Skip to content Skip to footer

Australia’s ‘yellow peril’ fear is rooted in history

An early Australian leader said: “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman”.

Inter-group violence and “yellow peril” fears were a key factor motivating the setting up of Australia’s political map.

Fear of China is still so entrenched that it’s no surprise that many Australians today carry the absurd fear that an invasion of their country is imminent.

“AUSTRALIA HAS NOT CHANGED – China has changed.” That is a phrase often used by Australia’s new prime minister Anthony Albanese (left) to describe the structural deterioration in relations between Canberra and Beijing. It is not often I agree with an Australian prime minister these days, but in this case, Albanese is bang on the money.

China has indeed changed – it has eradicated absolute poverty, presided over the single largest leap in economic mobility in human history, and enters the next quarter of this century as the world’s second largest economy, arguably destined to overtake the United States as the planet’s largest before too long.

Australia on the other hand, has not changed at all. According to a poll released by the Australia Institute this week, a staggering 10 percent, or 2.5 million Australians, believe China will launch an armed attack on Australia “soon”. This is double the number of Taiwanese who believe Beijing will strike the renegade Chinese province despite the island being recently surrounded by People’s Liberation Army wargames and Taiwanese residents seeing missiles literally flying over their skies after US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s provocative visit to Taipei earlier this month.

So, what is behind Australia’s fear of an imminent Beijing attack on the great southern land? Is it anxiety produced by a more belligerent Chinese foreign policy and defence posture? Is it down to growing strategic rivalry in the Asia-Pacific? Or is it attributable to something more entrenched in the island nation’s psyche?


The answer is intriguing and spans nearly two centuries of Australia’s history, and the very foundation and establishment of our definition of the modern Australian nation.

In 1901, the six colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia came together as a federation and established the Commonwealth of Australia.

Political cartoons from the period leading up to Australia’s federation portray an evil Chinese invader preparing to take the British colony by force. In one particularly iconic, yet disturbing example, China is depicted as an overweight, bucktoothed menacing mandarin sporting a Qing Dynasty era queue creeping up on Australia’s colonies who are portrayed as young women with snow white skin. Our heroines are seen bravely fending off the frightening Chinese invader with a big stick emblazoned with the word “FEDERATION”.

The federation era saw a proliferation of xenophobic Australian literature with titles such as The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, The Coloured Conquest and The Awakening to China appearing on bookshelves Down Under.


Violent anti-Chinese riots appeared in Australia in the second half of the 19th century. By the mid-1850s, there were reportedly 17,000 Chinese working on Australia’s goldmines. Riots were reported as early as 1854, and a particularly nasty one was reported in 1861 when a brass band playing Rule Britannia provided the soundtrack to a few thousand white miners who attacked and set fire to a Chinese camp site and injured more than 500.

Anti-Chinese aggression from these miners was a key ingredient in the formation of the Australian labour movement, which itself is the ancestral forebear of Albanese’s Australian Labor Party.

A version of the famed Eureka Flag painted with the words “No Chinese” was used with a mob of more than 2,000 men who brutally attacked 2,000 Chinese miners. The main Eureka Flag is still trotted out at union rallies in Australia with its depiction of the Southern Cross synonymous with the nation’s labour movement.


The first Australian government elected as part of federation was led by Protectionist Party leader Edmund Barton with the support of the Australian Labor Party, and the new government moved decisively to appease the labour movement and cement the young nation’s resistance to the yellow peril.

One of the first acts of parliament passed by the new nation was the Immigration Restriction Act with Hansard records showing the new prime minister saying “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman”.

The new legislation became known as the “White Australia Policy” and restricted immigration to non-whites and was the law of the land until being formally dismantled some seven decades later.


Forget about cricket, this fear of China has almost been a national sport since the formation of modern Australia as we know it. In his seminal work on Australia’s fears first published in 2001, Professor Anthony Burke’s book In Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety contends the nation’s “anxieties about security from the strategic and racial threat posed by Asia” has “permeated the entire society as a powerful form of politics and set of fears”. It has been woven so deeply into the nation’s fabric, that Burke contends “security has been a potent, driving imperative throughout Australian history”.

An 1860 anti-Chinese riot at a place called Lambing Flats is recalled in this 1988 artwork. Image: Brittanica

When you consider this political and societal obsession with a Chinese invasion which has been entrenched since the 1850s, it becomes easier to understand why then defence minister and now opposition leader Peter Dutton asked the nation to not discount the possibility of Australia’s military involvement with a war over Taiwan.

With nearly two centuries of beating the drums about a looming Chinese invasion, is it little wonder so many Australians fear a communist invasion from its north?

No, Prime Minister Albanese – Australia has not changed at all.

Laurie Pearcey is associate vice-president external engagement & outreach at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is a former pro vice-chancellor international at the University of New South Wales and a former chief executive of the Australia China Business Council. The views here are his own.

Image at the top shows a beach in Australia, by Pat Whelan/ Unsplash

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Be the first to know the latest updates

[yikes-mailchimp form="1"]