Australia and China- Linked by Migration


by Honorary Associate Professor Christine Inglis
CSC academic group: Social and Political Change

Christine, Director of the Multicultural and Migration Research Centre, has been associated with the University of Sydney since 1975 when she joined the Department of Education and then the Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific before joining Sociology and Social Policy in 2006. Since 2010 she has been Editor of the highly ranked journal International Sociology, which is published by SAGE for the International Sociology Association. Christine’s major research focus has been on migration and ethnic relations with particular reference to Australia and Southeast Asia.

Australia and China- Linked by Migration

Since the early 19th century Chinese migration to Australia has played a formative role in the economic and political development of the nation, not least in the movement towards Federation and the subsequent formalisation of the White Australia Policy (WAP). Following the final nail in the coffin of WAP in 1973, and particularly after the opening up of China in the 1980s and Australia’s shift to promoting the sale of its education to fee-paying overseas students, the numbers of Chinese settling and visiting Australia has continued to increase. Giving further impetus to this growth has been the burgeoning economic ties between Australia and mainland China.

The rapid nature of this growth is evident from the recently released 2011 Census results. In 2011, Australia’s long-term resident population had increased over 5 years by 8.3% to 21,507,717 persons. Even more rapid has been the growth in numbers involving the Chinese population. At only slightly less than 319,000 those born in China were 1.5% of the total population. This ranked them as the third largest foreign born group, ranking behind only those born in England (4.2%) and New Zealand (2.2%). Although this ranking was unchanged from 2006, the numbers of those born in China had increased rapidly by 50% over this five year period. Linked to this increase is the growing importance of Chinese languages in Australia. Mandarin, spoken by 1.6% of the population (336,410 persons) at home has now displaced Italian as the most important language other than English in Australia. Even more interestingly from the perspective of the nature of the local Chinese community, it has also displaced Cantonese (1.2%, 263,673 persons) as the most important Chinese language spoken in Australia. These language numbers reflect the many people born in Australia of Chinese ancestry who by 2011 numbered 866,208 or 3.1% of Australia’s total population.

quote Mandarin, spoken by 1.6% of the population (336,410 persons) at home has now displaced Italian as the most important language other than English in Australia.

The impact of Chinese migration and settlement is particularly marked in Sydney where by 2011 6.5% of the total population of 4,391,674 had Chinese ancestry, with Mandarin and Cantonese both being spoken by 3% of the population. This means that Chinese is the major foreign language spoken in Sydney ahead of Arabic (4.1%). In Sydney, many of these Chinese are recent migrants from China. Over the last decade those born in China have been among the top 3 settler arrival groups in Australia. In 2010-2011, at 11.5% they were the second largest source of arrivals behind those born in New Zealand. By 2011 people born in China constituted 3.4% of Sydney’s resident population.

Closely linked to the large Chinese population in Australia is the growth in trade with China and the growth in overseas students and tourists, who constitute a significant proportion of Chinese seen in Sydney. This is evident from entry data for the sixth-month period ending 30 June 2011,when 1 in 10 of all visitors to Australia for tourism or business were from Mainland China, which placed them second only to those from the United Kingdom. The 75,440 students from Mainland China were also the most important source of the over 332,000 overseas students studying in Australia at that time. Although not so strongly represented among the long-term temporary business residents, those born in Mainland China were still over 13% of the 908,000 total temporary residents in Australia.

As someone with a long interest in Chinse migration and settlement, an invitation to visit the Australian Studies Centre at Jiangsu Normal University in Xuzhou in the middle of April 2012 provided a valuable opportunity to learn more about the contemporary Chinese interest in migration and travelling to Australia. Over 20 Australian Studies Centres exist in Chinese universities. Whereas most centres concentrate on the study of Australian literature the Xuzhou centre is headed by a historian, Professor Zhang Qiusheng, who has worked extensively on issues associated with Australian international relations and migration. The current focus of the Centre’s program, involving Professor Zhang, his colleagues and post-graduate students, is Chinese migration to Australia.

In recent years Professor Zhang has made several visits to Australia with his students and there are plans for further visits. During my stay in Xuzhou I gave a number of lectures about Australian migration and settlement to both undergraduate and postgraduate students and joined them in a number of activities, which included the Centre’s annual Australian festival week. This contact with students and staff made clear not only their interest in Australia but also the extent of their knowledge of Australian society and its immigration programs. It also replicated the interest I found among staff and students of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Shanghai’s Sydney Institute of Languages and Commerce and Nanjing University’s Sociology Department with which our Chinese Studies Centre has a close relationship.

quote This contact with students and staff made clear not only their interest in Australia but also the extent of their knowledge of Australian society and its immigration programs.

Historically, Chinese migration to Australia and internationally had its origins in southern China. Hence to find this research interest in Xuzhou which is a large provincial city in northwest Jiangsu province slightly over 2 hours from Shanghai on the very fast train may be initially somewhat surprising. But this is to overlook the major shift which has taken place in Chinese migration to Australia which is now in large part driven by Mandarin speakers from northern and central China who lack the network of family ties which over a century were so important in the growth of migration from Guangdong Province, as well as Hong Kong.

Xuzhou, despite a population of more than 2 million in the city and a further 10 million in its administrative jurisdiction, rarely features in tourist guides except perhaps for a short paragraph mentioning its importance as a travel hub where the high speed train line between Shanghai and Beijing intersects with the major east-west train line from Lianyungang to Urumqi. If further mention is made of the city it is usually to note that it has a history of 2600 years and was the hometown of the first Han emperor, Liu Bang, and the site of significant fighting in the Huai Hai campaign in the Chinese civil war. While this may suggest it is something of a backwater it certainly overlooks the vibrant nature of the city’s economy and the strong focus on infrastructure and cultural development. Alongside major residential and commercial development associated with extensive improvement of roads and landscaping, the city is also very much involved in extending and developing a wide range of cultural centres including a very modern Art Gallery and concert hall. At the same time, significant work has been done to improve access to the Han dynasty tombs found in the city area. This includes reconstructing a major Buddhist temple as well building a new Museum of Imperial Edicts which includes a display on the imperial examination system used in selecting members of the Chinese bureaucracy. The Xuzhou Museum, which has major collections of Han dynasty archaeological findings, is also being extended. Such modernization is not unique to Xuzhou as China’s development stretches well beyond the major, well known large centres such as Beijing, Shanghai and KwangzhouGuangzhou.

We commonly hear how the drive to learn English and its reach into all parts of China is a major element in China’s growing contacts with the West. However, my experience in Xuzhou also highlights that an important dimension of this is an interest in travelling, and potentially living, outside China, with Australia one of the frequently identified destinations. Given Australia’s current relations with China and the growing social networks linking them the growth of travel and migration between the two countries will continue for the foreseeable future. This will create many opportunities and challenges for Australia and, particularly for Sydney given its status as the major destination for Chinese travellers and settlers.