns out that Google is suprisingly selective (/shy?) when it comes to trawling Hansard. Today I did find the quote I wanted, using the APH’s online database. Anyway, particulary in its context – part of a statement on racial tolerance that was presumably itself in response to a “What about Hanson?” gauntlet laid a few weeks previously – PM Howard is positively gushing, but in a cringing, crescendo-of-stereotypes way:

People of the Asian communities have contributed very greatly to the enrichment of our life. They have brought their values of the extended family, they have brought their values of hard work, they have brought their values of commitment to small business and entrepreneurial flair and their infectious vigour in so many other areas to our shores.

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