Chinese voters in Australian democracy

Apr 15, 2023
4 young Chinese Australians Melbourne.

The last Federal election in 2022 saw a massive swing of voters of Chinese heritage away from the Coalition to Labor and Independents. The pattern was the same in the recent NSW state election and the Aston by-election in Victoria. All these indicate is that a long suffering marginalised victim of Australia’s geopolitics has finally awakened from their political slumber.

Now that Labor has bagged the exotic Chinese bird, will it make any effort to better understand and make amends for past inattention towards this component of Australian society or will it continue to take the Chinese for granted until the next election? To this point in time, I have not seen any real change in government attitude towards Chinese Australians.

Although the loud haranguing on China has stopped, Labor’s attitude towards our biggest trading partner remains almost indistinguishable from the LNP’s. Numerous Pearls and Irritations writers have pointed out that the AUKUS nuclear submarines are designed to be part of the offensive action against China should war break out with American intervention on Taiwan.

Chinese Australians’ response to the submarine deal is difficult to gauge because they have remained relatively silent on the matter. It speaks of their wariness on political matters. However, it is imperative to state that as a community they are not necessarily pro-Chinese. They are in many ways a heterogenous group coming from different countries in the region: China (and politically opposed Taiwan), Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong (before and after reunification), Myanmar and Brunei just to name a number. They also carry with them different political views and orientations. Nevertheless, China remains significant in their lives not just because many of them have family and friends in China; are connected to China through cultural heritage, especially through their surnames that emphasise their roots; but that any conflict with China will invariably spillover into their lives in Australia.

Chinese Australians have had to put up with unrelenting pressures coming from identifying China as the enemy without any justification; arming Australia not to defend the country but to prepare to go to war alongside the Americans should war break out with China over Taiwan; and the previous Prime Minister saying that if we want peace, we must prepare for war. For those with family and loved ones in China, such a statement is tantamount to a forewarning, if not a threat. Playing political games with words is definitely not part of their culture.

The pressure reached a high point when Eric Abetz in a Senate inquiry into the issues affecting migrant communities in Australia demanded that the young Chinese representatives condemn the Communist Party of China. This was justifiably interpreted by Chinese Australians as an unwarranted test of loyalty. When taken to task, Abetz refused to apologise for his behaviour and defended his action by saying that it had “nothing to do with race but everything to do with values” (Hurst, The Guardian, 16/10/2020). Are Chinese Australians expected to embrace “values” that translate into such appalling behaviour? If the inquiry was meant to encourage minorities to participate more fully in public policy, then it shot itself in the foot by allowing Abetz to bully and vaunt his xenophobic discourse.

If I could point to a number of generalisations about Chinese people that might help the Labor government better understand the community, it is that they are pragmatic people with very strong middle class values; and they abhor chaos (“luan” as they say in Chinese). They strive to be financially secure and to educate their children to the highest of their abilities. This I believe comes from their Confucian values. It is not a coincidence that all the countries that are labelled “Confucian” i.e. China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have high saving rates among their population and place a very high value on education. I would even venture to say that they are at their best when they are treated like the rest of the population and left alone to do what they can for their families. At the core of this pragmatism is their livelihood. They will only wake up from their political apathy when their livelihoods are threatened. When relations with China soured during the last LNP government, many small Chinese business people who were long-term supporters of the Liberal Party, believing that they were more business orientated than Labor, abandoned the Coalition and voted for Labor instead (Bang Xiao, ABC, 04/04/2023).

As to what the AUKUS submarine deal means from the “pragmatic” Chinese perspective, there can be no better answer than from Xi Jinping himself: “There are some well fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?” (Branigan, T. The Guardian, 15/10.2021). This is as revealing of the Chinese mind as the countless books written about them.

The question remains as to whether Albanese and Labor can hold on to its newly acquired Chinese votes. At this moment, hope for a change does not look promising as Australia, under Albanese continues to be joined at the hip with the US and sing the same tune. If the US’ “rules based order” allows it to compete with China by banning Huawei, threatening to ban or force the sale of TikTok to an American company, and banning the sale of advanced semiconductor chips to China amongst other trade embargoes; then they are arbitrary rules that allow the US in a straight race to grab the shirt of China from behind.

The fact that PM Anthony Albanese said nothing when the “Red Alert” series hit the newsstands and electronic media indicates that Chinese Australians are still an “invisible” minority. Perhaps it is time to point out that the bird in the bag still has wings to fly away back to its former beau or to a new, younger and more caring paramour.

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