research / ACRI Opinion

Australia's Chinese community caught in the crossfire

June 16 2017

By James Laurenceson

Note: This article appeared in Sydney Today (Chinese) on June 16 2017.

Australian media have been in a frenzy this month over allegations that the Chinese government is seeking to undermine Australian sovereignty.

Much of the attention has been focused on donations made by two wealthy members of Australia’s Chinese community to the major political parties. The suggestion is that these donors have close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and that their money was linked with attempts to influence official Australian positions on matters such as China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. There have also been claims that the Chinese embassy in Australia has sought to intimidate those in the local Chinese community who are critical of the Chinese government.   

Let’s get something clear right from the start. Any attempts to skirt or bend Australian laws and regulations need to be called out and plainly labelled as an unacceptable interference in Australia’s internal affairs. This certainly includes attempts to intimidate local Chinese, whether they are naturalised Australians, permanent residents, temporary workers or students.

At the same time however, it is the responsibility of the Australian media to ensure that in the current debate the diversity of the Chinese community is represented beyond just a few ultra-high net worth individuals and political dissidents.  

Otherwise, the danger is that the 1.2 million strong Chinese diaspora in Australia will come to be viewed as the collective other. As Australian China expert Professor David Goodman recently remarked, '…this process of othering once let out of the bottle is very hard to put back. It lingers in the collective consciousness and becomes a standard tool for politicians and opinion leaders.'

All Chinese in Australia deserve the respect to freely express their views. This includes those who take stances that are broadly supportive of official Chinese government positions on a range of issues. And all Chinese Australians should be free to give their money to political causes they feel best advance their interests, without having their allegiances questioned. Whether non-citizens should be allowed to make political donations is a separate issue (my suggestion is that they shouldn’t).

Contending as one commentator did last year that because some Chinese in Australia 'feel nostalgic about the People’s Republic and its ruling party' means that we have 'a group of people who are not integrating and who owe allegiance to a foreign power' is a gigantic slur on the intellect and values of potentially hundreds of thousands of Chinese Australians.  

It is true that many migrants from China are proud of their homeland’s achievements and believe that overall the ruling Communist Party is doing a good job. Last month an Ipsos poll found that 92 percent of Chinese thought their country was heading in the 'right direction'. This was the highest proportion of the 26 countries surveyed and compared with just 46 percent of Australians.

To assume that this assessment is due to being brainwashed by Chinese government propaganda is an insult. In a report published last year, Australia’s foremost expert on local Chinese language media, Professor Wanning Sun, said that migrants from China tend to harbour an innate scepticism or even simply an indifference towards government propaganda. They also get their news from a variety of sources, including mainstream Australian ones.

Professor Sun has also pointed out that the best way to ensure that Chinese Australians fulfil their responsibilities as Australian citizens and embrace democratic values is to ensure they are regarded as equal partners.

In fact, as former Foreign Minister Bob Carr noted earlier this month, what is truly remarkable about the local Chinese community is its lack of involvement in Australian political life. In recent election campaigns, the issues that have most stirred their interest are the Safe Schools program and Islamic immigration, hardly the stuff of rabid China patriots.  

Fortunately, the seemingly regular China panics in Australian media have, so far at least, fallen flat with the average Australian. In an opinion poll conducted earlier this year by the US Studies Centre and the University of Sydney, 30 percent of Australians rated China more favourably than the US for its influence on Australia. This compares with 29 percent who put the US ahead of China. The remaining 41 percent put them on par with each other. Given the huge differences in political systems, culture and language between Australia and China, this is an extraordinary finding.

Precisely why there is such an enormous stock of goodwill in Australia towards China was revealed in last year’s Lowy Poll: the factor most contributing to Australians taking a positive view of China, nominated by 85 percent of survey respondents, was the Chinese people they had met.  

A test of leadership for Australian media commentators is whether they are prepared to stand up for the rights of all Chinese in Australia, including those with views that are different from their own. 

Professor James Laurenceson is Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.