Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett

“Australia through Coloured Glasses”

My orders for the new assignment were rather vague. On Christmas Day I had received a cable from the "Daily Express" foreign editor, which read "Proceed Sydney contact Expresser Henry Keys and upsplit Pacific cumhim Stop Bestest Hunting Foley." By 31st December, I was aboard a former Italian luxury liner leaving Bombay for Melbourne to confer with my colleague, Keys, and decide how we would "upsplit" Pacific war coverage.

The transport was crowded with Chinese students en route to the States, some Polish refugees, a handful of missionaries and oil men. Apart from contributing a few articles to the ship's paper, which was most enterprisingly published in Chinese, Polish and English, there was nothing much for me to do except eat, sleep and try and sort out the jumbled ideas which had accumulated after almost two and a half years of war reporting in China, Burma and India.

One conclusion was that it was possible to differentiate sharply between the reactions of the peoples of the three countries. Independent China, with all the corruption and inefficiency and oppression, was still fighting, and would continue to fight against the aggressor. Inside China the quality of resistance was highest where democracy was strongest — in the areas where the Red Army had instituted land reforms and established some sort of equality of work and income. China had been able to mobilise 10 or 12 million troops. Whatever internal troubles boiled up, they were never prompted by the people wanting to make peace with the Japs. The masses of the peasantry were still as determined as ever to drive the enemy from their soil, and were often ahead of their government in organizing resistance. Whatever pro-Japanese feeling existed in China was strongest amongst the high officials; it was non-existent among the people. Even though their land was in the hands of landlords and money-lenders the Chinese still felt they were defending their own soil.

What a difference in colonial Burma! Burmese were not even allowed to join the army. Only tribes people from the border areas were trusted with arms in the Burma rifle battalions. The people were almost completely apathetic at the prospect of one foreign oppressor replacing another foreign oppressor. A few of them actively helped the British — probably an equal number helped the Japs. There was no feeling that they should co-operate with the British in defending their land. Who owned their land? Foreign government, foreign money-lenders, foreign landlords, foreign employers.

Of course, had our propaganda department been efficient, we would have warned them that the Japs would be brutal and rapacious overlords compared with the more easy-going British, and perhaps we would have aroused some enthusiasm amongst Burmans in assisting the lesser to defeat the greater of the two evils. That is, if we had been prepared to arm them. In the border areas, where it was simple to explain to the Kachins, Chins and Nagas that the Japs were coming to rob them of their land and women, resistance was good. They didn't even wait for us to organise them, but started on their own initiative to defend their hills like tigers defending their cubs. Later we helped them with modern arms and enlightened leaders, and they fought magnificently. The Burmese, with a fair measure of self-government, but virtually no economic independence, were appalled but passive spectators to the plague of battles that swept from one end of the country to the other. They regarded the war as a duel between outsiders rather than as an assault upon their liberties.

The war had hardly crossed the borders of India at the time I left, but it was evident that the reaction of the Indian people would be even less favourable to the Allies than in Burma. India was much further from self-government even than Burma: there were well-organised sections of pro-Japanese who had done a terribly effective job of sabotage during the August, 1942, riots, putting railways out of action in some places for months at a stretch. There was no feeling of a need to defend their country amongst the people of Bengal or Assam, and dissatisfaction — to use the mildest term — with British over-lordship blinded people completely to their fate under Japanese substitutes.

The one thing that was clear in the three countries was that the flame of resistance burned brightest where the people had the highest degree of self-government, — that the threat to whatever economic or political democratic rights people had was sufficient to mobilise them in their defence. Independent China, despite her isolation from the rest of the world, the miserable production of her war factories, was far ahead of the colonial countries, in the quality of her resistance to aggression, and inside China, resistance was strongest where democratic rights had been established.

One other striking conclusion on leaving India was how easy it is to form false impressions of a people in a foreign country. From one's contacts with many of the Chinese officials in Chungking one could easily believe that the Chinese people were the most politically and morally corrupt in existence, but what a difference when one travels amongst the Chinese peasants — humble, courteous, honest people, asking no more of life than that they might live and toil from dawn till dusk, give their sons and daughters in marriage, and have a fine solid coffin when death claimed them. And what a different impression when one meets a fine intellectual of the type of Chou En Lai, the Communist representative at Chungking, with whom one can talk and receive straight replies to straight questions. What a poor picture of England a foreigner receives by travelling in India and thinking that the Old Guard officers with their mental and emotional processes atrophied by sun, liquor and an excess of servants, are representative of the English people.

Fortunately for English prestige in the eyes of American military personnel in India, the new type Englishman had begun to arrive in large numbers by the time I left. Men and officers of the Eighth and First Army type, who were appalled at the conditions in India, and regarded the Blimps and bureaucrats with the contempt that most of them deserved.

The 14th Army, which was built out of this new material and officered by men eager to see the war finished, gave the Japs the greatest thrashing on land they have ever received, marching over 1,000 miles into Burma and killing more than 100,000 Japs en route. The Blimps and "duds" were weeded out to make room for those who wanted to get on with the war. The officers of the Indian Army who stayed were revitalised by the fresh spirit injected into the army by the new blood from England.

It is someone else's privilege to write about the 14th Army's magnificent campaign to clean the Japs out of Burma; of the boys from England's mills and fields who hung on in the jungle from the time we were pushed out of Burma into India, till the day 2.5 years later when the advance went forward across the jungle-covered mountains back again. That is someone else's story, as the campaign was only in the planning stage when I left India.

If in the preceding chapters I have unduly criticised British rule in India and the Kuomintang in China, it is without malice towards British or Chinese, but because the British Raj in India and the Kuomintang dictatorship represent decaying systems of government which need a few hearty pushes to unseat them once and for all.

Throughout the early years of the Sino-Japanese war, when the issue was a straight-out one of support for China or for Japan, anybody with a sense of justice backed China's case. There were too many people with "axes to grind" that supported Japan and to have stressed China's weaknesses and dissensions in those days would have been to play into the hands of the vested interests who were helping Japan. Writers who visited China wrote about the admirable qualities of the Chinese people and the justice of their case, but played down the Kuomintang trend towards a police-state. When Britain and America were forced into the war at China's side, there were no longer the same reasons for politically conscious writers to gloss over the unsatisfactory conditions in Kuomintang — ruled China, just as there was no longer the necessity for the Kuomintang to cultivate longer the liberals and leftists who had been their chief support from abroad.

One of the greatest privileges of friendship is the right to criticise, and I can claim that privilege as an old friend of China who supported her case with pen and from the platform from the earliest days of Japanese aggression in Manchuria. If friends of China criticise her present regime it is because we wish to see the Chinese people reap full reward for their years of heroism and suffering and not be subjugated by an oppressive system of secret police and concentration camps.

In the last days of my stay in India, Mr. Robert Casey, former Australian Minister to Washington and British Minister for the Middle East, had arrived to take over the Governorship of Bengal. To his own consternation and that of the Australian public, he had been the object of hostile demonstrations. The Bengalese didn't take kindly to the idea of a representative of "White Australia" being appointed to rule over them, and they voiced their disapproval by urging him to go back to his own country from which Indians were excluded by the "White Australia" policy. The demonstrations aroused interest rather than resentment in Australia, where the general public is little aware of the results of its racial discrimination amongst Asiatic peoples.

By the time I reached Melbourne in the middle of January, 1943, the newspapers were much agitated over the question of "White Australia," and the correspondence columns were full of letters to the editors expressing divergent views as to the advisability or otherwise of revising the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act.

As the question of "White Australia" is one that is going to come more and more under examination at international conferences, particularly as attention focuses on post-war policies in the Pacific, it is perhaps not out of place here to discuss its origins and its effects on Australian relations with her Pacific neighbours.

An Australian does not have to travel far in the East before he is aware of the smouldering resentment aroused by an immigration policy which places every Asiatic wishing to enter the country on a level with the coolies who invaded the country in the gold-rush days of the middle of last century, or the primitive South Sea Islanders who were "black-birded" into the country by agents for the cane-growers.

No one questions the right of Australia to have her own immigration laws and to select the type of immigrant she considers best fitted for the country. But Chinese and Indian business people, students and tourists feel at least they should be able to visit and do business with the country on the same basis as nationals of other countries. In the post-war world Australia will have to turn with increasing attention to the neighbouring countries of South-East Asia for an outlet for her secondary industries, and she may be painfully surprised to find a boycott started against her goods by countries whose nationals have been discriminated against. The Chinese and Indian press make frequent reference to the indignity contained even in the name "White Australia" attached to a friendly government's policy. Chinese business men find it unattractive to do business with Australia when they can come to the country only "under exemption" and set up business on a year to year basis, applying each year for a continuation of the "exemption" from the Immigration Act.

Fears that a relaxation of the discrimination against Asiatics would lead to them over-running the country are, of course, absurd. The trend in China for the past decade has been towards a mass return of settlers from abroad, even during the war years. In India one sees no signs of Indians wanting to emigrate to any country. Indians have always had to be tempted to leave their country, and all sorts of inducements and even pressure had to be adopted to get indentured Indian labourers to go to South Africa and, earlier, to Fiji. In any case our immigration laws, just as those of any other country, can be enforced to prevent flooding of the country with any one type of national. To continue the enforcement of the White Australia policy is to take no account of a changing world; and for Australia, with a population of 7,000,000, to attempt to live in a social vacuum is to run the risk of being ostracised by a thousand million Asiatics in China, India and the South East Asia area.

The White Australia policy has its origins in conditions which are non-operative to-day. In the early days of settlement in Australia one of the great attractions for many of the would-be settlers was the country's proximity to the vast cheap labour reserves of Asia. For the first forty years the squatters had the use of convict labour and had to look no further than the pens at Botany Bay for the labor to build their houses and tend their sheep and cattle.

In 1840 deportation ceased entirely and for some years prior to that there had been suggestions that now was the time to tap the reserves of Asia and bring in Chinese. "A constant stream of these most industrious and skilful Asiatics would not only supply the needed labour, but in the course of a century, would probably convert the enormous wilderness of Australia into a fruitful garden," as one prominent citizen, E. G. Wakefield, hopefully expressed it. Some Chinese and Indians were brought in about this time, and some wretched South Sea Islanders were virtually kidnapped and brought over to work on plantations in North Queensland, but it was not until the discovery of gold in 1851 that there was any large-scale immigration from Asia.

The shipping companies, by propaganda, posted in the chief Chinese ports, describing the wealth to be picked up on the streets of Australia, were, of course, encouraging unlimited migration and reaping a neat profit on the passages.

Chinese began to pour into the gold-fields, and as the quest for the yellow nuggets grew more fierce and the Chinese worked harder than anyone else, sending most of their wealth back to China, they soon became unpopular.

On several gold-fields, riots developed against them, and from one field the Chinese were thrown out with all their belongings, several dying of exposure.

The States began passing legislation, limiting the number of Chinese a ship could carry to one for each ten tons of registered tonnage. Capitation fees were imposed, and other measures introduced to cut down the influx. In 1876, Queensland introduced an Act against "Asiatic and African aliens," levying heavy fees for them to mine, or carry on business transactions on the gold-fields. The British Governor objected to the Bill on the grounds of discrimination against British subjects — many of the Chinese were from Hong Kong, — and the Secretary of State for Colonies upheld the Governor's objection.

From that time on, the question of legislating against Asiatics became mixed up with the fight for self-government, and the merits or de-merits of the question of a "White Australia" became lost in the fight to establish the right to legislate on that and other matters by and for ourselves. The "Asiatic and African Aliens" Act was dropped, and the parallel fight for self-government, a Union of the States, and the exclusion of Asiatics continued.

By 1880, restrictions against Chinese in the United States and British Columbia had diverted thousands of Chinese to Australia, and outbreaks of small-pox and the discovery of leprosy amongst some of the migrants encouraged the State Governments to further increase the head tax and to place all vessels bearing migrants under a 21-day quarantine. After that, the shipping companies were not so enthusiastic about carrying Asiatics.

In 1896 another draft Restriction Bill to exclude all coloured migrants, including British subjects, was agreed to by several of the State legislatures, but again turned down by the British Government, and the fight for the right to make uniform laws for the whole country acceptable to Britain, was intensified.

On 1st January, 1901, the separate Colonies of Australia merged to become the Commonwealth of Australia. One of the prime reasons advanced by Sir Alfred Deakin, one of the most eloquent advocates of Federation, was that common demands should be presented to Great Britain on the question of Immigration: "No motive operated more powerfully in dissolving the technical and arbitrary and political divisions which previously separated us than the desire that we should be one people without the admixture of other races."

One of the first laws on the Statute Book of the Commonwealth Parliament was the Immigration Act, which included a provision that all migrants should be subjected to a dictation test of fifty words in a European language. Although, nowhere in the original Immigration Act, is there mention of the word "Asiatic," this dictation test has been the operative factor in preventing Asiatics from entering Australia. The dictation test has never been administered to Europeans, except on occasions where the Government has desired to exclude persons for political reasons, although thousands of illiterates from South Europe have entered the country.

The passing of the Immigration Act, and subsequent amendments to it, (forcing merchants and students to remain here only on a year to year basis, forbidding even Australian-born Chinese to bring their wives to the country) putting an end to the indentation of South Sea Islanders to work on the cotton and sugar plantations, became known as the "White Australia" policy, and has been accepted as such by the outside world.

In the early days of Federation when Australia was struggling to her feet, trying to pioneer a new social order, with trade unions fighting to secure and maintain decent living standards, the "White Australia" policy was highly justified.

Cheap labour from China and the South Seas could have become a permanent threat to new world standards, constituting a reserve labour force which could have been used as a weapon to keep the workers as the sort of slave labour force the squatters had available during the convict days.

To-day the picture has changed completely. We have established our living standards, and our unions are strong enough to enforce acceptance of union conditions by both employers and workers from whatever country the latter originate. Economically, there is no longer justification to make any distinction between Asiatics and Europeans in the administration of the Immigration Act. Politically, it is suicidal for Australia to persist in carrying such a dangerously-poised chip on her shoulder. We are the only country in the world that has gone out of its way to insult more than half the world's population by flaunting a slogan which contains the implicit acceptance of the superiority of a white skin. It is so easy for propagandists to sway people's feelings by asserting that the abandonment of the White Australia policy would mean the country being flooded by Asiatics, that no political party seems prepared to advocate it. "How would you like your sister to marry a Chinese?" is a common reaction to any suggestion of dropping the White Australia slogan, and that horrifying possibility is regarded as a final answer. The truth is that without altering a word of the Immigration Act, we can still treat our Asiatic neighbours on the same basis as Europeans, and have no higher a percentage of Asiatics in the country than at present, at the same time scrapping the whole conception of White Australia by a simple government announcement.

A peculiar thing that most Australians travelling in the East must have noticed is that Australians are esteemed for just those qualities for which their country is condemned. Probably of all foreigners in China, for instance, Australians are the most popular, mainly because of their personal lack of racial discrimination. Several of Chiang Kai Shek's closest advisers have been Australians. Throughout the East, Australians have held high business and government positions because of their ability to get along with the local people, and treat them as normal human beings. There would be a vast amount of goodwill towards Australia from the peoples of Asia, if they felt they could visit our country under the same terms as other people without the humiliating face-losing pinpricks to which they are at present subject.