Likely, none of the three distinguished Australians of Chinese ethnicity appearing a Senate committee hearing expected to be comprehensively done over by two ideologues from the Australian right – Senators Eric Abetz and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
Last week three distinguished Australians of Chinese ethnicity appeared before Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee as part of its inquiry on issues facing diaspora communities in Australia.
One of the terms of reference is the barriers to the full participation of diaspora communities in Australia’s democratic and social institutions.
The three – Ms Wesa Chau, Mr Osmond Chiu and Ms Yun Jiang – each made eloquent, balanced and thoughtful opening statements, all on point. Nothing they said could remotely be seen as being blind to failings of the Chinese government – to the contrary.
But then it was time for questions. Abetz quickly descended to the task: “Can I ask each of the three witnesses to very briefly tell me whether they are willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship? It’s not a difficult question.” Quite what the question had to do with the full participation of diaspora communities in Australia’s democratic and social institutions, except to make it more difficult, is not clear.
Ms Jiang was the first to answer. In her opening statement she had been quite critical of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. She responded: “As I have stated in a lot of my public statements, I condemn the grievous human rights abuses done by the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, but I also have said before that I don’t think it’s fair to force all Chinese Australians to take a position or political action when similar requests are not being made to other Australians.”
Mr Chiu was next: “I support and believe in the universality of human rights. I don’t support the Communist Party but I don’t believe that it’s helpful to get into a political game of denouncements.”
Abetz came back pugnaciously: “So you can’t condemn it?” Why he said “can’t” rather than “don’t” or “won’t” is curious and perhaps disturbing.
Chiu replied: “I think my statement was quite clear about how I don’t support the Communist Party and I don’t support what it does.”
Abetz then went for the jugular: “There’s a difference between not supporting something and actively condemning a regime that engages in forced organ harvesting and having a million Uighers in concentration camps — the list goes on, and all we have is this limp statement that we don’t support it.”
Chiu was not given a chance to respond as Abetz had moved on to his next prey, Ms Chau.
She responded: “I think that all migrants should have a right to participate in Australian democracy and to be able to distinguish their ethnicity and race from dual political issues. As citizens, we should first and foremost be treated as every other citizen — and not every other Australian of any other ethnicity has been asked the same question. For example, in your distinguished political career, Senator, have you been asked to be loyal to Australia because you were born in Germany?”
Abetz leapt at the opening: “Oh, absolutely! Have you not read the terrible trolling that I receive? I am astounded that you would ask that question!” The terrible trolling Abetz gets is perhaps not as well known as he might suppose. Chau did not have an opportunity to indicate whether she was familiar with it, before Abetz warmed to his theme:
“And, sadly, if you’re of Italian origin you will be asked if you’re part of the Mafioso — If you’re Vietnamese you’ll be asked if you’re part of a triad. If you’re German, like myself, you must be a Fascist by birth, irrespective of what your public utterances might be. And so the list goes on. That is why, might I add, that in nearly every single interview that I do unequivocally condemning the Chinese Communist Party I stress that this is not a condemnation of the Chinese people — because I believe that they are just as freedom-loving as every other human being on the planet — but that I am condemning the regime under which they suffer, just as much as not all Germans were Nazis, or all Russians communists, or all Italians part of the Mafioso or Vietnamese part of the triads. But, as German-born, can I say that I have no difficulty in saying unequivocally that the Nazi regime deserved to be condemned. I’m just concerned that some of our witnesses have great difficulty in condemning a regime that has been responsible for millions of deaths; incarceration of millions; forced organ harvesting; illegal land grabs; ripping up of an international — UN-sanctioned, even — agreement between the UK and China in relation to Hong Kong; and the list goes on. I’m just concerned that in this great freedom-loving country of Australia, that has adopted all of us as part of its citizenry, we are unable to fully celebrate the great freedoms we have and to condemn some of the backgrounds from which we come — not courtesy of the people but courtesy of the ugly regimes that were inflicted over them.”
Ms Chau finally got the chance to say: “I do want to say that I think Australia should defend human rights and speak up against it, and not shy away from it. But, at the same time, I also believe that people should not need to pick sides. It is unfair on the community to expect that of people, especially if it’s simply based on ethnicity and race.”
Abetz was not finished: “But can you not pick a side to condemn the oppressive ugliness of the communist regime in China? Why is that so difficult?”
Chau began to reply: “From my perspective, I do not support some of the actions of” — but was cut short because Abetz broke in: “I’m not asking you to support, I’m asking you to unequivocally condemn. Unless we condemn these activities they’ll just keep on going. It would be like somebody saying, ‘I don’t support the Holocaust.’ No. We have to unequivocally condemn the Holocaust, and a similar situation is happening to the Uighurs under the communist regime in China. Why is it so difficult to condemn it?”
Ms Chau did not take issue, as she might have done, with whether the murder of six million people by the German Nazis was quite comparable with the despicable treatment of the Uighurs. Instead she responded: “I’m also concerned that this is a Senate inquiry. For witnesses to publicly declare their allegiance to Australia by condemning a foreign government — this goes to the point I was making: when a person is putting their hand up for public office or speaking out publicly, they are required to make that allegiance and declare loyalty. This is unfair on the community. This is an inquiry about diaspora issues, and there are many other diaspora issues that need to be dealt with, including racism and including what I suggested before — that we need to have better civic education so people can really understand how a democracy works.”
Fierravanti-Wells then joined the fray: “As somebody who has been involved in multicultural activities for their whole life and over the course of a long public life, can I give you some pretty basic advice: go and read the Constitution.”
I am not sure what revelatory insight the Senator expects Ms Chau to find in that dusty document. I am reasonably confident that I am the only person who has ever read the Constitution to be recorded for the blind. It surely is in the running for the most boring recording ever made – best left sleeping in the Australian Archives.
Fierravanti-Wells went on: “That’s the first thing I would say to you, and the second is: there is nothing in any political party that I have ever come across, whether it’s Liberals, Greens, Labor or whatever, that precludes any Australian from participating, so long as they’re on the electoral roll. I think the problem here is that certain communities just don’t want to participate. I have to tell you that there is an overwhelming under-desire among people from the Chinese Australian community to participate in politics. If more of them participated, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
So the Axis Alliance is alive and well. But Chinese Australians are out in the cold.