SYDNEY - In Australia, the Chinese are the third biggest migrant group behind the British and those from New Zealand. But the pattern of new settlement has changed in past decades. In the 1970s and ‘80s there was an influx of those escaping Communism, while more recent arrivals are often wealthier, better skilled and are more sympathetic to the authorities back home. China is also Australia’s biggest trading partner.
Chinese New Year has become a glittering part of Sydney’s social calendar.
There have never been more people of Chinese origin in Australia. They have a long history in this country, going back to the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s. These days Australia is actively recruiting wealthier business migrants from China, as well as tens of thousands of students.
Wen Chen arrived in Australia three years ago and is a graduate from the University of Sydney, where she works as a special project officer at the China Studies Centre. She says she values her Chinese heritage.
“I am an advocate for Chinese culture and traditions and all kind of knowledge and I am a proud Chinese (person) because I have a very positive perspective about Australian-China relationship and I feel good to help more people around me to get better knowledge about my country, so, yes, I am proud of that,” she said.
The latest estimate suggests there are 1.2 million people of Chinese heritage in Australia, out of an overall population of 24 million.
James Laurenceson from the University of Technology Sydney says the patterns of migration from China have changed in recent decades.
“Earlier on it was mainly a humanitarian program - lots of Chinese immigrants coming under a refugee program, for example, in the late 1980s. Now it is firmly targeted towards skilled migrants and business migrants. So for example, in Australia we have a significant investment visa program, which is to attract overseas high-net worth individuals. 90 per cent of the applicants coming into Australia through that program are from China,” said Laurenceson.
Multicultural Australia does have a racist underbelly and a survey last year found that more than a third of Chinese immigrants in Australia say they had faced discrimination.
As well as prejudice, many older migrants from China had to overcome language problems and build new lives from scratch.
John Zhang was a scientist when he arrived from Shanghai in 1989 seeking opportunity that he was lacking at home. He worked as a welder before starting an eyewear company that has close ties with China.
“We can be like a bridge. We understand China, we understand Australia and sometimes we can promote the cultural exchanges, promote the business. And for the moment, for example, a lot of Chinese business, they want to invest in Australia but they don’t know how. They don’t understand the local regulations and we can help,” said Zhang.
But China’s growing influence in Australia does have its challenges. The government recently blocked the sale of key electricity assets to Chinese firms on national security grounds.
Other areas of contention are prime farmland and real estate.
Helen Sham-Ho, one of Australia’s first Chinese MPs, who served in the New South Wales parliament in the late 1980s, believes investors from China are making housing here increasingly unaffordable.
“This is bad influence and bad image for the Chinese though. They are not only just investors, some of them are residents or citizens admittedly, but they [have] got the money, they are so affluent, so they overbid all the locals. Of course, you get resentful because the market is no longer an Australian market, it becomes an investors’ market or really a Chinese market. It is not fair for the locals,” said Sham-Ho.
But Australia is increasingly a magnet for wealthier migrants from China wanting to be part of one of the world’s most stable and prosperous nations.