Five Eyes, one tongue and hard of hearing – Australia and Asia in China’s Century

Dec 6, 2020

Chinese diaspora are the ones facing the foreign policy abuse at the moment—but don’t worry, racism is an equal opportunity affair—once your country falls from favour—they’ll be targeting your mob next.    ANU – China in the World Annual Lecture 2020

Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) presents the 2020 CIW Annual Lecture (online)’Five Eyes, One Tongue and Hard of Hearing – Australia and Asia in China’s Century’ by Professor Louise Edwards, UNSW.

Thank you, to Professor Jane Golly, Kim Yang and the ANU’s China in the World team for making this event possible. And to all of you for Zooming in—especially the participants in the ANU’s Asia Pacific Week.

Australia’s relations with Asia appear to be stuck in a time machine that is moving backwards—whether it be our mainstream media, our politicians, our public servants, our arts sector, or our universities—many leaders appear to labour under the misconception that Australians are white and hail from Liverpool, Limerick or London. In an apparent inability to actually see the population of this country in all its full glory of languages, religions, colours and classes they nod occasionally to ‘our ethnic communities’ with multilingual adverts at times of crisis—the ethnics are presented as ‘problems’—they need special “language” or “cultural” attention and sometimes “we” grudgingly comply.

Australia’s overall vision of the Asia-Pacific region is similarly dismal. We’re part of the Five Eyes intelligence gathering group—US, UK, Canada, NZ, and Australia. But the Australian eyes are stricken with a resurgence of the post-war amblyopia – commonly known as “wandering eye”—a infant ailment that usually corrects by adolescence. We know this amblyopia because many of our bosses continue to lead us with one eye on London and another on LA.

And what of the mouths accompanying these eyes? They appear to have only one tongue—and it only speaks English. And the ears—they appear to very hard of hearing, despite sophisticated hearing aids.

That would be fine if the best ideas, the most innovative policy was produced in English—but it isn’t. Look at the amazing pandemic planning and policy prep that Taiwan rolled out.

That would be fine if the most business and military strategies and secrets were whispered in English—but they aren’t. They’re happening in myriad languages including those in the rich family of Chinese languages.

Despite decades of pretty successful engagement with Asia, forging complex diplomatic relations with communist states like China and Vietnam, performing peace keeping roles in Timor-Leste, election monitoring in Cambodia, APEC, FTA’s with an ever-expanding list of nations in the region—Australia’s policy, debate, discussion, politics appears to have returned to an old-style village-like insularity. Watching out for any threats the outsider might pose to the status quo, gossiping about their strange habits, raising eyebrows when they speak their lingo, and chuckling at their accented English. Then turning inwards again—anxiously managing the chronic amblyopia—eyes that wander between London and LA.

It seems to me that one of the problems is that Australians are not used to being weaker than, poorer than, less influential than Asians—particularly Chinese. I think we have a race problem in our key institutions that manage our narratives and control our policies. Many in Australian leadership still seem to imagine themselves doing some trickling down of expertise and superior raw materials into the hands of the grateful, “developing” people up north. Our “Asia literacy” courses need a revamp, and need to be delivered to a new bunch of leaders. And, a trigger warning here for all academics, we need some new learning outcomes to be aligned with new course objectives.

Asia generally, and China in particular, has changed. Our national, public Asia Literacy curriculum hasn’t kept up. We fancy ourselves to be skilled up, but our leaders are showing serious symptoms of “insular internationalism”—a term Michael Wesley coined to describe the complacent Australian who confidently thinks they’ve “got Asia”—yup… true.. but that was 3 years ago, and the world up there is changing faster than Australia’s leaders appear to fully comprehend.[1]

But also, Australia has changed—the audience for this talk—if you could see each other is a case in point. Wander into any school or university and you will see that change. London, Liverpool are still there, but so are Luxor and Lanzhou.

Times have changed around us, even if our national imaginary is currently dominated by Orientalist visions of white people patronizing poor, brown people and telling them what to do.

We’ve all been on those delegations or tour groups where some embarrassing Australian starts telling the local Asian how to run their lab, their class, their farm, their country. These Australian heroes have no knowledge of the behind the scenes softly, softly work that goes into patching up these awkward exchanges sotto voce – just to keep the Australian show in China and Asia on the road.

Well, no more sotto voce—we need to call out these poor performers—because they are becoming more and more harmful to Australia as the power and wealth balances change in the world. Somehow there are still lots of people around in positions of authority in Australia, that imagine that Australia is giving Asians the benefit of our supposed superior learning, and skills, along with the mineral resources. It’s time to open their eyes and ears and show them how to LEARN from Asia.

To be fair, many of them are adult migrants themselves who haven’t benefited from our Asia literacy programs in schools and university. But many are just racist in the ‘yellow peril, fear and greed’ binary or sitting awkwardly in a polite racism built on an ‘Us and Them’ Orientalism.

As most of you here today know, much of Asia is rich, powerful and doesn’t have to put up with being patronised anymore. China’s certainly in this mode.

The past few years I have had the pleasure of teaching remarkable groups of students at UNSW in a course called “Australia’s Asian Context”. I realise that UNSW is considered rather special in the higher education realms for the racial composition of its students—apparently, at the University Games the acronym for UNSW is jokingly transformed into “U Never See Whites.” Apart from the fact that this isn’t true—I mean, like that in many of Australia’s universities, the management is 99% white and most hail immediately or a generation back from the United Kingdom—an Anglo diaspora.

And, there are non-Asian students at UNSW. But, it is generally true that walking around UNSW is very much like walking around Hong Kong University, where I had the pleasure of teaching back in the 2010s. Asian faces abound—all sorts of varieties: East, South, South Eastern, Middle Eastern and all kinds of mixed-race people are in their too. However, unlike in Hong Kong, the Asian students in Australia are acutely aware of the constraints that being Asian has on their lives, careers and prospects. They are very clear-eyed about the limitations on their progress and the narrow pathways to success and leadership that are ahead.

Finance and IT are “acceptable” places for Asians in Australia’s large institutions. Why? Because from these positions it’s assumed, they won’t threaten to change the culture of the institutions. They will just do as they are instructed, just providers of technical skills. The direction, strategy, thinking—that will all come from the Anglo diaspora.

One of the features of the Australian leaders, pumped up with Five Eyes authority, is that they are frequently monolinguals, but even more problematic, they don’t have a multilingual consciousness. By the latter I mean that it is possible for people to only have one language, but to have some understanding of how this limits them, how to appreciate the language labour others are undertaking in communicating with them in their one language, and even how to work effectively with interpreters. Many of our leaders have neither multilingualism or multilingual consciousness—hence the slashing and burning of foreign language and culture courses in universities in recent decades on the basis that they are “too expensive”.

These same leaders are too proud (“too busy”) to learn a language other than English—they don’t want to be the ones taking risks with their status by making vocab mistakes, grammatical errors, mispronunciations or be groping for words. The attitude seems to be to just pull in a few language-lackies to do some translation and interpreting and “she’ll be right”. Don’t alter the institutional culture, don’t reform the foundations of policy—just get the language “techies” in to do the Interpreting and Translation (IT) like you get the geeks in to do the Information Technology (IT). It’s just words, right. Slot one in and press “translate” and another one—a weird one—pops out. And the Commonwealth’s Department of Home Affair’s use of Google translate for COVID advice shows just how close the step from Language Techie to AI techie is, in the heads of the one-tongue mob.

Well, my students are not thrilled about this. They are creative, multilingual, innovative, energetic, empathetic, globally aware and unless they get invited into the heart of organisational policymaking, agenda setting, and listened to while they are there, I fear that they will take their great ideas and head out of Australia, to Asia, where they will be heard. Their cross-cultural skills will be valued rather than ignored, or regarded with suspicion.

The resilience many of them developed as translators of language, culture, custom and bureaucracy for adult migrant parents and grandparents will emerge as skills that another country’s institutions and governments in other nations will benefit from. But I suppose that’s OK, since we’re all one human race on a pretty small planet, right?—and besides, historically, the nation-state might well be running its course. But if we let some of the best and brightest, culturally astute people leave Australia, we risk making this nation even more vulnerable and irrelevant to the big forces shaping the world than it already is.

Australia will mimic a feature that my colleague Sally McLaren notes about Japan—a nation whose entrenched and institutionalised sexism has the curious side effect of providing the world with a pool of highly talented women working at the upper echelons of International Organisations (ILO, UNFPA, World Food Program, UNHCR, UNICEF).[2]

Australia’s highly talented and energetic young Asians will brush the dust of crusty White Australia off the bottom of their shoes, burn some sandalwood incense to dispel the stench of stupidity that Australia’s amblyopia is currently producing, and head up to Asia.

I hope the current trickle of expertise to the near north that is already occurring, doesn’t become a flood. I hope that the amazing work that is taking place in Australian schools and community organisations that has produced these globally aware, culturally sensitive fabulous folk-under-forty will be brought to benefit Australia’s large institutions—and that they will be welcomed to influence our policy and direction within these institutions. Ethnic Chinese students fill our university language classrooms because they know that adding German and French to their mastery of English and Chinese is useful, that Korean and Japanese are incredibly culturally powerful and economically useful.

These people in their 20s and 30s are Australia’s May Fourth-New Culture generation. We need to facilitate the shifts they can propel for our nation and the globe, not block them. They really do have fresh ideas and new perspectives. I for one, don’t want to be the old scholar trying to bring back the Qing Imperial Examination system when there is the possibility of a May Fourth cosmopolitanism, curiosity and open-mindedness on the horizons.

But, that day has yet to come. At the moment, these young Asian Australians find themselves without a public space in which to pass any critical comment easily. Expressions of discontent about the way Australia’s institutions, workplaces or systems, often dominated as they are by the Anglo diaspora, are ignored with ‘how very dare you’ eyebrows’. Or, from the bogan end of public discourse comes the abusive epithets: “Australia, if you don’t love it, leave it”—”I grew here, you flew here”.

Australia desperately needs what Joe Lo Bianco has described as “Voice democracy”.[3] He uses this term, Voice Democracy, within his framework of linguistic human rights and language justice and has demonstrated how multilingualism and language rights are crucial for community building at both the local and national level across multiple global case studies, including in warzones. He has argued long and hard about the rights of all peoples to access services and education in their own languages in Australia – and has demonstrated time and again that in providing such services, multiple benefits accrue to the broader community and economy.

Australia’s Asian diaspora come with a wealth of languages, just as did the post war European migrants—we need to build workplaces that see these language skills as assets. We need immigration policies that do not jeopardize the multilingualism that we can benefit from, in our migration of people from “Countries Other than English”.

We are currently sending skilled labour back to Asia because the new English language tests for various visa categories and pathways to citizenship are looking like the Dictation Tests from White Australia Policy days. Many of my students work in hospitality—heading up kitchens, working front of house, at the bar, the whole gamut. Like a lot of employers and workers, they have lost good staff, great colleagues to the fixation with English that is manifest in many of our policies and decisions.

An Expert Korean chef giving up on her Permanent Resident processes, heads home because she failed an English grammar test — despite her employers wanting her to stay on and despite her English capacities being more than sufficient to succeed in her industry. Women like this chef, are not drains on the Australian tax payer, they are bringing their skills along with their imperfect grammar and accents to this nation. And, their multilingualism and rich perspective on the world could set us up for getting on board with, or even creating the next food sensation that would help our farmers and manufacturers build wealth with trade into Korea and China. Well, that possibility has gone. God forbid! Australia doesn’t want a chef that can’t get her grammar perfect.

Oh yes, but if you hold a passport from UK, USA, NZ, Canada or Republic of Ireland then you don’t need to have this proof of English competency. The Dept of Home Affairs let Republic of Ireland into the One Tongue team—even though they aren’t officially part of the Five Eyes. I guess having Seamus Heaney and Anne Enright in your team is a bit of a SLAM DUNK for proficiency in English.

But back to Joe’s notion of Voice Democracy–I want us to extend his idea to include the recognition of the importance of really listening to non-white Australians when they engage in public debate in English as well. If employers or institutions really want graduates with critical thinking skills, innovation and initiative, then they themselves need to develop critical listening skills as well. Not the marketing and spin affairs that the fake ‘townhalls’ and ‘listening exercises’ many of us are subjected to in the university sector. We need our leaders to change the batteries on their hearing aids and really, really listen. Alter the governance structures so that there really is some possibility of communication from the bottom and middle to the top. Many universities now run along hierarchical lines that the CCP would be impressed by—our governance structures look remarkably like Democratic Centralism—where there is more of the latter than the former.

A classic example of how far behind the game we are was provided by the recent Senate Inquiry into matters affecting diaspora communities. The Terms of Reference implied that it was a committee that was concerned about the needs of diaspora—and most all of the submissions were delivered in good faith around those ToR’s. Sudanese community groups, Vietnamese Community groups along with Uyghurs, Chinese, Italians, Indians and anti-racist groups like Multicultural Youth Australia all joined in as well as non-ethnically coded groups like the State Libraries, Academy of Humanities and broad based welfare, religious and sporting groups. Some were invited to speak to the Senators—and in the process learned that we had not been provided with a key component of information. The Senators leading the inquiry, that felt eerily like an inquisition—had another agenda.

The senators doing most of the speaking appeared only interested in diaspora if they were:

1, useful in furthering some race-baiting political advantage – dog whistling to a marginal seat or trashing a premier they don’t like,


2, advancing their latest foreign policy objective. Although I use the word ‘policy’ rather loosely here.

To these Senators, but I would say to those driving our national and institutional narratives more broadly, “diaspora” people are only really heard when they are useful to fulfilling some other agenda. If they express discontent or dissatisfaction, they are ungrateful migrants—non-Anglo diaspora learn quickly that they have to be expressing constant gratitude for being allowed in.

But if you take up the challenge of Voice Democracy, if you really listen with a multilingual consciousness, then some of these critical comments might be really useful. At the moment it appears that such comments are dismissed as “un-Australian” or “fractious” and their speakers likely to be “foreign agents”.

On the first point, Asians have moved become less useful for race-baiting games about “crime” or “drugs” – that was the role they played for politicians in the 1990s. Sadly the African migrant communities are now taking that role. In the Inquiry representative of a South Sudanese community group in Sydney, Mr Dau Atem, made an excellent push back to a question that ran along the lines of ‘Why are there so many African youth gang problems in Victoria?” with a reply that pointed out that the problem was one where politicians used the problems of African youth as a political football. Young people being sacrificed for a few votes garnered from those who are being encouraged to fear difference.

On the second point, the use of “diaspora” for foreign policy is the one that relates most keenly to Asian Australians experience of being in this country. It seems that many of the people who had Chinese names were asked to give opinions on the Chinese Communist Party. They had no interest, professional or personal in the actions of the CCP and were not there to talk about the CCP. They were talking about the difficulties for Asian Australians to participate in politics, to access services, to be heard without being given the ‘how very dare you?’ eyebrow. Osmund Chiu and Yun Jiang, Wesa Chau didn’t take this “loyalty test” lying down and hit social media expressing disgust at the racism they were subjected to. Reading other parts of the hearings it is clear that this was not an isolated instance—Jane Chen from the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network faced the same. Prof Wanning Sun, Australia’s leading scholar of Chinese language media, scheduled to speak the following week, withdrew from the hearings in protest.[4]

Chinese diaspora are the ones facing the foreign policy abuse at the moment—but don’t worry, racism is an equal opportunity affair—once your country falls from favour—they’ll be targeting your mob next.

I was part of a submission from the Academy of Humanities where we were keen to promote the research we had done that showed Australia’s Asian Diaspora Advantage—brain circulation, networks, multilingualism—all the benefits that accrue to Australia by having globally connected citizens into China and India, in particular.[5]

In fronting the Committee, however, the lead Senators were keen to show us that they were concerned about human rights abuses—when they occurred in CHINA. What did we all think about the repression of students in Hong Kong by the HK police, the door knocks to parents in Beijing of PRC students studying in Australia? How were we supporting our Hong Kong students from the trauma of Beijing’s repression? And what about the internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

In this frame, diaspora has come to include the ‘international students & their parents’ and even people who aren’t or never have been in Australia. We should be concerned about these truly dreadful things, for sure. I’m really worried for the students protesting in Bangkok and for those in HK and for those in France. And there is NOTHING short of horror to be felt contemplating the atrocities being committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. We are witnessing the crushing of a culture and its people in modern day ‘settler colonialism’—as unsettled as that which created modern Australia.

BUT, these kinds of events and atrocities were NOT the Terms of Reference for this Inquiry. Instead, these jailed HK students, the Uyghurs interred in camps were elevated to being worthy of Australian attention because they help advance the Senator’s campaign against the PRC. I have absolutely no doubt that as soon as those students or internees are no longer useful, they would be pushed aside in public debate.

Once their utility has passed, and, should any HK students or Uyghurs manage to enter Australia and pass the one-tongue test and …. dare to complain about some policy, facility or service that they are entitled to as citizens, they would likely be ignored and derided as ‘pesky migrants with special needs’; “don’t bring your homeland troubles here”. But since you are working in hospitality “go bring me another Flat White with Avocado Toast while you are at it”.

So, different types of diaspora are useful to our political, media, and institutional leaders at different times. And some groups don’t even get called “diaspora”. You know the ones… the white diaspora. Which tells me “diaspora” for Australian media and policy folk is a term that only refers to non-Anglos. So, I’m all up for talking about the Anglo Diaspora—there’s a lot of them on the ABC and in universities, but a far fewer in parliament since the Section 44 debacle of 2017. It’s significant that there were no non-whites who fell foul of that Constitutional law because they all did their paperwork correctly—oh right… there’s hardly anyone who is NOT from the Anglo diaspora in parliament. How silly of me… That was Osmund, Yun and Wesa’s whole point, right…

That’s why we whiteys of the Anglo Diaspora are never suspected of wanting to ‘interfere’ with Australian politics either. WE ARE the politics, the Five Eyes, One Tongue mob can’t interfere when we run the joint.

We never get asked for loyalty tests—but just try me… I love Australia, but I love it even more when the NZ Silver Ferns beat the Australian Diamonds at the Netball. And there was not ONE NZ diaspora person surprised by the Australian men’s cricket team’s ball tampering “incident”. Under arm bowling … SAY NO MORE.

And what of China’s incredible successes, how is it that Australia’s leaders find it so hard to really see or publicly acknowledge these? We can see very clearly the abuse of Uyghurs and HK Students—and these are dreadful failures—no question. But there are many successes for the PRC over many decades now and Australians have been major beneficiaries of China’s economic growth. As to those, we get the occasional pat phrase, “China is to be commended for lifting millions out of poverty”—but that is such old news that it now sounds like a slap-down akin to “remember where you came from”.

The fungibility of money—a core principle underpinning economic activity is even impacted by Australia’s amblyopia. I sat in a meeting (although, I say that with some qualification because I nearly fell off my chair when I heard it)… a university leader describing success in securing a huge research grant as being “only Chinese money”. Wow… wish it has been white money, eh? A dollar in grant money is not a dollar in grant money if it is contaminated with Chineseness, eh wot?

And we see the same with our international student market. Couched in terms of “over-dependence upon Chinese students”, I’m tired of hearing these students described as somehow illegitimate; not real students. And the COVID border closedown was most amusing as commentators and university officials ran around saying “See, I told you we shouldn’t be so reliant on Chinese students”—well actually, China, Taiwan, HK – these are all largely COVID free and we could open a bubble and profit mightily from our reliance on Chinese students.

That is, if we hadn’t done the dumb thing and gone out on a limb with BOOF HEAD Diplomacy and announced we wanted a COVID inquiry–implying China was not to be trusted. Then last week we have the bizarre spectacle of a leading Australian public servant lecturing China about how China shouldn’t lecture the world. Really? – pots, kettle, logs and eyes. We are a country the size of one Chinese city.

And this is a month that just keeps giving. Only a couple of days ago our leaders are demanding an apology from China over an artist’s DRAWING? The statements coming from Australian parliament sounded very much like the annoying Chinese refrain of “you have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. I guess we can say that Australian leaders are learning something from China—but gee, I was hoping that we would pick up some of their good ideas. Not the nonsense cultivation of patriotism. Australians being told by their leaders that they deserve an apology for a drawing! We tell much worse grim jokes around the dinner tables.

But then, of course this all helps further build the narrative that we have to defend ourselves against China’s bullying. Sadly, these cheap shot plays to the domestic audience jeopardize the most important relationship and strategic shifts Australia has faced since British colonialism hit these shores.

I guess I don’t need to tell anyone here that governments and leadership groups everywhere, it doesn’t matter which country or which institution, don’t like to be publicly humiliated. They don’t like to be laughed at or caught out. China is no different, Chinese people are no different. But our current leaders seem intent upon doing precisely this—shouting taunts across the playing fields like the schoolyard Boof Heads. What most people learn in “Social Interactions with Powerful People 101” is that if you want to make a criticism of a big player, you try to do it privately first. You tell the VC his fly is undone before he goes on the stage—you don’t shout it across the auditorium once he’s up there. Using this kind of sensible courtesy is not specific to our dealings with China, and it is not something you have to go to diplomacy school to learn. But with our current crop of leaders, I fear we are now diminishing our middle power status—we’re becoming a smaller, nastier power each time our leaders open their mouths. And who are we doing it to? the world’s biggest economy, a rising military power and our biggest customer. Good work, trading nation.

Another disturbing aspect of the Asian Australian experience is that generally Asian talent and success is regarded with suspicion. Many of my students, with grim humour, talk of the annual news headlines they anticipate when Year 12 results come out. Success by Asian students is queried. Somehow working hard, getting extra tutoring, taking studying seriously is seen as “cheating” or at best “illegitimate success”—in ways that extra tennis training or swimming coaching is not.

Billion-dollar industries like K-pop and Asian hip-hop are sniffed at as “manufactured music”, or “sweatshop stardom” or in some way laughable and not cool. Asian’s are after all “not creative” right? They just “copy” and “follow the rules”. This kind of superior attitude and blindness to Asian achievement continues to plague our relationship with China. Well, as many of my students and millions of young people around the world would tell us, if we cared to listen to them, Asian pop and hip-hop music is huge, it is global, it is multilingual and it is hiring amazing talent from Australia, NZ, Thailand, Canada, Senegal, Brazil, Belgium. K-pop is not some minor fad from a small half-peninsula – it is a global cultural force. And, Asian Australian talent heads up north as talent scouts pick them up, all while the Australian music industry is waiting for another “Hey, True Blue”.

Our current leader’s vision is clouded by an Orientalist veil of out-dated racial and cultural hierarchies. And China’s rise means we need to see that nation very, very, very clearly. Lifting the Orientalist veil, drawing back the “bamboo curtains” that we currently seem invested in keeping closed might enable the Five Eyes to work more effectively.

And as part of this process Australians and our leaders need to be clear eyed about ourselves, our culture, our people as well. Knowing how we are perceived around the Asian region is central to building successful relationships. Alison Brownowski alerted us to this years ago.[6] Learn how people from other countries see you. What are the stereotypes that are operating in their heads? Is it the “Dumb Drunk and Racist” tag? Then, if you don’t like what you see—do something about it. At the moment we use reports from Global Times as evidence of China’s craziness. Like that Asian chick who speaks up at meetings. Doesn’t she know she is supposed to be a bland, hardworking, grateful worker?

Both Japan and Korea have achieved major national “reputation rehabs” And it didn’t take centuries, but it did take a couple of decades. Australia needs a cultural diplomacy policy of the same order of magnitude and harnessing Asian Australian talent, letting these remarkable young people take the lead—is an important start.

[1] Michael Wesley, There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and Asia’s Rise (New South Books 2011).


[3] Joseph Lo Bianco, “What Kind of Political Activity is Applied Linguistics?”

[4] Wanning Sun, “When a Soldier Meets a Scholar..”

[5] Fazal Rizvi, Kam Louie and Julia Evans, Australia’s Diaspora Advantage (2016).

[6] Alison Broinowski, Double Vision: Asian Accounts of Australia (Hawaii University Press, 2004).

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