Chinese Australians Are Not a Fifth Column

As tensions grow and Beijing seeks closer ties with the Chinese diaspora, Australians are becoming increasingly—and unnecessarily—suspicious of their fellow citizens.

A photograph taken in Melbourne on May 8 shows posters in a butcher's shop for Labor Party candidate Jennifer Yang and Liberal Party candidate Gladys Liu who competed in the May 18 election for the outer Melbourne electorate of Chisholm, where one in five households speak either Mandarin or Cantonese.
A photograph taken in Melbourne on May 8 shows posters in a butcher's shop for Labor Party candidate Jennifer Yang and Liberal Party candidate Gladys Liu who competed in the May 18 election for the outer Melbourne electorate of Chisholm, where one in five households speak either Mandarin or Cantonese. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not easy being an Australian of Chinese descent or Chinese Australian these days—especially for those who advocate closer relations and engagement with Australia’s largest trading partner. Indeed, Chinese Australians have become collateral damage in the extensive public debate over foreign influence and interference in Australia. China has rejected all allegations of wrongdoing and accused Australia of taking on a “Cold War mentality,” making “irresponsible” comments, and harming “mutual trust.”

The rise of China and the uncertainty that comes with it creates plenty of complications for Chinese Australians and the wider Chinese diaspora. In the past, we have experienced racism, discrimination, fear, xenophobia (or in this context Sinophobia), increased suspicion, and loss of confidence and trust from some of our fellow Australian citizens and federal institutions.

If the issue is left unresolved and unattended, Chinese Australians will find it difficult to aspire to positions of authority and leadership within Australia—especially in any fields that relate to national security, public service, and diplomacy. Not wanting to draw attention and cause further tensions, most Chinese Australians decide to remain silent and avoid discussing these issues openly, despite knowing what’s at stake.

With the exception of a few individuals such as Labor Party Sen. Penny Wong, the Chinese Australian community’s preference for staying out of the spotlight means the voices and opinions of Chinese Australians are rarely heard in public and in the media. But given the increasing complexities surrounding the Australia-China relationship and its direct impact on the reputation of Chinese Australians, staying silent and remaining inactive is not an option anymore. If we remain absent from the debate, the situation for Chinese Australians will continue to get worse.

According to the 2016 census, over 1.2 million Australians, about 5 percent of the overall population, have Chinese ancestry. People born in China are now the largest single group of migrants, accounting for 15.8 percent of total arrivals in Australia last year. The growing presence of Chinese Australian voters in a number of key marginal federal electoral districts—such as Chisholm in Melbourne and Reid and Banks in Sydney—means political parties, candidates, and the media cannot ignore them any longer.

During the 2019 Australian federal election campaign, candidates showed an unprecedented level of interest in Chinese Australian voters due to our growing numbers. The Australian public witnessed extensive campaigning from the Liberal and Labor parties on the Chinese social media platform WeChat; political advertising in local Chinese-language media; and polling, research and analysis on Chinese Australian voting patterns. Australians even witnessed electoral history when two competing candidates of Chinese Australian heritage, the Liberal Party’s Gladys Liu and Labor’s Jennifer Yang, conducted the first-ever Australian election debate in both English and Mandarin.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal Party-National Party coalition government then elected Liu as the first Chinese Australian to ever sit in Australia’s House of Representatives. The involvement of Chinese Australians in Australian politics continues to draw negative attention, however. Indeed, some candidates in the election were accused by the academic and author Clive Hamilton of having participated in programs run by individuals and groups with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with the purpose of infiltrating Australian political parties to promote Beijing’s interests. (The allegations were left unaddressed as the candidates and the political parties they represented chose to remain silent during the campaign).

Discussions of foreign policy were largely absent during the federal election campaign, but the state of Australia-China relations and how the next government handles them weighs heavily on many Chinese Australians. Since hitting a low point a few years ago due to the broadcasting of a joint Fairfax Media and Australian Broadcasting Corporation investigation in June 2017 into China’s growing soft power and the CCP’s influence and presence in Australia, Australia-China relations have remained stagnant.

Canberra’s response to China’s growing influence in the South Pacific and assertiveness in the region has contributed to a chill in bilateral relations. Australia decided to ban Huawei from participating in its 5G network and introduced new legislation in 2017—namely the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill and the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, which aims to create a register for individuals and entities undertaking activities on behalf of foreign principals and governments, update sabotage offenses and new offenses relating to foreign interference in Australia’s political, governmental, and democratic processes as well as punish the theft of trade secrets on behalf of foreign governments. At the time, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” as an instigator of the new laws; China has felt it is being unfairly singled out.

One of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne will be to reset and redefine the relationship. Beijing’s lack of enthusiasm for the reelection of the Morrison government was evident when an editorial published in the state-owned media outlet Global Times stated it is “far from optimistic again” about the bilateral relationship, which it said “will continue to have uncertain prospects.”

Morrison himself has not started on the right foot. During the campaign, he said of his views on the rising trade tensions between Washington and Beijing that “you don’t have to pick sides in that. …You stand by your friends and you stand by your customers as well”—an insight into Australia’s current relationship status with the two great powers and which country it seeks to keep closer.

Chinese Australians have been caught in the crossfire—facing pressure from both China and Australia. China’s interest in the overseas Chinese diaspora has increased in recent years. Beijing’s desire for our skills, connections, and networks was perfectly captured when in 2017 President Xi Jinping declared China will “maintain extensive contacts with overseas Chinese nationals, returned Chinese, and their relatives and unite them so that they can join our endeavors to revitalize the Chinese nation.” China is seeking to do this through policy changes to allow foreign citizens with Chinese heritage to apply for a special multiple-entry visa that grants a residency period of up to five years to incentivize overseas Chinese to come and work in China.

Meanwhile, Australia’s inability to fully embrace Chinese Australians without developing suspicions and anxiety, judging by Australia’s past history, has the tendency to spill into discrimination and outright Sinophobia—as made evident by the introduction and passing of anti-Chinese legislation restricting immigration in the then-colonies of Victoria and New South Wales in 1855 and 1861 and 1888. The 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, often seen as a precursor and starting point of the notorious White Australia policy, was introduced in an attempt to reduce Chinese immigrants and non-European migrants from taking over Australian jobs and trade. Race-based legislation and initiatives such as the White Australia policy saw the rapid decline of the Chinese-born population from 29,000 in 1901 to 6,000 by 1947. It wasn’t until 1966 that the policy was effectively dismantled. The last thing Chinese Australians want is for history to repeat itself.

China, on the other hand, seems politically unable to draw the boundaries between their current citizens and those former citizens who have taken up citizenship in another country. Beijing’s decision to detain the Chinese Australian writer, political blogger, and former employee of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yang Hengjun on the grounds of “endangering state security” is a sign of China’s inability to differentiate—and of Beijing’s growing intolerance of dissent, especially from the Chinese diaspora.

Some scholars and commentators have argued China is attempting to exploit allegations of racial hatred to drive a wedge between Chinese Australians and the wider Australian community. If Australia chooses to disregard the opinions and involvement of Chinese Australians, it would only make matters worse by causing more distrust and therefore making Chinese Australians more susceptible to CCP propaganda.

Like the majority of their fellow citizens, Chinese Australians are concerned about foreign influence and interference—whether from China or elsewhere—and by all accounts support the Australian Parliament’s decision to enact legislation to prevent it. And like the majority of Australians, Chinese Australians respect the country’s values and way of life and recognize the importance of protecting and defending Australia’s sovereignty and national interest.

But due to the lack of public consultation before the introduction of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill, some Chinese Australian community leaders felt unsure about whether it is necessary to sign up to the public register, while others have expressed frustration about being specifically targeted and at the legislation’s ambiguous language on how the law defines the concept of acting “on behalf of” a foreign power or principal.

According to the attorney general, whose department is responsible for these laws, “on behalf of” could come through formal or informal arrangements between Australian and overseas groups. For Chinese Australians who have spent years and decades working on projects to build greater cross-cultural exchange and people-to-people links, these new laws have the potential to discourage such initiatives, which ultimately will affect the Australia-China relationship in the long run.

Chinese Australians are eager to participate in the public discussion and respond to issues surrounding foreign influence and interference, but when the overall framing of the debate targets China specifically, they are placed in a difficult position and are often subjected to demonization and discrimination when their loyalty and commitment to Australia are questioned, singled out, and put on display—especially if they choose not to criticize China publicly or happen to personally agree with China’s position. While it is important to ensure China does not unlawfully interfere in Australia’s institutions and domestic affairs, it is equally important to ensure the views and positions of Chinese Australians are respected.

The challenge for Chinese Australians is simultaneously managing an increasingly paranoid Australia and an unapologetically assertive China. The goal is to have a seat at the table and be in a position to help Australia influence and shape China’s thinking to protect and advocate for values and norms that are important to Australia such as human rights, peace, and maintaining a liberal, rules-based international world order. China needs to recognize and respect that when Chinese Australians speak out against China they are doing it first and foremost as Australians. And Australia must acknowledge that those Chinese Australians who advocate closer bilateral ties are not members of a fifth column seeking to undermine Australia’s interests.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, in a speech made to the Chinese Community Council of Australia in August 2018 said “it is important that we understand what went wrong, and why, and explore what might be necessary to keep our relationship on a sustainably positive path in future—and in the process keep our Chinese Australians out of the collateral damage firing line.” Chinese Australians have and will continue play a leading role in business, academia, politics, science and  technology, diplomacy, research, and cultural exchange, and they have an established potential to be one of Australia’s greatest assets to building a closer and more successful relationship with China.

As the relationship with China becomes more challenging, the Australian government needs to involve Chinese Australians at the highest level to help reset and redefine bilateral ties. Assuming that some Chinese Australians are agents of influence secretly in thrall to Beijing and questioning our loyalty and allegiance to Australia without substantial evidence is counterproductive. If anything, it will only serve to confirm the Chinese government’s argument that Australia has become a hostile environment for the Chinese diaspora.

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Chinese Australian writer and commentator based in Melbourne, Australia.

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