A few weeks ago, a friend posted a meme from an antiLiberal Facebook page. The meme was about revelations federal Liberal MP Gladys Liu had an honorary position with a group believed to be a United Front organisation. What shocked me was the conspiratorial claim that it showed Liu was a “Chinese operative”. Comments included assertions she was a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spy and should be deported. The Facebook page is not small; it has over 57,000 likes - more than the Victorian ALP. This post was one of many that have been posted. They were followed by Silent Invasion author Clive Hamilton suggesting Parliament should consider whether Gladys Liu is in breach of Section 44, having allegiance to a foreign power. Like many others, he was querying her loyalty to her country of citizenship, a long used racist trope against the Chinese diaspora.
I am no fan of Gladys Liu, the way her campaign for Chisholm was conducted, or her conservative politics. She has plenty of questions to answer about her fundraising and association with these organisations, but I mention this because it highlights the possible direction of the debate about foreign interference by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As this debate about PRC interference in Australia has surfaced in the last two years, there has been a notable absence of much of the social democratic Left from the debate. The silence during this debate perhaps reflects uncertainty about how to speak to the complexity of the China debate, and individuals do not automatically line up along a traditional Left-Right axis on this. The uneasiness is exacerbated by language barriers. There is a level of activity that is not visible to most Australians because it is conducted in Chinese, on platforms and websites that most Australians do not frequent. With estimates that only 130 Australians with non-Chinese heritage are proficient in Mandarin and chronic underrepresentation of Chinese Australians in our institutions, much of this political discourse has thus flown under the radar, or only become apparent when it was too late. The response to the campaign of misinformation against Labor on WeChat at the recent federal election highlights this as campaigners, candidates and the media failed to understand how information is disseminated on WeChat.
A turning point has been the protests in Hong Kong which elevated the issue. The sight of nationalistic rallies opposing the protests, counter-protesting of HK solidarity gatherings, the doxxing of Hong Kong activists in Australia and harassment of their family members has been unsettling. It goes without saying that we should have solidarity with Hong Kong protestors and unequivocally oppose threats and harassment, but many seem unsure of how to respond without knee jerk proposals.
Geopolitical rivalries driving the debate
The US-China geopolitical rivalry is driving a lot of this debate and most importantly, reaction to it, and it cannotbe ignored. Even before public awareness of Xinjiang or the protests in Hong Kong, there has been a growing hostility in the US towards China under the both the Obama and Trump Administrations with its portrayal of the PRC as an expansionist strategic rival. Here in Australia, the debate, such as it is, is characterised within two frames: ‘national security’ versus ‘economics’. Traditionally that has not stopped the Left from engaging in debates, but we have struggled to engage because we have no existing framework to fall back on for guidance. While there is a reactive instinct against anything seen to represent American imperialism amongst some sections of the Left, there is no sense the PRC is an ideal political model or provides an inspiring alternative. There is concern about increasing authoritarianism and human rights violations but also wariness about suggestions of inevitable future conflicts between China and America. There is an uneasiness too about who some of those most vocally opposed to the CCP are and where their politics lie. One example is the recent University of Queensland protests against the Confucius Institute. Organisers initially listed Andrew Cooper as a speakers. Cooper was one of the coorganisers of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney, whose organisation LibertyWorks has provided a platform for far-right views. When this was communicated to the protest organisers, he was disinvited, but it reinforces suspicions that some involved in pushing a harder line against the PRC see it through the lens of a civilisational culture war that Australia should actively participate in. In April 2019, the then Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department expressed this very view, stating it is “a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology”.
Overlaying this is external pressure on Australia to accept the notion it must “choose” America for nationalsecurity, almost regardless of whose interest it serves. There is an assumption that this is a zero-sum choice between a hegemon in our region where we must choose the PRC or the USA. It is also assumed the aim of the PRC is for Australia to become more independent from the USA, and perhaps to create a dependency relationship. None of the underlying assumptions appeal to the Left: that the choices are a PRC or American hegemon or a significant increase in Defence spending. Any expression of concern is delegitimised and can be followed by an accusation of being compromised as a ‘useful idiot’ of the PRC, inadvertently doing their bidding or worse, a “wŭmáo” (五毛), implying someone is being paid to have pro-CCP views.
It is unclear what is fact versus fiction
No one with credibility claims there is no foreign interference from the PRC or that we should not take reasonable steps to protect ourselves from it, but the opaqueness of this debate means it is hard to discern what claims are real, what are exaggerations and what other interests are at play. This opaqueness makes it difficult to engage without appearing conspiratorial. The opaqueness, lack of information and assuming the worst of China’s intentions leaves the public discourse open to hysteria and conspiracy. It can result in guilt by association or conspiratorial claims about a ‘Chinese takeover’. This is not limited to the populist far right as eerily similar comments have been made by the Tasmanian Greens claiming the Cambria Green development in Tasmania is part of a plan to turn the state into a base for CCP regime intentions for Antarctica and questioning the number of skilled migrants from the PRC.
Several public examples also raise questions about how much PRC influence is confirmed and how much is speculation about Beijing’s possible, assumed, and inferred intentions. For example, the head of ASIO recently referred to journalists being recruited as foreign spies during the Press Freedom inquiry, using the example of Australian Financial Review journalist Angus Griggs being approached. The journalist in question stated it was a clumsy and naive approach and that ASIO seems to have “appropriated the anecdote for its own ends.” This is not to deny serious recruitment attempts do not happen, but it raises questions about other examples. Another example are claims collaboration with PRC researchers in the higher education sector is sharing scientific research that will be used by the People’s Liberation Army in its military technology. Senator Kim Carr raised questions about these claims and noted the lack of evidence provided, citing two reviews and Senate Estimates testimony. Professor Michael Biercuk has also noted the debate about foreign interference failed to understand universities conduct open, publishable research when it comes to basic science. Similarly, claims iron ore exported to China might be used for military purposes smacks of overreach, the subtext being the PRC is the modern equivalent of 1930s Japan with imperial designs on the region. The lack of clarity about what those who make such claims think Australia should actually do raises more questions.
The fears of quiet Chinese Australians
The treatment of PRC influence as a national security and geopolitical debate has ignored the domestic impact on Chinese Australians. While we should be critical of China’s human rights record, Australia has a sordid history of anti-Chinese racism. As a Chinese Australian, I have been deeply uneasy about the direction of this debate and I am not the only one. The constant use of the term “Chinese influence”, a term that collapses the distinction between the Chinese diaspora, including Chinese Australians, and the PRC Government, rather than referring to CCP or PRC influence has been a particular worry. It shows an ignorance that “Chinese” is commonly used to refer to people who are not from mainland China and are part of a larger diaspora with shared cultural heritage. The uneasiness cannot be understood without the broader context of a steady stream of stories in the Australian media for years with Sinophobic undertones about property and schools that blur public distinctions between Chinese Australians and PRC nationals.
When casual comments about the loyalty of Chinese Australians are dropped during this debate, it reinforces a concern that we might become collateral damage. A price some say, while unfortunate, is necessary because they claim the threat from the PRC is greater. This concern is not unfounded as there is a long history of the loyalty of the Chinese diaspora being questioned, leading to discriminatory policies, and anecdotal reports about conversations in the public and private sector regarding hiring Chinese Australians. It is not the current situation that primarily worries Chinese Australians but what happens if it escalates. There is a real worry the debate becomes stripped of context and sensationalised by the media in a wider public debate, normalising Sinophobic talking points. The dismissal of these genuinely held fears does not ease those concerns given the history of anti-Chinese racism in Australia and support for Hanson and other far right parties. This has been made worse by the actions of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the process of claiming every question about Gladys Liu is driven by racism, he has made it far more difficult to highlight the actual racist undertones in some comments about Liu as now it will be seen purely through a partisan political lens, dismissing genuine concerns about anti-Chinese sentiment.
Many have no confidence the PRC influence debate will be conducted with nuance in the media. When it comes to the PRC, the media is prone to sensationalism. Andrew Hastie’s recent op-ed, while mentioning the Maginot line, did not mention Nazi Germany. Yet social media by the Sydney Morning Herald stated allusions to Nazi Germany and this framing dominated its coverage. The newsworthiness of sensationalised claims risks promoting perverse motivations and perpetuating narratives with only loose connection to facts.
Unfortunately, Chinese Australian voices in this debate have been limited. In part, it is because of the diversity of the community, shaped by where people migrated from and when. This diversity has meant there is no form of peak national representation for Chinese Australians. Existing representative organisations are predominately organised by Chinese Australians who have come from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore or elsewhere in South East Asia who often speak other Chinese dialects such as Cantonese or Hokkien, not more recent Mandarin speaking migrants from mainland China who have formed their own organisations. But there has also been an uneasiness about speaking out and the few who do so express their views in an extremely careful manner to avoid being publicly tarred. It has meant the more vocal voices in this debate are critics of the CCP rather than those who are uneasy about the possible direction of this debate.
How the Left should respond
Walking a fine line is not easy but will be necessary. We do not have the luxury of being able to turn our back on China. We exist in the Asia-Pacific and cannot undo China’s integration into the global economy. They are our largest trading partner and even with economic diversification, we would not be immune from the contagion of a financial crisis or economic downturn in China. Engagement, as has been the policy of the social democratic left since Whitlam, is critical.
We should not condone what is going on within the PRC under an increasingly authoritarian direction such as the horrendous, dystopian treatment of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities in Xīnjiāng, crackdowns on NGOs and Marxist students organising workers and its campaign against protestors in Hong Kong but nor should we caricature China. All this is occurring side by side with regular strikes, environmental protests such as that recently in Wŭhàn and its own version of #MeToo that sidestepped censors. It is far from monolithic country where everything is directly controlled by the partystate at the pull of a single switch. We can still be vocal on human rights without resorting to scaremongering and the exclusion of China from international discourse, or indeed, necessary diplomatic discussions around cooperation on climate change, for example.
For the Left, the principles of anti-racism, democracy and internationalism should underpin its thinking. There must be both a rejection of PRC apologism and any claims about individuals without evidence that imply guilt by association. It means taking this debate seriously, rejecting calls for veiled racial discrimination under the guise of national security, speaking out against speculation about the loyalty of Chinese Australians and avoiding using terms like “Chinese influence”. We must demand evidence and detailed explanations rather than speculations of worst-case scenarios and have an awareness of how media reports and loose language can be completely taken out of context. We also need to be aware of the underlying ideological agenda of political actors and demand solutions to address genuine concerns about foreign interference to ensure fears do not become used to justify increased user pays in higher education or draconian national security legislation. Instead, it should be a rallying call to maintain strategic assets in public ownership and reverse the outsourcing of the responsibility for public funding of our key institutions. It means providing funding for ABC Chinese and SBS Mandarin to prove quality, independent journalism and properly funding our universities and schools including Chinese language programs.
The salience of the PRC influence debate has been aided by growing distrust in our public institutions. It requires strengthening our democracy – rebuilding confidence in our political system by supporting campaign finance reform to move away from a transactional model of politics and integrity commissions with teeth. It requires the protection of peaceful freedom of expression and assembly by dissidents in Australia from harassment and surveillance to fight unfounded speculation about the stance of governments that is also corrosive. Finally, it means advocating for an international rules-based order in our region that does not allow political, economic or military dominance by larger countries, defending human rights in Xīnjiāng, Tibet and Hong Kong and elsewhere, and a clear opposition to a new Cold War and associated military arms race in the Asia-Pacific.
Published in the October 2018 special edition of Tocsin