A Brief Overview of Australia-China Relations

Where and when did Australia-China relations truly begin? Despite how highly important Australia-China relations are, there is an absence of widespread understanding about these relations and their history. While the common understanding of Australia-China relations tells an overly simplistic story, where relations are effectively purely economic, beginning in the 1850s with the gold rush, dying down around 1901 after the implementation of Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act (the start of the White Australia Policy) and then relations, largely economic, are resumed after 1972 when Australia officially recognised The People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The details of this narrative are not wrong per se, but this barebones telling of Australia-China relations obscures the much more detailed full picture of these relations. The full picture of Australia-China relations acknowledges links between both countries which go back centuries. This more full picture narrative acknowledges that Australia-China relations have move through these themes: economics (yes, a central part of relations), empire, people to people links, government to government links and then the contemporary period of multi-faceted relations.


In 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament, making China the second country, after the United States, to have their head of state address the Australian Parliament. President Hu offered the comments that:

The Chinese people have all along cherished amicable feelings about the Australian people. Back in the 1420s, the expeditionary fleets of China’s Ming dynasty reached Australian shores. For centuries, the Chinese sailed across vast seas and settled down in what was called ‘the southern land’, or today’s Australia. They brought Chinese culture here and lived harmoniously with the local people, contributing their proud share to Australia’s economy, society and thriving pluralistic society.

(Hu Jintao, October 24 2003, Speech to Australian Parliament 1)

Unfortunately for Hu Jintao, the notion of Zheng He’s fleets during the Ming dynasty reaching Australia has been thoroughly discredited by Australian, Chinese and other scholars, with only the non-scholarly fringe writer Gavin Menzies being known for promoting the idea (an author who has also posited that in the 1400s China discovered America and ‘ignited the Renaissance’) 2 3 4.

The real beginnings of relations were more modest. Around the late 1600s, the first tentative connections between China and Australia were made, as Chinese merchants sailed south from Guangdong to reach Makassar in Indonesia, where Indonesian fisherman traded in trepang or sea cucumbers, which were brought back from northern Australia. Sea cucumbers in China were valued for their medicinal value, which helped make trade in sea cucumbers regular, with Australian Aborigines known to have had strong ties with the traders, and to have profited from the exchanges 5 6.

Empire was then a significant part of Australia-China relations. From 1840 to 1842, the British Empire engaged in military conflict with the Qing dynasty to open up extensive trade with China, in order for the British to obtain more profits and improve their trade balance, as the British Empire bought large amounts of silk, porcelain and tea but China didn’t buy large amounts of British goods, in part owing to a history of Chinese government policy of having limited engagement with the world beyond China’s borders. The result of this conflict, known as the First Opium War, was the unequal treaty known as the Treaty of Nanking (1842), which opened up 5 Chinese port cities (treaty ports), Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai, to foreign trade, handed Hong Kong over to the British, allowed more opium to be brought into China and allowed Chinese to settle in any part of the British Empire, including Australia 7 8.

With Chinese being able to travel to Australia, which in the 1800s was still a part of the British Empire, further push factors, such as the Taiping Rebellion (1851 to 1864, a massive civil war that left at least 20 million dead), poverty, famine and the continual decline of the ruling Qing or Manchu empire motivated Chinese to leave the country around the 1850s, especially from the southern part of China (where the Taiping Rebellion was concentrated) 9. Whilst the gold rushes in Australia, in Victoria in the 1850s and New South Wales in the 1860s, provided a strong pull factor, with Australian goldfields being known as ‘the new gold mountain’ (Xīn jīnshān, 新金山), as the Californian goldfields declined by the 1850s (hence why they were referred to as ‘the old gold mountain’, Jiùjīnshān, 旧金山) 10.

During the gold rush the Chinese community in Victoria, Australia reached 2,000 between 1853 and 1854, 15,000 in 1855 and across the whole of Australia 40,000 by 1858, totalling 3.3% of Australia’s overall population (this number of Chinese in Australia wouldn’t be reached again until the late 1980s) 11. Gold rush towns like Bendigo saw sustained migration, thus helping Victoria’s overall Chinese population reach 7% in 1861, about 24,732 people, but as has been seen elsewhere with gold rush migrations there was a very big gender imbalance, with no more than 8 (0.03%) of the 1861 Victorian Chinese population being recorded as women 12.

Unfortunately backlashes followed Chinese migration to Australia, with a key cause for the backlash being European and non-Chinese angst over competing with Chinese for gold in Australian goldfields, with Chinese regularly being singled out in part because of their different dress, customs and traditions. In the mid-1850s anti-Chinese legislation was passed in Victoria, such as a 10 pound tax per person just for Chinese migrants, and then across other Australian states throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century 13 14. Together with the end of the gold rush and many Chinese returning home (although as scholars like John Fitzgerald have noted, a significant amount of Chinese stayed and settled in Australia), by 1901 with the start of the White Australia Policy the Chinese community in Australia became rather marginalised, much like every other non-European community in the country.

After 1901, the number of Chinese heritage persons in Australia remained small, but the community was significant. Noteworthy individuals include community activist and successful merchant Loius Ah Mouy, and Sir Leslie Joseph Hooker (born Leslie Joseph Tingyou), founder of real estate firm LJ Hooker, which around 2007 was ranked 5th in the world of commercial real estate 15.

Government to government ties were required to give more pre-eminence back to Australia-China relations, after the rise of the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949 added further separation between China and Australia during the Cold War. After the United States established closer ties with the PRC, in common cause to stand against the USSR, with Nixon’s meeting with Mao in February 1972, Australia was quick to follow suit with the Whitlam government recognising the PRC in December 1972. So with the Chinese and Australia governments opening the door to relations, it became possible for economic, diplomatic, cultural and people to people links to all help deepen relations between Australia and China all at once.

And relations between China and Australia have steadily improved since 1972 (with the notable exception of 1989, and a few years after that). Trade is 1500 times larger in 2014 than it was in 1972 16. In 2013 there were 220,000 Chinese students studying in Australia, second only as a destination for Chinese students to the United States, with over 350,000 Australians visiting China each year 17 18.


Now that Australia and China have concluded a free trade agreement this week after 10 years of serious negotiating, Australia-China relations have been brought even closer, and the two countries are set to have ever deepening ties for the foreseeable future. Questions still revolve around the relationship, for example over just how much Australian and Chinese interests overlap, and over just how much the relations are economic, but it is clear that the multi-faceted and nuanced story of Australia-China relations will continue to be one of the most important stories for Australia for years to come.





1 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/10/24/1066631618612.html

2 Eric Rolls, Sojourners: the epic story of China’s centuries-old relationship with Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1992, pp. 6-9.

3 http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/APF/monographs/Within_Chinas_Orbit/Chapterthree

4 http://www.1421exposed.com/html/junk_history.html

5 Eric Rolls, Sojourners: the epic story of China’s centuries-old relationship with Australia, pp. 13-16.

6 Rowan Callick, ‘Australia’s Chinese Future’, Quadrant, 2006.

7 Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 236-240.

8 Guofu Liu, The Right to Leave and Return and Chinese Migration Law, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2007, p. 131.

9 Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

10 http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/collection_interactives/endurance_scroll/harvest_of_endurance_html_version/explore_the_scroll/australian_gold_rush

11 Information from the Museum of Chinese Australian History Inc. (Chinese Museum), Melbourne

12 John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australian in White Australia, UNSW Press, 2007, p. 13.

13 http://arrow.latrobe.edu.au/store/3/4/5/5/1/public/education/history.htm#b13

14 http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=58

15 John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australian in White Australia, p. xii.

16 http://www.china.embassy.gov.au/bjng/20120223anniversary.html

17 http://au.china-embassy.org/eng/sgjs/sghd/t1186371.htm

18 http://www.china.embassy.gov.au/bjng/123.html

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