Should Australia Say Sorry for Its Old Anti-Chinese Laws?

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Arthur Garlock Chang was 13 when he left his mother and eight siblings in China to join his father in Australia. It was the 1930s, and even though he promised to return in five years' time, Chang's reunion with his mother did not take place for another 27. "After the war I was told that I could go [to China], but not come back," Chang recalls. "I couldn't leave at my will."

Today, Chang is 90, and one of many Chinese Australians who want the Australian government to apologize for the way it treated Chinese immigrants and workers during those years. During World War II, Australia felt vulnerable. In 1941, the British navy ceased to be a power in the Pacific, and threats from Japan highlighted the continent's geographic isolation. When the war ended, then Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell famously coined the slogan "Populate or perish." But it was a sentiment that applied both in spirit and letter to European settlers alone: Calwell was also known for having once said that "two Wongs don't make a White." Though he later claimed he was misquoted, the sentiment was echoed in his policies, which sought to deport postwar Asian refugees.

Indeed, from the 19th century through the 1970s, Chinese immigrants in Australia have endured varying degrees of hostility. Their large presence in the Victorian gold mines was a source of resentment among white laborers, peaking in 1861 in the Lambing Flat riots when Chinese workers were driven out of the mines by European settlers. During that time, a "head tax" was applied to Chinese entering Australia, as a way of regulating their numbers. In Victoria in 1857, for instance, a tax of 10 pounds was charged for every Chinese migrant entering the port.

Mistrust of Chinese immigrants only grew from there. In 1888, over 250 Chinese immigrants, accused of carrying the plague, were prevented from disembarking in Melbourne from the S.S. Afghan. By 1901 the racism was cemented into government policy with the Immigration Restriction Act, better known as the White Australia policy. The law required Chinese migrants pass a dictation test, which was not always in English but often in a random European language, to gain entry into Australia. It did what it was intended to: the nation's Chinese population declined from 29,900 in 1901 to 6,400 in 1947. The White Australia policy was abandoned in 1973. Today, Chinese descendants make up 3% of Australia's population, one of the nation's largest ethnic minorities.

The desire for a formal apology from Canberra has been building for years in Australia's Chinese community, says Daphne Lowe Kelley, president of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia. In 2002, New Zealand's Prime Minister offered an official apology to the Chinese for the head tax imposed on them in the 19th and 20th centuries, and in 2006, Canada did the same. In 2009, California apologized for its historic laws that prevented Chinese from buying property, marrying whites or testifying against whites in court. California also acknowledged the contribution Chinese immigrants made to the development of the state, particularly through the construction of the transcontinental railroad. "It's a recognition and acknowledgement of [Australia's] anti-Chinese legislation," says Lowe Kelley. She recently highlighted the issue in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 30, the 150th anniversary of the Lambing Flat riots. Lowe Kelley will make a direct approach to the government later this year, and although she is not requesting compensation, if it is offered, she says it would be used to educate others about the history of Chinese immigrants in Australia. The government has not commented on the issue.

To be fair, Australia has done its share of saying sorry in recent years, first with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's landmark apology in 2008 to the indigenous Australians for removing aboriginal children from their homes during the 19th and 20th centuries, and later to the "forgotten Australians" — British child migrants who were deported from England, separated from their families and placed into foster care and other institutions.

China, despite being Australia's largest trade partner, may not much care whether Canberra is sorry or not. Peter Drysdale of the East Asia Forum at Canberra's Australian National University says that an apology won't make any difference to ties with China. "The issue has been addressed in various ways over a long period of time now," says Drysdale. "These are our people and our antecedents that we have to get things right with."

Many Australians remain hesitant to apologize for crimes they did not commit. On the Special Broadcasting Service website, an online forum addressed the question of whether an apology is necessary. "Can I have an apology for the actions of the English on my decendants [sic] from a few centuries ago too? I wasn't there but I still feel hard done by," wrote a user from Perth. "Maybe Italy should apologize for the actions of the Romans or Norway for the actions of the Vikings." But for Chang, and others an apology would be more than just a token gesture. "It would be a relief to me," he says. "It would allow me to tell my grandchildren a happier story."