Trusting Chinese Australians as partners in managing a rising superpower
By Jason Yat-sen Li
When does a new migrant stop being Chinese and start being Australian? Is this at the point of becoming an Australian citizen? And if that is not enough, then what is?
On New Year’s Day 1960, my father boarded a small charter vessel at Hong Kong Harbour bound for Sydney. Our family’s story is a typical migrant’s tale, like the thousands who had come before and after us. When he arrived in Sydney, Dad was welcomed by the largely Hong Kong and South East Asian, Cantonese and Hokkien-speaking Chinese community. The PRC was only 11 years old and was in the grip of the humanitarian catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward.
Chinese settlers have been arriving in Australia since Mak Sai Ying landed in Sydney aboard the convict ship the Laurel in 1818.
Arriving from both mainland China and also importantly other parts of Asia these Chinese migrants shared a Chinese cultural heritage with over 5,000 years of recorded history. Most have nothing to do with the PRC, a political entity less than 70 years old. Indeed, it was only from the 2000s onwards that the CCP began to regard the Chinese diaspora as an ally and asset, rather than with suspicion as Nationalists and Western-influenced bourgeois. Australians with Chinese ancestry now number 1.2 million, part of the global Chinese diaspora of more than 60 million in more than 180 countries.
The geopolitical reality emerges
In 2018, the United States officially classed China as a strategic adversary and threat, rather than a strategic partner and signalled to its allies that they should do likewise. It had dawned finally that China’s economic development would not bring greater freedom and that China was becoming more authoritarian. And technology, long hoped to be a democratising force, had in fact become a tool of control. The current US-China trade war is just one symptom of the underlying tectonic strategic rivalry between the superpowers for economic, military, technological, cultural and ideological dominance.
Yet, the PRC is also Australia’s most important strategic and economic relationship. The PRC’s now massive investments in technology, renewable energy, science and the creation of new markets underpins the critical role it plays in Australia’s future prosperity. Australia cannot not have a relationship with China, so we must find a way to make it work.
The projection of Chinese power is increasingly confident, broad-based and extraterritorial. Coinciding with the growing numbers of Chinese in Australia, our security agencies and mainstream media have been investigating what has been described as widespread, systematic and covert activity by the CCP to interfere in Australian politics, democracy and domestic affairs.
The debate about Chinese political interference and influence culminated in the resignation of Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, the cancellation of prominent Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo’s permanent residency visa and the passing, with bipartisan support, of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act and the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act.
The Chinese Australian diaspora is now facing the gravest threat to its democratic rights since the White Australia Policy and the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. In contrast to the artless racism of Pauline Hanson in the late 1990s when the Australian Chinese community united and mobilised, the community's awkward silence this time points to a more complex menace. In spite of accusations that the new foreign interference and influence laws unfairly and specifically target the PRC, of the 51 submissions to the parliamentary review of the new national security bills, only one was from a Chinese Australian community organisation. Normally vocal advocates have said nothing, most likely fearing that if they dared defend China, they would be painted and tainted as CCP agents.
Australia must strongly resist any foreign activity that seeks to subvert our democracy and way of life. However, we must also ensure that the steps we take to protect our democracy are balanced, non-discriminatory and subject to checks and balances. At a time when Australian press freedoms are also under attack, how do we ensure our democratic rights are not sacrificed at the altar of national security? And how do we ensure that in our efforts to protect Australian values, we do not act in ways that destroy those very values?
The debate has also become highly polarised, increasingly personal and alarmingly populist, characteristics not conducive to everyone working together to develop solutions to this critically important but highly complex issue. One side calling the other racist and the other side labelling the first “Panda huggers”, is not productive.
Where the diaspora and geopolitics collide
Academic and author Clive Hamilton writes: “At the highest levels in China, directives for influence programs are formulated by the Politburo and passed down to the CCP Central Committee. Responsibilities are there divided between the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department… Through this structure the PRC reaches deeply in the Chinese diaspora in Australia, using it for the purpose of influence, control and espionage, including spying on the community itself.”
This statement is objectionable because it accuses the entire Chinese diaspora, from the descendants of the Gold Rush settlers to Kylie Kwong and Lee Lin Chin, of being patsies for the CCP. It risks undermining the foundations of our multicultural society by arousing suspicion against a large segment of the population, simply because of their race and cultural heritage.
However, the CCP does indeed appear to quite openly blur the line between its citizens and members of the Chinese diaspora overseas, claiming the diaspora as part of its greater civilisational whole and seeking its support. Australia, for that matter, also seeks to engage the Australian diaspora living overseas.
How in this context does Australia, and indeed any liberal democracy with a substantial Chinese population, shield itself from unacceptable CCP influence whilst at the same time avoid stoking distrust against its citizens with Chinese heritage? It is a formidable challenge and one made even more complicated by the legitimate aim of the Chinese Australian diaspora to be better politically represented.
There are hardly any Chinese Australians in parliament. Work by the Australian Human Rights Commission has shown that the proportion of members of Federal Parliament with a non-European heritage is just 4.1 per cent. This compares with non-Europeans in the broader community of about 21 per cent and Australians with Chinese heritage of about 5 per cent. The Chinese Australian community has long regarded its political engagement through fundraising and donations. This has led to the community being described as a cash-cow for political parties, called upon at key times to provide funds but mostly otherwise ignored. The great irony of the Chinese political influence debate is that Chinese Australians actually have none.
Even the aspiration of Chinese Australians to political representation has been labelled a subversive strategy of the CCP. Clive Hamilton argues that the CCP “has been actively encouraging trusted members of Chinese communities in countries like Australia to become directly involved in running for political office, a policy known as huaren canzheng”. It must be noted that huaren canzheng 华人参政 is not a particular term of art or political phraseology, but simply and literally means “people of Chinese heritage participating in politics” in plain Mandarin Chinese. If this is to be opposed, one would be supporting the opposite proposition, that is huaren bu canzheng, which means “people of Chinese heritage do not participate in politics”: in other words, a disenfranchised, disengaged group of second-class citizens.
Time to rely on trust and belonging
It is clear that recent geopolitics have raised deeply challenging questions that go to the heart of who we are and who we can trust. For example, could we trust a former PRC national, who has become an Australian citizen but still has family in the PRC, to be a member of the Australian Parliament? Would we vote for them? Would political parties dare even preselect them as candidates?
If a Chinese Australian rose to the most senior levels of the public service, could we trust them with the most confidential of our nation’s secrets? Or an Australian company’s valuable IP? Or an Australian university’s ground-breaking research?
And if we cannot give this trust, what does that mean for our multicultural, liberal democracy that a citizen’s career in fields deemed sensitive are curtailed simply because of their background? When does a new migrant stop being Chinese and start being Australian? Is this at the point of becoming an Australian citizen? And if that is not enough, then what is?
A path forward
Finding solutions to issues of this complexity will require the sustained commitment and leadership of successive governments and leadership from all parts of Australian society. Here are some things we can do.
We must sharpen our language so that the diversity of the Chinese Australian diaspora is properly reflected. When we mean the PRC or the CCP, let’s say just that rather than to use the broad term “Chinese”. Moreover, when a Chinese Australian has Taiwanese or Hong Kong heritage or an association with the Falun Gong, let’s also be explicit about that as this nuance will bring a particular colour and context to their views about the PRC.
Let’s then tell more of the stories of the diaspora and its contribution to Australia: men, women, families and communities who are active in every aspect of Australian life because of their commitment to Australia, not the PRC.
We should aspire to Australian leadership that broadly reflects the make-up of the community. If indeed it is the objective of the CCP to nurture ties of affinity and culture with Chinese Australians through a “charm offensive”, surely the prudent response for Australia is to fully embrace Chinese Australians and welcome their greater participation in Australian society.
Australian parliaments, the boards of our major companies and organisations, as well as other leadership bodies across government, business, the arts and the community should establish aspirational diversity targets which, although not mandatory quotas, establish a clear goal to work towards. These goals will drive the policies and initiatives that bring about change.
The Australia Chinese community itself should put aside historical divisions and unite to create a national peak community body that can effectively represent and advocate for its interests. The primary purpose of this body might be to improve the civic understanding and engagement of Chinese Australians and to support and nurture future leaders across sectors.
Further, government departments and agencies might consider adopting a specific framework for identifying and promoting outstanding talent amongst professionals with sensitive backgrounds. For example, if an Australian citizen with a PRC background is judged to be an outstanding asset but has parents in the PRC, and that is considered a vulnerability, the framework’s aim should be to provide a clear career and leadership pathway, and to support the professional to deal with the sensitivities openly and constructively.
Australia must adopt a balanced and sophisticated view of the PRC, one that takes into account both the positive and negative and does not buy-in the false binary choice between China and the US. Recent mainstream commentary and media has focused almost exclusively on “bad China”: an authoritarian state that crushes dissent, oppresses its own minorities, suppresses free speech and human rights and seeks to refashion the international order to its liking. As David Brophy of the University of Sydney observes, China is being judged in the current political climate by what it is, not by what it does.
But there is also “good China”. This is the China that brought critical dynamism to a faltering global economy during the financial crisis, provides global leadership on climate change and renewable energy, defends free trade, promotes arts and culture, contributes to peace-keeping, disaster-relief and anti-piracy operations, and in short, provides a range of international public goods and leadership to the global commons.
It is crucial that Australia sees the Chinese Australia diaspora not as a threat but rather as an asset and partner. Rather than shutting out the Chinese Australian community, Australia’s security agencies should more deeply engage with the community as part of our efforts to oppose and counter foreign interference and guide our relationship with the PRC, in a similar way to how the Australian Muslim community is engaged in the fight against extremism.
Most fundamentally, we must continue to trust Chinese Australians. Because if we begin distrusting our own citizens, that will do more damage to Australian democracy than the CCP ever could.
Giving trust is also about being confident in our own Australian values and the strength and resilience of our democratic institutions. In the imperative to resist covert influence operations from any foreign power, let’s not give into populism, panic and suspicious overreach. These are from the playbook of authoritarian regimes, not confident liberal democracies.
As a consequence of this trust and confidence, let’s empower Chinese Australians to participate more fully in Australian politics and leadership so that they may have a true sense of belonging to our nation and community. This is the most powerful defence against any appeal by the CCP to a Chinese Australian’s sense of cultural heritage: to have them feel they are trusted, empowered and valued by Australia and their fellow Australians.
Jason Yat-sen Li is Chairman of Vantage Asia Holdings, a Senate Fellow of the University of Sydney and an advisory board member of China Matters. He is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on China.
Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).