2017 was earmarked to celebrate 45 years of Australian–Chinese diplomatic relations. Instead, Australia alleged that China interfered in its national affairs and the China Daily reported that an on-line poll had voted Australia as the ‘least friendly nation to China in 2017’. Likewise, a Global Times editorial accused Australia of McCarthyism and said that Australia had gone insane regarding the issue of China.
Engagement between China and Australia has evolved through crucial phases of development. In 1972, the recognition of China was seen through the prism of the Cold War, even as former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam valiantly tried to step out of this mindset. There was a sea change in the 1980s after then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and their emphasis on integrating China into the global capitalist order, the assumption being China was becoming ‘like us’.
Come 2018, Australia now imagines a different China — one that is not integrating but is instead playing by a different set of rules and norms that threaten Australia’s values. This fear has entered Australia’s domestic politics and evokes negative responses from within China at the official and civilian levels.
This fear portrays the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as omnipresent and exporting its influence overseas. A common understanding is that Chinese students are the products of a patriotic education system, which leads to the assumption that these students ‘always follow the Party’ when overseas. There is a logical jump in the argument that sees Chinese students as agents of the CCP who ‘spread propaganda’.
Australian media outlets portray little difference between the Chinese state and its people. Chinese students are seen as so imbued with CCP patriotism that they are accused of stifling free speech on Australian university campuses. Given that there were 157,000 Chinese students studying in Australia in 2017 and only four incidents reported, these myths are sustained by the continuous work of media outlets that reproduce the infiltration fable. What is overlooked is that the patriotism of Chinese international students has many origins beyond the CCP agenda and their socio-political views are quite diverse.
Former Australian senator Sam Dastyari’s associations with a Chinese businessman fanned fears of Chinese influence in Canberra. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that Dastyari ‘did not put Australia first and had betrayed Australia’. Turnbull later alleged that the CCP was ‘working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and even the decisions of elected representatives’.
The next day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang retaliated and said Turnbull had ‘poisoned the atmosphere of China–Australia relations’. In response, Turnbull used Mao Zedong’s famous quote that the Chinese people have stood up (against foreign imperialist power) to assert that it was time for Australia to stand up (against foreign interference, primarily from China). Shortly after, the Australian government introduced foreign interference laws banning foreign donations and requiring those dealing with foreign entities to register.
The Australian discourse on China turned from one of integration to one of security concerns. The language used to describe China inside and outside Australia is one that speaks of ‘aggression’, of ‘eroding’ Australian sovereignty and of a ‘silent invasion’ of Australia.
This shift in discourse from engagement to security ushers in a debilitating form of anti-democracy that stifles discussion. Chinese middle-class individuals, business groups, students and academics in Australia are perceived by some not as an opportunity but as a security risk. In this framing, cultural differences become more absolute than they actually are, as has been the experience of Muslim communities. There is a certain irony here: the media criticised Chinese students for stifling free speech but have accepted the security discourse and curbing of democracy as necessary in order to confront the risk of China.
When absolutism bolsters the social imagination, it locks Australia into a condition of fear and suspicion that becomes infectious. The social imagination of China outside and inside Australia as threatening is now widespread among the political realm, the media, security analysts and China-watchers. But this is neither historically helpful in explaining the shifts in Australia–China relations nor politically productive. It is important to view China holistically.
There is a dire need to develop an alternative view focused on people rather than an omnipotent polity. When China stood up in 1949, and when it stands now, it is China’s people that Australia needs to think about, Australia needs to reimagine China as driven by its people, not a CCP monolith. This means recognising that the Chinese diaspora in Australia is a diverse, dynamic asset that is deeply interconnected with people in China. But if Australia’s view maintains that China is merely the CCP and to be feared, this will lock in suspicion. The potential will be that, as occurred in the Dastyari incident, domestic politics will spill over into Australian foreign policy.
The reimagining requires a reconsideration of domestic politics by remembering that historically Australia has rejected McCarthyism. It is now time to realise that Australia’s future requires rethinking of China as separate from the CCP leadership both in Australia, via the diaspora and students, and China itself.
Gregory McCarthy is the BHP Chair Professor of Australian Studies at Peking University.
This article first appeared in the East Asia Forum.