This isn’t banter or trolling – this is cancel culture that seeks to extinguish the opinions of those who don’t conform to the view of certain politicians or media outlets. It is a phenomenon that has the ironic and harmful effect of undermining democratic values, including the right to free speech.
Two years ago, I made the “mistake” of tweeting a single word – “yawn” – in response to new Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s decision to place tackling the Xinjiang problem at the top of her agenda on her debut trip to China. My tweet was directed at politicians who used popular topics to drum up voter support at the expense of respect for a country’s sovereignty – no matter which country – and diplomacy that could pave the way for a better outcome for the issue at hand.
But the Twitter anti-China witch-hunters didn’t see it that way, not even after an explanation.
Certainly not several employees of the Australian and foreign government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Instead, they launched a series of personal attacks on my character.
As an Australian journalist covering China and reporting on housing and trade, I’ve faced the full spectrum of bullying, threats and defamation when I pen articles that don’t outrightly “blame” China.
And this isn’t just something that has happened this year over the stress of Covid-19, or as relations fray between Beijing and Canberra ; in 2015, one reader left me a voicemail every day for a week calling me a cockroach and “Chinese scum” after I wrote about a study that showed Chinese buyers made up only 4 per cent of the Australian housing market.
However, nothing compares to what three Australians with Chinese heritage endured at a parliamentary inquiry two weeks ago, when Australian Senator Eric Abetz demanded they publicly condemn the Communist Party, sparking a public backlash and a potential investigation into his conduct.
What we are seeing is no longer just banter over facts and figures, but the rise of ideological cleansing and cancel culture that seeks to extinguish the opinions of those who don’t conform to an “accepted” view legitimised by popular media outlets and politicians.
It’s almost like a new religious phenomenon in which anti-China do-gooders are trying to reprogramme the “heretics” who either don’t have a view of China, don’t care much about China, don’t have any facts or experience of Chinese matters or, worse, the likes of me – those who have a nuanced view of China or are just reporting the facts as they are.
This is concerning, because this phenomenon undermines the very thing this group of people are trying to support – democratic values that include the freedom to express any political opinions, and the right to free speech.
As Linda Jakobson, the founding director and deputy chair of Australian think tank China Matters – which is funded by donations and until recently, by Australian government grants – said during a national security conference last week: “Surely, in a democracy, we cannot accept the use of the very tactics that we so abhor in [China], in other words, the silencing of individuals and the suppression of free speech.”
She’s right because defaming someone as a means of bullying them into silence seems to me like a slightly more obscure equivalent of the direct intimidation tactics employed by the Chinese government.
Worryingly, such an approach also turns people against each other while the real perpetrators – governments – are unaffected. In a war, there’s collateral damage, and this seemingly weaponless one has still claimed victims.
Driving this mania is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s July statement that – in regards to China – he will never “trade our values”. This confuses me – as an Australian of Chinese heritage – because he’s never articulated what these “values” are, nor do I feel any values are being jeopardised because Australia engages with China. No one has forced me to be a communist.
Australia in September decided to revamp its citizenship test for the first time in a decade, with acting immigration, citizenship and migrant services minister Alan Tudge saying the changes will require “potential citizens to understand and commit to our values”.
In her video column The Frant, Guardian journalist Jan Fran last week said these so-called Australian values were part of a policy “that appears benign and legitimate but only seeks to reinforce the divisive sense of nationalism, thereby placating a voter base that might be a bit xenophobic”.
When secret service agents and politicians push the rhetoric that there is “danger” lurking among us, trying to undermine our values or safety, they end up preaching paranoia. Sure, they have to protect the country, but since when is secret service work a public performance, for example by allowing the media to witness the raid on politician Shaoquett Moselmane’s home as part of an investigation into alleged Chinese influence operations?
Beijing hasn’t done itself any favours by authoritatively suppressing human rights in the past and present, and no, China, you can’t be a true superpower unless you have sorted that out or offered options for some form of redress. In the meantime, it’s fair for countries which are engaging with China to be extra careful.
I am all for protecting national security, but it’s very undemocratic and, as we say it, very “un-Australian” for politicians and the media to go hunting for witches, mainly those in public service, and irresponsibly hurt innocent people. Don’t kill dolphins in your fishing expedition.
Together, politicians and some journalists team up to “other” those they don’t understand, particularly minority migrant groups. Does that truly make Australia “the most successful multicultural nation in the world”, a popular catchphrase Canberra likes to use but for which we don’t have any evidence?
The Australians who have found their loyalties questioned in the media are often portrayed as doing something far more insidious, when they participate in innocuous cultural idiosyncrasies, be it taking photos at a function, being served fine wine by a Chinese host, or being present when a speech about Chinese pride is made with its usual scholarly, and colourful, profusions.
This was also the very thing the three Australians were trying to explain at the inquiry two weeks ago, but were instead goaded into a loyalty test.
Look, if things are so bad with China, I urge the Australian government – whom I trust should have more information than all of us – to make a stand. Australia doesn’t have to do business or interact with people and governments whose values we don’t like. We don’t have to “trade our values”. We have choices, so there’s really no need to play victim.
Break up with China, cut off trade and fairly and openly address those who have truly wronged the country, but don’t justify the cowardice of not making a choice by destroying the lives of innocent Australian bystanders.
Su-Lin Tan is an Australian journalist who joined the Post in 2020 after the Australian Financial Review where she covered housing and commercial property and Asian and Chinese business and affairs in Australia. She is a qualified accountant and had a career in financial services including investment banking and funds management before becoming a journalist