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China and Australia: the whale and the tadpole

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Olympics seem to grab our attention, as usual. Nations want glorious achievements: it's the old story- bread and circuses for the masses. This week Australian swimmer Mack Horton called Sun Yang, the swimmer from China, a drug cheat. And he went on to beat Sun in the 100 metres freestyle. Sun replied, saying 'I am the king,' (apparently monarchy is alive and well in the People's Republic of China). Chinese social media begged 'Sun, don't cry', went mad over Horton's comments and bombarded his social media accounts with demands for an apology. I wonder if social media in China are controlled by ordinary people, or the State, in this country with a population of around 1.36 billion. Sun won the 200 metre race. In Australia, social media went overboard about Sun's strange-looking teeth.

Meanwhile in China, official journals made a big deal of it all. Despite imprecise English, an editorial thundered:

Australia used to be a land populated by the UK's unwanted criminals, and this remains a stigma attached to Australian culture.

Eager to be completely accepted by the Western world and afraid of being overlooked, Australia has grown docile and obedient in face of the US and the UK.

It cannot help but effuse its white supremacy. The tangle of inferiority and superiority has numerous reflections in Australia's foreign exchanges.

We don't have to take seriously the tinge of barbarism that comes out of some Australians, nor should we pay keen attention to some vindictive provocations.


Where do Australia and China stand? It's a complex question and we will have to rely on some impressions.


Australia and China have a long and complex history going back to the early nineteenth century. There had been Chinese people here for some time in the colony of New South Wales; trade and relative proximity might have encouraged it, though Australia must have been many days' journey from the Chinese mainland. When gold was discovered in Australia, Chinese flocked to the goldfields in Bathurst, Bendigo and similar places. Their faces, their clothing, and their culture stood out and made them targets of hostility among the other gold miners. There were various acts of violence and hostility and many anti-Chinese cartoons. Europeans described them as "funny to watch" as their gait was apparently distinctive. Fear of Chinese and other non-Europeans, and their tendency to work for less than union agreements, were part of the underlying sentiment behind the White Australia Policy and Federation in 1901. The Immigration Restriction Act followed a few months afterwards. However, there are large numbers of people we call'Chinese' in Australia from many countries – Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia- as well as China itself. There is no Chinese race and there are many races in China itself. So what we think of as 'Chinese' can be tall- like Sun Yang- or short, darker or light-skinned.

Chinese attitudes to Australia

Clearly there is some impatience in China with the raw and brutal comments made by many people. This includes Senator Pauline Hanson, who - some might say - has had the greatest come-back since Lazarus. She came to prominence in the mid- 1990s, raising the alarm: we were in danger of being swamped by Asians. Her warmly affectionate website announces that her reputation extends around the world. That's no doubt true, much to the irritation of some Asians who probably wonder why such a person is allowed to speak such views. Pauline Hanson is now a member of the Australian Senate, with some companions who probably endorse her views critical of Chinese influence.

In China, it is said that there is unhappiness with Australia's lack of suitable gratitude to the Chinese:


…many in China believing that the economic relationship was significantly tilted in Australia's favour. The Global Times reported that "87 per cent of 14,000 online respondents believed China should take reprisals through 'practical measures' such as boycotting tourism and study in Australia."

The US, China and Australia

Some of the complexities in the Sino-Australian relationship are discussed by Australian academics Beeson and Zheng. They suggest that the Chinese would prefer Australia to be less under the influence of the USA. But perhaps that begs the question of why many Australians would like US influence to continue. In short, Australians fear the rise of a powerful China seeking to expand its influence south towards Australia.

Chinese investment does seem to be a contentious matter for many in Australia. A recent piece in The Australian asked if we should let a Chinese government-controlled entity buy half or part of the electricity network in New South Wales. This could be risky, it said, in terms of national security. It cited a Global Times editorial: If Australia steps into Chinese waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike. Control of the electricity network has been raised again in NSW. The pros and cons of Chinese investment, and the benefits and perils of it, have been argued for some time.

In sum

The spat between the swimmers seems to have been the spark that lit a large fire. There are enormous complexities in every direction. It often happens that anyone critical of Chinese, or any Asians, is accused of racism. It's odd that the accusation never seems to run the other way. And as we saw earlier there is no 'Chinese race' anyway. To China, a large whale in the international sea, Australia is but a small tadpole. Fear of China and Japan seems to have been present in much of our history: the "Yellow Peril" was much talked of before World War II. And Red China was held up by Menzies and others after that. There is still a residual fear of what one strong nation can do to the weaker one. Whether the large whale and the small tadpole can live harmoniously is an issue that we will have to watch. No doubt lives on both sides of the ocean depend on it.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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