John Fitzgerald The Australian May 4, 2023 – 3 min read
One in three Chinese Australians doesn’t identify with Australia, according to a recent Lowy Institute survey. They don’t identify as Australian-Chinese or Chinese-Australian, or plain Australian either. Almost one in five (18 per cent) reports a strong sense of belonging to China. How odd is that? The report left many Chinese Australians scratching their heads. Who are we talking about here?
According to 2021 national census data there are 1.4 million people in Australia who identify as having Chinese ancestry, of whom about 400,000 were born in Australia and one million born overseas. Of the overseas-born, 536,000 were born in the People’s Republic of China and the remainder born elsewhere, including Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Relatively speaking, China-born make up 38 per cent of the 1.4 million total, those born in Australia 29 per cent and people born elsewhere make up 33 per cent.
Which of them responded to the survey? The report rests on online responses from 1200 self-selecting adults, recruited through social media platforms, and weighted against a basket of demographic parameters based on 2021 census data around age, education, gender, language spoken, country of birth, and state or territory of residence. So far so good.
But visa and citizenship status were not weighted. The report offers a one-page pie chart on visa/citizenship status of all respondents, indicating that 21 per cent were on limited-term student, worker and other visas, and that 56 per cent were Australian nationals – that is, people self-identifying as ethnically Chinese and possessing Australian citizenship. The remainder were permanent residents.
As a rule, belonging correlates closely with citizenship and to some degree with permanent residence. Among expatriates the world over, temporary residents live in one place while maintaining their identity in another. In all probability, most of the residents who don’t identify in any way with Australia, or say they belong to China, are citizens of China and plan to stay that way. The only puzzle then is why visiting students and other temporary residents from China should have been included in the category of Chinese Australians in the first place.
On my estimate, well over half of the 44 per cent non-Australian citizens who responded to the survey were citizens of China. The predominance of China citizens in the sample could then plausibly account for the third of the sample who identify as Chinese, and account as well for some of the difference between broader public views on foreign affairs and defence, including AUKUS and relations with the US, and those expressed in the survey, which deviate by 20 per cent to 30 per cent on some of these questions.
Online comments from readers of The Australian show that some saw through the problem from the get go. “Aspiring Aussie”, for example, queried the Lowy findings and argued “ ‘Chinese Australians’ refers to those who can vote – not to be confused with those who are only temporarily here”. But others were misled into thinking the survey indicated deep disloyalty among Chinese Australians. Alarming claims of this kind highlight the risks to social cohesion generated by poor research design.
A further risk is that some of the summary claims about alleged Chinese Australian views on defence and foreign affairs could be mistakenly factored into electoral politics, even if this was not the intention of the research team. It’s a small step from mainstream media talking up a politically volatile report to political parties and factions taking the report’s findings into account in their internal debates and electoral strategies.
The electoral implications, for example, are unclear when no more than 56 per cent of the Lowy sample is eligible to vote in state and federal elections, as citizens, and when voter eligibility is not correlated with respondents’ views on policy matters. From other Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 data we know that 227,000 China-born residents are citizens, among whom perhaps 200,000 are of voting age. This may be enough to weight a sample but it’s not enough to sway a national election. To put those numbers in perspective, the total of China-born citizens in Australia falls midway between those born in India, who number about 350,000, and the 156,000 Australians born in The Philippines.
In sum, it’s a stretch classifying visiting students and other temporary residents who are neither citizens nor inclined to identify with Australia as Chinese Australians and then attributing their views to actual Chinese Australians. Properly speaking, Chinese Australian refers to Australians of Chinese descent, which is to say citizens and self-identifying Australians claiming Chinese ancestry. Modifying the definition of a familiar term for the purpose of a survey confuses the communities concerned and bamboozles the public. It’s also unfair.
Impugning a visiting citizen from China for identifying with China is no better than denying Chinese Australians the right to identify with Australia. This is a high-risk, high-impact matter, calling for care, clarity and caution.
John Fitzgerald is an emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology who specialises in China and Chinese affairs.
1/ Chinese students (L-R) Eugene Soo (20), Kathleen Xiao (21), Tony Xie (20) and Lydia Jiang at Melbourne University. Aaron Francis/The Australian
2/ Anthony Albanese speaks with Michael Fullilove at the Lowy Institute, in Sydney.