Chinese Australians in the census

With Sydney in an extended lockdown, the 2021 census night on 10 August was a definite highlight of the month. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census of Population and Housing is held every five years to count every person and home in Australia, with the data used for government planning and social analysis.

As the Senior Curator at MOCA and a migration history researcher, I have a particular interest in the census statistics about population, people and communities. The last census in 2016 found that around half of Australia’s population of 25 million was either born overseas or had a parent born overseas.

China was the third most common overseas country of birth for Australian residents (after England and New Zealand) and the top overseas country of birth for Sydney residents, while Mandarin and Cantonese were among the most common languages spoken other than English. In all, five per cent of Australia’s population (1.2 million people) identified as having Chinese ancestry. With August being both census month and National Family History Month, I thought I would take a closer look at Chinese Australians in colonial and national censuses.

Colonial censuses

Before Federation in 1901, each colony was responsible for its own census collection. In New South Wales, the first muster (an early version of the census) in 1788 required people to gather at a muster point for counting, while the first colonial census was held in 1828. The first Victorian census was conducted in 1854 – a few years after the start of the gold rush – and counted 2,341 people who were born in China. The 1856 census in New South Wales recorded 1,806 people born in China (1,800 males and six females).

The year 1861 saw the largest proportion of China-born people in Australia – 38,258 people or 3.3 per cent of the total population. Growing resentment of the number of Chinese miners on the goldfields led to increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the following decades.

National censuses

At Federation in 1901, the census counted 29,907 people born in China (29,513 males and 394 females), from a total Commonwealth population of almost 3.8 million. By the time of the first national census in 1911, there were 20,775 people born in China (20,453 males and 322 females), from a total population of nearly 4.5 million.

Interestingly, China remained in the top 10 countries of birth between 1901 and 1947, despite the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (colloquially known as the White Australia policy) to limit non-European immigration. China only dropped out of the top 10 from the 1950s to 1980s, when the Australian government accepted more than two million European immigrants and displaced people in the years after World War II.

China (excluding the Special Administrative Regions of China and Taiwan) reappeared in the top 10 countries of birth from the 1991 census, remaining in third position for the 2006, 2011 and 2016 censuses. Around half of those born in China arrived in Australia since 2008.

The 25 millionth Australian

Since the mid-2000s, the key driver of Australia’s population growth has been overseas migration, rather than natural increase. The last time this occurred was during the gold rush of the 1850s. When the population reached 25 million in August 2018, author and political commentator George Megalogenis noted the 25 millionth Australian was most likely a young female Chinese student or skilled worker. China is our major source of international students, with university students making up nearly a quarter of all Chinese-born people in Australia.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, ABS statistics to 30 June 2020 show that China-born immigrants recorded a net loss of 15,600 people, attributed partly to border restrictions affecting the travel of international students. In the same period, India overtook China in the top three overseas countries of birth (now England, India and China). It will be fascinating to see the 2021 census results next June, to understand how the pandemic has impacted Australia’s migration patterns and population growth.

– Kim Tao, Senior Curator

Header image: ‘Statistics of the colony’, Waugh’s Australian Almanac, 1 January 1860. Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia.