This entry will point out that Chinese people and immigrants have been a predominant part of Australian history and in the formation of Australian immigration policies. They became the target of restrictions made against foreign immigration which peaked with the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), also known as the “White Australia Policy”.
Even though immigrants came from many parts of the world it was the arrival of the Chinese and the attitude against them that was to form into this policy as will pointed out. Initially the Chinese were welcomed as servants and as a source of labour as a result of the limited supply of convicts previously used by the colony. Domestic instability and wide spread poverty in China forced many Chinese to seek fortune overseas, including Australia. They were however soon to be regarded as threat to the white Australian society. As diggers on the Australian gold field they were looked upon with suspicion due to their appearance and cultural differences. Riots directed against the Chinese were not uncommon as the competition for work and resources intensified. Public and political opinion against Chinese immigration grew so strong that during the intercolonial conferences of 1881 and 1888 the colonies of Australia passed legislations to uniform and severely restrict further Chinese immigration. In 19th century Australia Sinophobia was an ever present feature. It was widely believed that immigration would tear down the Australian society as the Chinese were seen as a sinister race. It was claimed that they brought bad habits, diseases, immoral behavior among many other preconceptions.
The British were not the first to arrive on Australian shores. The first humans to colonise this vast continent was some 40,000 years ago was the indigenous peoples of Australia, the Aborigines. And it was not until the early sixteen hundreds the Dutch as first Europeans to sight Australia. Captain Cook was to follow the Dutch in the seventeen hundreds. But long before the arrivals of the Europeans the continent had been known by Asians and being subject to international trade long before the establishment of the British penal colonies. In the northern parts of Australia Maccassan fishermen had made annual journeys to fish for trepang, often known as sea cucumber and to trade with the local Aboriginal tribes. The trepang was regarded a delicates among the Chinese, also making it a part of early international Chinese-Australian trading network. One can presume that direct contact occurred but the first reliable account of a Chinese vessel reaching Australia was made in 1751 by a Dutch resident. It may be a bit strange at first but tea and the export of tea from China was to form the first images of the Chinese in the Australian psyche. Tea drinking had risen in popularity and did arrive in wooden boxes made my Chinese labourers. Such boxes became so popular artefacts that Chinese carpenters came to work and produce them in Australia. The image of the Chinese worker was so far a positive one, but this image was however to drastically changing in the years to come.
Previously the Chinese Ch’ing leadership had banned any migration form China. Even though some immigration occurred it was not until the treaty of Nanking in 1842 and the opening of ports after the Opium war (1840-1842), that large scale emigration begun. The driving forces of this emigration were due a number of factors. Southern China had long been affected by wars and disasters leading to great hardships for the people. Ryan describes that many of the emigrants embarked on journeys, often to unknown destinations in the search of a better future. In addition and due to the abolition of the slavery among many of the colonist nations new means for finding labour prompted them to use Chinese labour.
The solution to the labour shortage was to be the so called indentured labour. In the case of Australia who had used convicts to meet the demand for labour the Chinese now became a favourable option, and the first shipment of 100 adults and 20 Chinese children set sail in 1848 with destination Australia. The Chinese that came to work in Australia were subjects to two different systems. First it was the indentured labour system that was introduced to substitute the slavery. It basically meant that a person was bound to work for a contracted period of time, usually for a low wage. The second system was the credit-ticket system where workers were given credit through a series of organisers that arranged contacts, transports, to gain overseas employments. The borrower was then obligated to repay his debt with interest over the time of employment. The average wage for a five year contract was twelve pounds a year, but good worker could earn as much as 24 pounds a year, almost as much as a white worker.
When gold was discovered in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 an ever increasing demand for contract labourers by gold investors was created. News about the findings of gold was spread to mainland China which in turn set off large scale movement of free and credit-ticket immigrants. The number of Chinese immigrant to New South Wales peaked in 1858 when 12.396 immigrants arrived. In Victoria numbers peaked in 1855 with 11,493 immigrants. Such high numbers of immigrants made the Victorian Government in 1855 to pass an immigration restrictive act to cut short immigrants. Worth to be noted is that acts passed to stop immigration was only pointed towards Chinese immigrants and not the thousands of other European immigrants searching for gold. The Chinese workers were also to be met with hardships and discrimination from the white miners and authorities. The white miners looked at the Chinese as intruders on the fields, and they were seen as scavenger of the gold fields when draining areas previously abandoned by white diggers It was not only aggression acts against the Chinese as competitors of resources, but also against them as a specific race. It was said that the Chinese were filthy, untrustworthy, spread diseases and had unusual customs that were not desirable in Australia. Many miners actively worked to exclude all the Chinese from conducting mining, and rallies were held to agitate against the Chinese. Riots against Chinese took place and one of more infamous riot was the Lambing Flan in NSW in 1860 when a series of attacks of white miners violently drove of the Chinese workers and burned their tents. The white miners had wide support in the society and even newspapers frequently published anti Asian articles. Simultaneously, there were debates in the NSW parliament to restrict further Chinese immigration, and after further riots in 1861 a bill was passed to further limit Chinese immigration.
At the 1881 Intercolonial Conference in Sydney it was discussed how to exclude Chinese immigration in order to come to an end with the racial tensions between whites and non whites. A unified form of restrictions between the colonies was sought after. South Australia was first to pass such legislations, with New South Wales and Victoria shortly after. During the conference it was agreed on four points that Australia should;
a. Britain should follow America's example and re-negotiate its treaty with China.
b. Chinese immigration to Australia should be controlled.
c. This control should be uniform, based on a £10 poll tax plus tonnage restriction.
d. Chinese who were British subjects were to be exempt.
One significant event to shape restrictions against the Chinese was the so called Afghan incident in the same year. The Afghan was a ship carrying a load of a few hundred Chinese that was suppose to land in Melbourne, Sydney, and New Zealand. After protest from passenger with legal documents and rights to enter Australia the supreme court of New South Wales ruled to the favour of those. This incident exposed the many differences and policies among the colonies in having different laws and regulations and calls were made by South Australian Premier Thomas Playford to gather a conference to resolve the matters.
In 1888 during the inter-colonial conference of Premiers held in Sydney much attention was put on how to control the Chinese immigration. As a result a uniform resolution was passed to restrict Chinese immigration to Australia and travelling by a Chinese person already in Australia between the colonies. Worth to be noticed is that before 1888 the Northern Territory had remained the only State or Territory that had not yet introduced specific restrictions against Chinese emigration.
The resolution agreed upon was as follows:
a. The further restrictions of Chinese immigration is essential to the welfare of the people of Australia
b. The necessary restrictions can best be secured through the diplomatic action of the British government and by uniform Australian legislation
c. The conference resolves to consider joint representation to the British government for the purpose of obtaining the desired diplomatic action.
d. The desired Australian legislation should contain the following provisions
(a) That it shall apply to all Chinese, with specific exceptions.
(b) That the restriction should be by limitation of the number of Chinese which any vessel may bring into any Australian port to one passenger to every 500 tons of the ships burden
(c) That the passage of Chinese from one colony to another, without consent of the colony which they enter, be made a misdemeanor
Australia of the 19th century did suffer from a great deal sinophobia and Irving describes that the Australian population did find the prescience of Chinese people very strange, considering their dress, language, and social patterns. When the first colonisers reached Australia it was declared Terra Nullius, and this was to remain the official policy throughout the colonial era. As a conclusion to this there was no native population of the land to be considerate with. Australia was to become a fully British white society surrounded by its highly populated Asian neighbors.
Social Darwinism had become a popular study in the 19th century placing the white man on the top of the evolution tree with all other races being below. Contemporary debates often dealt with the question that massive Chinese immigration would become a threat the racial purity of the white population as the Chinese was said to belong to such inferior race in comparison with the white. The main argument to exclude the Chinese was claimed to be their inability to assimilate into a western society. Racial difference was not the only argument to exclude the Chinese. The Chinese were believed to completely undermine the consisting labour structures when working for less and therefore steal employment opportunities for the white workers. Such believes had strong support among politicians including those belong to what was to become the Australian Labor party. Why were the Chinese such a target of racial fear and discrimination among all the other immigrant populations? As previously mentioned they stood out from the rest in their appearance and culture. But they were also stereotyped as being immoral, drug taking, gambling, evil minded people that were there to prey, or to ruin the racial purity of the white Australians. As most of the Chinese were males their presence could have been seen as a threat or competition to white males.
The height of Australian immigrating restriction policies came with the passing of Immigration Restriction Act 1901 that was passed without delay when the Commonwealth was founded and was to remain until 1958. This act was so sly in its way to restrict against immigration when it never mentions race as a mean to exclude any unwanted persons. Instead the controversial dictation test came to be used. It simply meant that any immigration officer could demand the immigrants to write a passage of 500 in any European language, and a language not known to the immigrant would then be used to fail the immigrant. This act was to be so successful that by the 1947 census that 99.75% of the Australian population, aborigines excludes was white. Even though The IRA 1901 was to work against any non white immigration it is understood that it was pure sinophobia that made it become a reality.
In Conclusion, Australian immigration restriction laws were a direct response to the Chinese immigration. Although necessary in the positive contribution of the Australian economy they were met with fears and aggression. Precautions were made to limit their presence and rights on Australian soils with the goal of protect Australian jobs, but equally as much as safety measures to protect the racial purity of the white Australian population. There were present believes that races could not live in harmony and the riots in the gold fields were regarded as confirmation of such statements. Anti Chinese feelings were present among the white and fueled by contemporary media and politicians, resulting in severe immigration restrictions implemented primarily in the intercolonial conferences of 1881 and 1888. The legislation's passed in those two conferences helped to reduce the number of Chinese people extensively. Restrictions against not only Chinese immigration but all non white immigration were to hit the highest point with the passing of IRA 1901 which led to an ever decreasing numbers of Chinese people in Australia. In short it was the labour competition on the gold fields and labour markets that set off the aggression against the Chinese and Social Darwinist influence that had built up a strong consciousness to protect the white race from degenerating Chinese influence.