In 1908, when the US navy docked in Australia, Prime Minister Deakin hailed the coming of the “Great White Fleet”.

“The visit of the United States fleet is,” he explained, “universally popular here … because of our distrust of the Yellow Race in the North Pacific and our recognition of the ‘entente cordiale’ spreading among all white men who realise the Yellow Peril to Caucasian civilization, creeds and politics.”

White men with guns seem naturally reassuring to the psyche of a colonial settler state nestled in the midst of Asia. The armed yellow man induces quite a different effect. Compare the response to the Chinese torch attendants with the reaction to the personal army that George Bush brought to Sydney not so long ago.

Extraordinarily, Australian authorities have publicly threatened the Chinese security detachment – a busload of tracksuited men – with arrest if they lay so much as an Oriental finger on any Aussies.

Do you recall any similar official warnings directed to the US security posse?

Bush’s minders, of course, consisted not of a single bus but 150 national security advisers, 250 Secret Service agents, 200 public servants, 50 political aides, 15 sniffer dog teams, five chefs, six planes, a helicopter, limousines, Secret Service wagons, VIP guest vans and an ambulance.

His men were armed to the teeth and they casually took charge of the city without any governmental protestations about Australian control.

Yes, China is a vicious dictatorship. Yes, the Tibetan people and their protests deserve support. The complaints about demonstrations politicising the Olympics are nonsense. The Games are always political: that’s why China’s murderous gerontocracy wants to host them.

Yet one still feels a certain sympathy for the Chinese community and their resentment about being unfairly singled out.

Australians traditionally show a peculiar sensitivity to injustices committed by foreigners. The French found outrage about their nuclear testing a little hard to take, given Australia’s enthusiasm for uranium mining, just as the Japanese detect a certain hypocrisy in the sensitivity to whaling by a nation cheerfully gunning down Skippy to protect a military base.

More than that, with the Olympics, there’s an Australian history drenched in anti-Asian sentiment. The very first objective of the political party currently governing this country was, famously, the “maintenance of racial purity”, and you can understand why Chinese-Australians might detect in the current atmosphere echoes of our national poet Henry Lawson’s injunction to: “Get a move upon the Chinkies when you’ve got an hour to spare.”

Tibet should be free. Of course it should. But, then, the Chinese might respond: if military occupations are so odious, why are Australians still in Iraq?

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.

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