When Perth-born Mavis Yen graduated from Shanghai Public School for Girls in the 1930s as a teenager, she was fond of the school because racism was nowhere to be found, and students weren’t bullied.
Little did she know that decades later, because of her identity as a “foreigner”, she would be “re-educated” in China’s Cultural Revolution, and spent years being persecuted and doing hard labour.
In 1916, Mavis Yen was born in Perth to a first-generation Chinese immigrant father and a second-generation European immigrant mother.
Many Australians looked down on interracial marriages in her era. Marrying a Chinese man, by law, also meant Mavis’s Bendigo-born mother lost her Australian citizenship.
This was the time of the White Australia policy. Discrimination against the Chinese community was common and occasionally violent.
After moving to China with her family when she was nine, Mavis graduated from a Shanghai public school.
She spent the next decades of her life split between Australia, China and Hong Kong. She worked to support China’s war efforts, and ended up working as an editor for China’s Xinhua News Agency.
When the Cultural Revolution swept China, she and other foreign teachers were subjected to interrogation, public “struggle sessions” designed to humiliate them, and re-education through labour.
Australian history through a Chinese lens
Mavis was able to enjoy a peaceful life with her daughter in Canberra after she finally returned to Australia in 1981, but she never stopped reflecting on the past.
For 20 years prior to the Cultural Revolution, Mavis worked to build a new nation but was treated as a foreign counter-revolutionary.
Her experiences led her to wonder why she was considered a foreigner and treated unfairly in both Australia and China.
When she was 71, she began interviewing descendants of early Chinese Australian migrant families like hers.
More than a decade later, she wrote South Flows the Pearl, a book reflecting the comprehensive history of early Chinese migration in Australia.
Mavis never secured a publisher for her book when she was alive. After years of work by her daughter Siaoman and her son-in-law Richard Horsburgh, her book was finally published by Sydney University Press last month.
Even though it was a book about Chinese Australian history, Mavis always thought it was Australia’s history. It was just told through a Chinese lens.
Ripples from Sino-Australian tensions
Mavis’s experiences of both the White Australia policy and the Cultural Revolution shed light on how discrimination has been interwoven with the politics of both countries, and how that has impacted the lives of Chinese Australians.
Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson, a senior lecturer in Australian History at the University of Sydney, thinks that while Mavis wrote about a generation cut off from their Chinese roots decades ago, similar issues remain relevant today, in anxious times.
“Chinese Australians still struggle to claim their heritage, and are still asked to choose between Australia and China,” she said. “But the meaning of ‘China’ in these debates is a ‘Communist’ China, synonymous for some Australians with military and cultural threat, with espionage and corruption.”
Although the White Australia policy ended in 1966 and the Cultural Revolution finished in 1977, both countries still have their own anxieties about “foreigners”.
In April last year China released regulations which it said were an attempt to combat foreign espionage amid deepening hostilities between China and some Western governments.
It has also arrested several foreigners following claims they committed espionage, including two Australian citizens, writer Yang Hengjun and journalist Cheng Lei.
In recent years, China’s political stances have become known as “Wolf Warrior diplomacy”, which is characterised by a posture that is both aggressive and defensive.
As China adopted a zero-COVID policy during the pandemic, nationalists on the Chinese internet called on overseas Chinese people not to come home to “poison” their home country.
In Australia, there have been ongoing calls to counter China’s growing influence over Australia’s politics, economy, academic freedom and civil society.
Recently, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Australia needed to “do whatever we can to deter China from acts of aggression in our region”, and warned Australia would “lose the next decade” if it did not stand up to China in the South China Sea.
Chinese Australians increasingly anxious
Amid the rising tensions between the two nations, Chinese Australians have found themselves singled out.
In one particularly high-profile case in 2020, Australian senator Eric Abetz questioned the loyalty of three prominent Chinese Australians at a Senate committee meeting and asked if they were “willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship”.
Wesa Chau, CEO of research consultancy Cultural Intelligence, was one of the Chinese Australians questioned by Senator Abetz.
As a member of the anti-racism taskforce of the Department of Family Fairness and Housing in Victoria, she created a survey in January this year, asking Chinese Australians about their experiences encountering racism in Australia.
Of the 457 Chinese people living in Australia that were surveyed, only a quarter (26.7 per cent) had never experienced racism. Prior to 2019, that number was closer to half (42.7 per cent).
Similarly, only 1.5 per cent had experienced racism more than 10 times prior to 2019. That number increased to 6 per cent after 2019.
“This change suggests that the external environment, which includes political and social pressures on the community, increases the experiences of racism for the Chinese community living in Australia,” Ms Chau said.
Attacked from both sides
Fan Yang is a PhD candidate and researcher at Deakin University whose research focuses on surveillance technologies, cybersecurity, postcolonialism and immigration in Australia.
As a female researcher with a Chinese background in Australia, Ms Yang constantly faces online criticism and attacks from China, Australia, and even the US.
When her report “Translating tension: Chinese-language media in Australia” was published with the Lowy Institute in September last year, the report was translated by the Chinese language platform Media Today, which also conducted an interview with her.
Some of the comments about her interview, where her picture was included and her gender apparent, accused her of “speaking on behalf of Australia”, and she was called a “traitor” by Chinese netizens.
However, the comments on the translated report, where she remained gender-neutral and no picture of her was used, were mostly positive.
“In some comments, sexism is intertwined with Chinese nationalism. My credibility as a female researcher was undermined,” Ms Yang said.
“There were false assumptions about me being instructed by my supervisors, and there were extended accusations toward my loved ones.
“Some of them even said I was paid to do the research. Well … I should be paid to do my work, right?”
Balancing act is not a ‘zero-sum game’
It is not easy to navigate the challenging relationship with Beijing while ensuring Chinese Australians are not caught in the middle.
Those who have been impacted by missteps in this balancing act have some advice on how to proceed.
Another Chinese Australian who was questioned by Senator Abetz is a Research Fellow at the Per Capita think tank, Osmond Chiu, who is also a member of the Labor Party.
Mr Chiu has experienced attacks on social media from anonymous individuals who have claimed that he is an apologist for totalitarianism.
He thinks a greater focus on practical solutions will help overcome disagreements.
“Acknowledging racism as an issue does not diminish the seriousness of human rights abuses in China, but dismissing concerns about racism as unimportant sends a signal that people in Australia should be grateful that it isn’t worse,” Mr Chiu said.”Directly tackling racism actually makes it easier to have these tough conversations about foreign interference because people will have greater confidence that they will be protected.”
Ms Yang believes that a more diverse set of voices need to be heard in the debate.
“The general perspective about the Communist Party of China is dominated by disciplines such as international relations, cybersecurity, and defence,” she said.
“For those disciplines, bilateral relations are a zero-sum question. You are taking a side in a win-or-lose game,” she said.
Ms Yang said that a lack of female voices or people of colour in those fields also compounded the problem.
But she also warned that entering the conversation could come at a cost.
“Those who attempt to justify or challenge the dominant discourse are seen as someone who is pro-China, which is not true,” she said.
Mr Chiu indicated that improving the standard of the political conversation will not only be beneficial to Chinese Australians, but Australia as a whole.
“Many Chinese Australians only have a distant ancestral link to China, and to be unfairly singled out because of your cultural background, with no consequences for perpetrators, undermines confidence in Australia’s professed multiculturalism and egalitarianism.”