REMEMBER JOHN HOWARD? The “desiccated coconut” and his “White tribe of Asia” continues to loom large over Aussie racism

A noticeable increase in anti-Chinese sentiment across Australia has its roots in former prime minister John Howard’s nostalgic and racist nightmares of Asia from yesteryear, writes Irfan Yusuf.

Remember John Howard? The old “dessicated coconut“? He was Treasurer in the conservative government under Malcolm Fraser which allowed a large number of refugees from Indo-China (including Vietnam and Cambodia) to settle in Australia. Fraser didn’t care about their appearance, hopeful that these desperate boat people fleeing communist dictatorships would turn out to be natural Liberal Party voters. And they should have, were it not for Howard overlooking political ideology and values in favour of race when he became opposition leader in the late 1980s.

But you rarely hear Australian conservatives openly talk race and religion (unless they are columnists for Murdoch tabloids). It’s always about “mainstream” Australian values, social cohesion or culture.

Hence, on 1 August 1988, Howard made the following remarks:

“I do believe that in the eyes of some in the community it – Asian immigration – is too great, it would be in our immediate term interest and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so that the capacity of the community to absorb was greater.”

A fortnight later, Howard declared that he did “not intend to alter one inch the stand that I have taken … I do not intend to alter my position on this issue”. Many claimed these comments were not racist, that he merely called for a debate on the composition and numbers of our immigration intake. But behind Howard’s rhetoric were the following claims:

1.       Australia is culturally not part of Asia, notwithstanding its geography.

2.       Asian cultures were inconsistent with the dominant Australian Anglo-Christian culture.

3.       Anglo-Christian Australians have difficulty absorbing people from neighbouring countries.

Arguably, the same assumptions formed the basis of one of the first Acts of Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia – the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Yep, the old White Australia Policy. And among the groups it was designed to exclude from the new Commonwealth? The Chinese.

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So anti-Chinese racism is almost as chronically white Australian as racism to those who have lived here for at least 60,000 years. The situation wasn’t much different in the United States. Enterprising Chinese migrants working as cooks for gold miners were subjected to all kinds of racism, whether in California or Victoria.

Australia has rarely been “swamped with Asians” as Pauline Hanson suggested in her 1996 maiden speech. All those years of White Australia policies guaranteed this. Comedian Michael Hing’s earliest Chinese ancestor arrived some five generations ago. His immediate ancestors are from Walgett, Lightning Ridge, Maitland and Thursday Island. A fair way from Taipei or Beijing if you ask me.

But now in the halls of Parliament we are hearing words like “China” and “the Chinese” being used in the same way words like “Muslim” and “Islamist” were used after 9/11. Which makes me wonder whether people of Mandarin or Cantonese-speaking heritage must now go out of their way to condemn the utterances of leaders or publications of the Chinese Community Party just as my mob once had to condemn lunatics from al-Qaeda and ISIL.

We now see that future security risks posed by ISIL and other non-state actors easily dwarfed by the ambitions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) flexing its economic and military muscle. Australia’s relations with the PRC have deteriorated. We could get dragged into conflict in the South China Sea or Taiwan. Our newspapers and media could be swamped with images of Asian-looking people threatening our security, with other Asian-looking people seeking refuge.

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How will the average Aussie bigot be able to tell the difference between different kinds of people who look like Chinese leaders giving threatening speeches on TV? Nuance and prejudice tend to go in opposite directions. The Scott Morrisons and Peter Duttons of this world speak of the “Chinese” and “China”, never distinguishing the PRC and its ruling Party from other Chinese from Taiwan (whose official name if “Republic of China”) or Singapore or Indonesia or Malaysia.

If we don’t watch out, we could find ourselves in a state of paranoia that will mean an Aussie who speaks Mandarin and has a name like Tsai Ing-Wen or Lee Hsien Loong  is treated as a security threat. Why do they celebrate Chinese New Year? What’s wrong with our New Year? What are these moon cakes they eat? How can we tell the difference between one east Asian and another?

It may sound like fun for conservative politicians to say the ALP is endorsed by “the Chinese” or that someone is a “Manchurian candidate”. Even if it is hypocritical given that at least one former Federal Director of the Liberal Party and Minister of the Howard Liberal government was in the employ of the Landbridge Group until 2018. The company was chaired by a billionaire with close links to the Communist Party of China. The company had been granted a 99-year lease on Port Darwin in 2015. The said former Minister was being paid over $70,000 a month to work as a consultant.

Ultimately such hypocrisy and racism hurt ordinary Aussies, whether of Asian or other heritage. It also hurts our economy and international relations. In 1992, Indonesian journalist Ratih Hardjono wrote a book about Australian culture, history and politics. The book’s title?

White Tribe of Asia. Not the best image for our multicultural nation.

About Irfan Yusuf 26 Articles
Irfan Yusuf grew up in Sydney and has worked as a lawyer in NSW, QLD, Victoria, Tasmania and WA. He is an award-winning author and has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Canberra Times, NZ Herald, Crikey and ABC The Drum.

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