Chinese-Australian shouldn’t be limited to tick-box of citizenship
A commentary first published in the The Australian on 9 May 2023.
Professor John Fitzgerald called for “care, clarity and caution” in the public debate concerning the identity and loyalty of people of Chinese ethnicity in Australia in an opinion piece in this newspaper last week (“Chinese Aussie identity blurred in a flawed snapshot”, 4/5).
We couldn’t agree more. That applies both to those who conduct public opinion research of Australia’s population of Chinese heritage, and to those who quote it and use it.
It’s why we respectfully disagree with his view that the Lowy Institute’s survey, Being Chinese in Australia: Public opinion in Chinese communities, now in its third year, should only survey people of Chinese ancestry who are Australian citizens.
Our survey examines how a key, diverse cohort of our society see Australia and their place in it.
When understood as a survey of people of Chinese ancestry living in Australia, as both the title and methodology of the report make clear, it provides the best snapshot we have on public record of the perspectives of over five percent of the Australian population.
Among other things, the poll provides a unique data set for examining the effects of the pandemic and tensions in the Australia-China relationship on domestic social cohesion.
The report is clear that it is using the term ‘Chinese-Australian’ as shorthand to refer to a wide cross section of Australian society with Chinese ancestry. Indeed, we asked survey respondents to identify themselves: 41 per cent described themselves as Chinese-Australian; 32 per cent as Chinese; 18 per cent as Australian-Chinese and 5 per cent as Australian.
To be included in the survey, respondents had to live in Australia, identify as having Chinese ancestry, be over 18, and either be Australian citizens, permanent residents or holders of long-term visas.
We excluded anyone who had resided in the country for less than one year, as well as tourists. This is similar to the way that the 2021 Census (on which the poll’s demographic parameters are benchmarked) excludes overseas visitors but includes migrants regardless of visa-status or nationality in the population count.
Eight in ten surveyed (79 per cent) in the poll were either Australian citizens or permanent residents. The rest were long-term residents on a variety of work and skilled, study and training or family and partner visas.
There are key reasons why we chose not to limit this survey just to citizens.
First, it reflects the realities of the Australian immigration system. As the recent Migration Review highlighted, becoming a permanent resident, let alone a citizen, is often a long process. As the Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neill noted in a recent speech to the National Press Club, “too many migrants are stuck in permanently temporary limbo”.
Yet many residents of Australia contribute to and have a stake in our society long before they become citizens or even permanent residents. It would seem at the very least unfair to exclude their views from a survey of the Australian population with Chinese ancestry.
Second, there were also practical considerations for our approach. An overly narrow definition of who qualifies for the survey was not going to help our understanding of many of the issues we were keen to explore.
The survey, for instance, asks respondents if they have been subject to racist abuse. It strikes us as implausible that perpetrators of such abuse pause to ask whether their targets are citizens or not before calling them offensive names.
What seems to animate Fitzgerald’s critique are his fears about the ways that people reading the poll might interpret – or indeed misinterpret – the results. This is a risk that we were alive to and was why a lot of work and consultation went into the survey design.
In the end, however, we cannot control how others report the poll or how they interpret the results.
For example, Fitzgerald chose to open his column by arguing that according to our survey “One in three Chinese Australians doesn’t identify with Australia” because they did not list their identity as Australian-Chinese, Chinese-Australian or Australian.
But the question Fitzgerald refers to did not ask respondents whether they identified with Australia, it asked them how they identified themselves.
The report recognises that identity (hyphenated or not) and a sense of belonging can be separate things, and are distinct again from one’s legal status. As immigrants to Australia ourselves, we know that migrants often have complex affinities with our countries of birth, origin and residence. These also evolve over time.
Other results in the survey give a better sense of how Chinese-Australian’s feel about Australia. Nine in ten (92 per cent) see Australia as a “good” or “very good” place to live – up 15 points from the previous survey. Three quarters are proud of the Australian way of life and culture. Three quarters feel a great or moderate sense of belonging to Australia – up 11 points from the previous survey. And there is no other country that Chinese-Australians trust more to act responsibly in the world.
Through illuminating – not “impugning” – the views of important segments of the Australian population, a survey of this type provides a grounded start but is by no means the end of a responsible discussion.