To ensure we remain as the world’s most successful multicultural society, it is important to get the China debate right from now on to prevent the re-emergence of sinophobia in Australia.
As an Australian of Chinese descent, I have long been proud of my dual identity and because of that have dedicated the majority of my life as an advocate of China-Australia relations and speaking out on issues concerning Chinese-Australians and our place in both Australia and China.
My passion, commitment and service to Chinese-Australian communities stems from my great-great-grandfather, who arrived in Victoria during the gold rush era, and my father who established the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra and Chinese Culture Society, one of the first current affairs Chinese language magazines in Australia. The influence from my parents, coupled with my appreciation of Chinese history and culture and personal brushes with racism and discrimination while growing up in Australia, spurred me to embrace my cultural heritage, connect with Chinese-Australian communities and contribute to the building of closer Australia-China ties.
Growing up in Australia, I have witnessed the ever changing dynamics that make up Chinese-Australian communities. During my father’s time, Chinese-Australian leaders and the community organisations they led consisted of those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore and, last but not least, Chinese-Australians who have been in Australia for generations. The majority of their activities were around the preservation and promotion of Chinese traditional culture such as music, art, literature, history and religion. But in recent times priorities have shifted to business, commercial and trade, mainly due to the overwhelming presence and increase of migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
It has been a long and complicated journey as some of us do find ourselves trapped in the middle and at times forced to take sides. In times of peace and prosperity, Chinese-Australians are seen by some (including myself) to be at the forefront as facilitators supporting Australia in navigating its relationship with China but when uncertainty and hostility erupts, we become collateral damage simply because of our ethnicity and cultural heritage. A big factor of this phenomenon has a lot to do with inaccurate portrayals in the media, inconsistent usage of relevant terminology and the general lack of nuance and, as a result, the blurring of the lines.
We have seen Australian and Chinese journalists, politicians, media commentators and academics fall into this trap. Take Clive Hamilton for example. Many critics see his book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia as first and foremost anti-Chinese. It’s easy for readers and punters from all sides to make that assumption when the title of his book is clearly “China’s Influence in Australia”. Clive Hamilton has stressed (link: https://johnmenadue.com/clive-hamilton-none-so-blind-as-those-who-will-not-see/) that his book is not anti-Chinese but, from my interpretation, it is most certainty anti-CPC (Communist Party of China). To avoid further complications, he should consider changing the title of his book to ‘Silent Invasion: CPC’s influence in Australia’. But let’s face it, that simply won’t be a good enough sales pitch.
Since the emergence of the foreign influence and interference debate in Australia, the concern I have is not just for what is being said but the audience which commentators like Clive Hamilton and others are attracting, as it is these groups that are leading the re-emergence of anti-Chinese sentiment and sinophobia in Australia. Driven by fear, anxiety and at times ignorance from the rise of China, we’ve seen racist posters targeting Chinese international students on university campuses, protests against Chinese foreign investment and, as a result of nuance-lacking public commentary, beliefs and accusations that Chinese international students and Chinese-Australians are members of a fifth column working with China and the CPC to undermine Australia’s national interests and sovereignty. For speaking out openly and publicly, I have been labelled as a CPC and Chinese sympathiser and even had my loyalties and commitment to Australia challenged and questioned on multiple occasions.
Going back to Clive Hamilton, he is right to point out that Chinese-Australians are visibly absent in Australian politics. However, they are not being held back because of holding pro-China, anti-China, pro- or anti-CPC views but as a result of the ‘bamboo ceiling’ and the institutional racism that exists within political parties. I’ve again experienced this firsthand during my time as a candidate for the 2008 Victorian Local Government Elections where Australian Labor Party (ALP) members suggested that I change my name to a ‘western name’ because it will increase my electoral prospects (i.e. my current name as it stands paints the picture that I can’t communicate in English). I’ve also had Chinese-Australians (and others from culturally diverse backgrounds) tell me they’ve experienced hostility, judgement and suspicion at local branch meetings.
The so-called ‘China debate’ has come to a point where any moderate or balanced approach taken towards China is deemed as pro-PRC and pro-CPC. I for one do not see how building a more mature relationship with China, our largest economic trading partner and emerging power in the region, is working against Australia’s interests. It is simplistic to assume anyone who supports a robust working relationship with China is a mouthpiece of the CPC. An appreciation for China doesn’t directly mean appreciation for the CPC. The CPC may try to blur the lines but with enough nuance one can see there is a fundamental difference and it should be recognised appropriately.
With the implementation of nuanced diplomacy such as focusing on cultural awareness and our shared history (like the contribution of Chinese-Australians and Australians in China) we can develop a multi-dimensional bilateral relationship with shared common goals that seek to benefit both sides and the region, while at the same time protecting our national interest and upholding our values such as universal human rights, democracy and our way of life. In my experience working with PRC personnel and institutions, I have found the lack of knowledge and awareness to be a major obstacle. Misunderstandings can be resolved with deeper engagement and communication between both sides beyond the surface level.
In addition to being targets of racist name-calling, the biggest fear I have as a Chinese-Australian is the breaking down of trust with mainstream Australia and its institutions. The last thing I want is for Chinese-Australians to be denied opportunities – due to mistrust because of their ethnicity and cultural background – to serve in our parliaments, speak out in the media and rise through the ranks in corporate and executive boardrooms. What Australian leaders and policymakers need to start doing is recognise and embrace the contribution and role of Chinese-Australians. Isolating and treating us with suspicion will only be counterproductive.
Jieh-Yung Lo is a Chinese-Australian writer, researcher and commentator. He tweets at @jiehyunglo ef