Telling the China story in Australia: Why we need racial literacy

A combination of increasing polarisation and rising racism have intensified discussions about what constitutes racist speech, and the relevance of racism to discussions about China in Australia. In order to answer these questions, we need to improve our understanding of what racism is and how it works in Australia. 

A rise in anti-Asian attacks followed the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, including Australia, where Asian-Australians have faced slurs, jokes, verbal threats, being spat at, sneezed and coughed on, and physical intimidation. Meanwhile, rising geopolitical tensions, debates about human rights abuses in the PRC, and concerns about domestic security had already created increasingly polarised discussions around China in the years before the pandemic.

Australia, the racial state

When asked, “Has racism in contemporary Australia entered the political mainstream?” the Munanjahli and South Sea Islander scholar Chelsea Bond, from the University of Queensland, asserted, “Australian history has more than a racial dimension. Race has been foundational to this country; it arrived on the ships in 1788….”. She rejected the premise ‘that racism is an artefact of a bygone era and… is external to Australian political life.’

The issue is not simply that historical racism, including anti-Chinese sentiment, has had a lingering effect in the present. In fact, racism was and continues to be foundational to Australia itself. At its heart, this racism is anti-Indigenous, stripping First Nations peoples of their sovereignty, working to continually subordinate them, and engaging in violence against them. But this foundational racism also targets a range of non-White others, including Asian Australians.

The philosopher Charles W Mills refers to the foundational political role of racism as the ‘racial contract.’ This contract embeds the distinction between white and non-white people in power relations, which ensure the ‘differential distribution of material wealth and opportunities, benefits and burdens, rights and duties.’

Australia is based on a racial contract. The Griffith University-based Kamilaroi and Wonnarua scholar Debbie Bargallie describes Australia as a ‘racial state’ where, ‘since colonisation, race has been integral to the development of the nation-state through the power to exclude and include, in racially ordered terms.’

When considering what is and isn’t racist in conversations about China, we have to start from this point. Australia is a racial state. This is the context of Australia’s speech about China.

Communicating in white public space

For communication, linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics tell us that context, audience, identity, and power all matter as much or more than the speakers’ intentions. Governed by a racial contract, Australia is what linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill calls ‘white public space,’ in which the privilege of white people is normalised and defended, and racialised ‘others’ are marginalised and subordinated. This is often done in everyday language, rather than through explicitly and easily identifiable racist language.

Within white public space, the primary distinction is between white and non-white. The political distinctions between Chinese-Australians and Han Chinese from the PRC are irrelevant, as are distinctions between Han Chinese from the PRC and those from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan or elsewhere, or between Han and non-Han people from the PRC, such as Tibetans or Uyghurs. And as highlighted by the signatories of an Open Letter on National Unity During the Coronavirus Pandemic, the rise in post-COVID ‘anti-Chinese sentiment,’ has also led to the targeting of a wide range of Asian Australians ‘because of their Asian heritage or appearance.’ The attack on the Vietnamese-Australian Do sisters in March demonstrates this. In white public space, there is no difference between Chinese, Han Chinese, and Asian.

Some Australians who comment publicly about China carefully differentiate between the Chinese people and the Party-state. However, the inertia of white public space constantly works to erase these distinctions, meaning that any comments about China or the Chinese government might be applied to any Asian Australian.

Confronting stereotypes of racist speech 

The racist nature of some China commentary therefore emerges in the structures of the racial contract. To see how this produces racist speech, consider three common stereotypes.

To begin with, racism is not limited to individual dispositions, like hatred or disgust, towards people of colour. Speech can be racist by failing to take into account the racialised nature of white public space, or the ways in which speech will be co-opted for explicitly racist purposes. Racist speech does not need to be intentional.

Secondly, racism is not a relic of the past, something that Australia overcame following the rise of multiculturalism. Indeed this idea of a ‘frozen racism’ that does not belong in the present is often used as a way to deny racist behaviour and speech —“How can I be racist if we’re all post-racial?” Racist speech is not anachronistic.

Finally, since racism emerges from the racial contract, it is not limited to any political position. In their recent work on racism across the political spectrum, Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter describe how right-wing and left-wing racism are ‘mutually enabling, if not two sides of the same coin: apparently opposed, yet indivisible.’ Opposing authoritarianism or defending democracy does not immunise speakers from racism. Racist speech occurs across the political spectrum.

Towards anti-racism in telling the China story 

Now is a crucial time for Australians to confront and address the ways in which discussing China can fan the flames of racism. We need to remain committed to reasoned criticism of the PRC and its domestic and international practices. But we need to do so in a way that does not further add to the suffering of Asian-Australians, or further encourage explicit racism. Denying the relevance of racism and refusing to discuss it won’t help. Developing ‘racial literacy’ — familiarity with theories and concepts of race — will.

Given that race and the racial contract are techniques of domination that are foundational to our world system, and which therefore crosscut national boundaries, a better understanding of race and racism will also help us develop better critical understandings of the PRC, and to pursue interventions that will help create a more just world, both in Australia and China.


The author would like to thank Shan Windscript and Linda Jaivin for providing helpful feedback on this article.