JIEH-YUNG LO. Morrison attempts his own Australia-China reset.

Oct 18, 2018

When you see a Prime Minister wonder into a marginal seat, you know a federal election is on the horizon. Scott Morrison did just that at the start of this month when he joined local member David Coleman in the ultra marginal seat of Banks. The purpose: to reconnect with the electorate’s large Chinese-Australian population and at the same time send a message to our largest trading partner. 

But unlike Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘reset’ speech, Morrison’s remarks in Hurstville got little to no attention in the media. While lacking in detail, Morrison’s speech did hit all the necessary points for a reset and a further attempt to heal the wounds such as the contribution made by Australians of Chinese descent or Chinese-Australians, the importance of China to Australia’s economy, commitment to advancing our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and willingness to take the relationship further beyond business and trade. And from what I’ve seen and read, Morrison’s speech was widely embraced by Chinese language media in Australia, Chinese-Australian community leaders and the Australia watchers in China. 

Since coming to the prime ministership, China-Australia watchers have noticed a significant drop in megaphone diplomacy and political rhetoric. This new attitude was on full display with Morrison’s lacklustre response to the banning of the ABC news website in China where he calmly claimed we need to respect China’s decision, despite the victim of the ban being one of Australia’s most endearing icons. In an interview with Caixin magazine, Morrison was quick to adopt a new approach by preferring to have ‘difficult conservations’ with countries behind the scenes. He even displayed a brief moment of middle power diplomacy stating Australia ‘is in a unique position to engage with both China and the US because Australia is coming from a “position of friendship with both countries”. And despite the slight road bump with the banning of Huawei for a second time and Morrison’s perceived role in making that announcement in his two days as acting Home Affairs Minister, China has signalled its willingness to bring the bilateral relationship back on track. 

Another vital part of the overall reset is to re-establish trust and confidence with Chinese-Australians and to ensure we do not continue to become collateral damage when bilateral relations sour. Concerns about China’s rise, its growing influence and the present situation has made it less than comfortable for Chinese-Australians. Exaggerated commentary driven by some politicians, commentators and academics have resulted in suspicions and the subsequent questioning of our loyalty, commitment and place in Australia. Some have come to see us as potential fifth columnists joining forces with China to undermine Australia’s interests and sovereignty. 

An example of this came in the form of Chinese-Australian Hobart City Council candidate Yongbei Tang. The polarising nature of the China foreign influence debate has resulted in her candidacy being explicitly targeted by the media and her political opponents. Despite being a local resident of Hobart for over 20 years, critics have openly questioned her loyalty to Hobart and Tasmania and whether she is fit to serve if elected. Due to the political rhetoric and dog-whistling, Yongbei Tang has been a victim of racist graffiti attacks.  

If Scott Morrison means what he said about bringing and keeping all Australians together, than he needs to ensure laws such as the one on reducing foreign interference strike the appropriate balance between protecting all Australian citizens like Chinese-Australians from foreign influence while at the same time not hinder their contribution to Australia nor discourage them from playing a role in facilitating closer links between both sides. The immediate challenge for the Australian Government is how to implement these new laws and regulations without marginalising us or adding further layers to the bamboo ceiling. 

Morrison is right to point out the contribution of Chinese-Australians are not always acknowledged and appreciated. Despite being one of the largest migrant and multicultural groups in Australia and high social-economic standing and educational attainment, Chinese-Australians remain visibly absent in senior executive leadership positions in the public service, corporate boardrooms, media newsrooms and parliaments. Our leaders and governments should stop paying lip service to our community but actually provide us with opportunities to have a seat at the decision making table to shape the agenda. Given China’s rise and increasingly growing importance to Australia, Chinese-Australians have the potential to serve as an invaluable and indispensable soft power resource for Australia. 

A successful reset does not just involve the bilateral relationship but the need to ease the discomfort and anxiety felt by Chinese-Australians. And this means genuine engagement and commitment to getting the public debate right from now on and to ensure we do not get caught in the crossfire. 

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Chinese-Australian Writer, Researcher and Commentator. He tweets at @jiehyunglo

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