Chinese Immigration to Australia and Chinese Australians

Of twenty-three million Australians, almost one million have some kind of Chinese ancestry. Chinese Australians comprise four percent of the total population and forty percent of the Asian Australian population, with Sydney and Melbourne the major centres of concentration of Chinese Australians. Since 2011, mainland China has been the largest source of permanent migrants to Australia, and there are now 319,000 Australian residents who were born in mainland China — the third-largest foreign-born ethnic group — as well as 75,000 born in Hong Kong, 25,000 born in Taiwan and 2000 born in Macau. Standard or Mandarin Chinese is the second most-spoken language in Australia after English.

Significant Chinese immigration to Australia began in the 1850s as part of the Australian gold rushes, but the number of Chinese in Australia dwindled following the passing of anti-Chinese immigration laws, culminating in the federal White Australia Policy (WAP) effective from 1901 to 1973. While the WAP effectively barred Chinese immigration, Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese came in the 1950s and 1960s under the Colombo Plan, and Indochinese refugees were welcomed during the 1970s. Tens of thousands of Chinese students were granted residency by then prime minister Bob Hawke following the Beijing massacre in June 1989. Large numbers of Hong Kong residents were given visas when the territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. But the end of the WAP and China’s ‘reform and opening’ from the 1980s have led to a continuing surge of skilled and family migration from China.

With this migration has come increasing recognition of and research interest in Chinese Australians as a distinct cultural identity by second- and later-generation Australians with a Chinese heritage. While most consider Australia to be their home and are culturally and linguistically fluent, many report experiencing racial discrimination and ethnic stereotyping, cultural tensions with older family generations, and a contested sense of ‘Australian’ self-identity challenged by certain elements of mainstream society. Particularly contentious issues include highly tutored (and highly-driven) Chinese students dominating Australia’s academically selective state schools and Chinese buyers being blamed for rising Australian house prices [topic link page: Investment].

Nonetheless, many Chinese Australians have become successful academics, athletes, businesspeople, entertainers and media personalities, and Chinese Australians are more highly-educated than the national average. Several have been recognised as role models within the Australian community: for example, the heart transplant pioneer Victor Chang was named Australian of the Century in 1999; paediatrician John Yu was Australian of the Year in 1996; and, Robogals founder Marita Cheng was Young Australian of the Year in 2012.

But Chinese Australians are still statistically underrepresented in national life — a phenomenon termed the ‘bamboo ceiling’. In politics, while Tsebin Tchen became the first Chinese Australian elected to federal parliament in 1998, ALP Senator Penny Wong and PUP Senator Dio Wang [topic page link: PUP] are currently the only Chinese Australians in Australia’s parliament. This is despite both major political parties nominating many Chinese Australian candidates and using special advisers to target the Chinese community vote. Reports show that Chinese Australians are also underrepresented in corporate and public service leadership positions, as well as in the mainstream media.


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