WANNING SUN. Is Anti-China Rhetoric Harming Social Cohesion in Australia?

In September 2016, I published a major report on the Chinese-language media in Australia, and one of the points I made there was that the state Chinese media have been making gradual inroads into Australia’s existing ethnic Chinese newspapers and radio programs. Many commentators have cited this trend as evidence of China’s influence within our nation. 

The report also made a number of other points, which—perhaps because they turned out to be less convenient to the ‘Chinese influence’ narrative—received less attention from the media and government bodies. One of these points highlighted the emergence of a vigorous and growing Chinese-language digital news media sector based in Australia, and tried to tease out some of the complexities in this sector’s relationships with both China and Australia. I pointed out that this sector operates differently from existing ethnic Chinese media, and could not simply be lumped together with these legacy media. 

Another key point from my report was that we need to consider the likely ramifications of the anti-China rhetoric within Australian media for Australia’s multicultural social cohesion. 

That was almost two years ago. To some extent, these ramifications have materialised, and we are now living in a greatly altered reality. The latest conflation of the Chinese government’s accusations of racism with China Studies scholars’ interventions in the dominant discourses of China’s influence marks a new low in the debate. We have now got to the point where anyone who alerts Australia to possible racist consequences in the China debate risks being dismissed as an apologist for Beijing. 

As a China Studies academic, I am becoming somewhat worried. I learned from legal academic Anne Twomey that under the proposed bill on foreign influence, anyone who publishes with a foreign publisher could potentially be registered as an agent of another country. Also, Jocelyn Chey has reported FBI Director Christopher Wray as saying that all Chinese academics and students were potential spies, and ASIO’s director Duncan Lewis has echoed that view. 

As a person of Chinese origin and also a China Studies scholar living in Australia, should I be alarmed? All of my books have been published by foreign—British and American—publishers. As an academic, I have said and written many critical things about China’s inequality, its hukou and class-based discrimination, its propaganda and censorship strategies, and its soft power failures. Only recently, an editor for a Chinese academic journal asked me to contribute a piece. The brief was to write on ‘any topic you want to write [about], as long as it is not politically sensitive’. I proposed a few possibilities, but none of them were considered safe enough. 

On another occasion, a China-based academic wrote an extensive review of my book Subaltern China (a book about China’s underclasses—rural migrants) for a leading Chinese journal. The review passed the first two rounds of assessment, only to be killed by the top-level gatekeeper, who simply wrote ‘do not publish’; apparently no justification was needed.

The point I want to make here is that, while I am fully aware of the lack of academic freedom in China, until recently I have not had to worry about that in my adopted country. Will I need to start censoring what I write and say as an academic, especially if I write something that can be construed as critical of Australia in the context of its relationship to China? 

When the Chinese-language media in both Australia and China quote me or translate my public commentaries (often without my knowledge), I have mixed feelings. I have seen China Studies colleagues being accused of being CCP stooges simply because the People’s Daily (the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper) or the Global Times has chosen to mention them. I hope against hope that the rigour of my scholarship will speak for itself, but I am also acutely aware that perception matters. 

These days, to be a popular figure in the currently heightened and adversarial anti-China narrative, one needs to perform ‘being critical’. Not critical in the traditional scholarly sense of exercising an intellectual faculty to engage with informed, complex and nuanced debate, but critical in the sense of being willing to adopt unambiguously adversarial postures. Increasingly, it seems that people on both sides—both promoters and detractors of the Chinese influence narrative—seem to feel the need to simplify their messages in order to cut through the noise. 

In addition to being an academic, I am also a member of the Chinese-Australian community. A few weeks ago, in the context of discussing Sophie-Loy Wilson’s book about the Chinese in Australia, I had a couple of email exchanges with Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China. Steve was taken by the fact that many Chinese returned from Australia to Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s because of the anti-Chinese sentiment that was prevalent at that time. He raised the following question about Chinese migrants currently living in Australia: ‘How do they balance the prospects of living in an attractive but creepingly Sinophobic Australia against the choice of living in a China with a familiar culture and rich with opportunities but nevertheless unattractive if you care about political and social rights and freedoms?’ 

Steve’s question touched a personal raw nerve in me. This is a question I have only recently been grappling with, both personally and as a researcher, for the first time since arriving in Australia 30 years ago. China is not only more authoritarian, but it has also become, environmentally speaking, more unliveable. To contemplate returning there to live would be very hard for someone who is already quite used to living in Australia’s relatively clean, free and relaxed environment. Also, most Chinese migrants in Australia have, like me, taken up Australian citizenship. For us, dual citizenship is not an option, at least not yet. So, in reality, there is no going back, even if we wanted to. 

Since the publication of my report, I have continued to monitor the space of Chinese-language digital media in Australia. I find that the ‘enchantment narrative’ (i.e., of being enchanted by the Australian way of life) is still strongly present, but that there is now much more coverage of anti-Chinese racism on university campuses, on public transport and in public spaces. Understandably, this media space is extremely sensitive to these incidents. However, my research so far seems to suggest that the Chinese-language media in Australia are not just a blunt tool of the Chinese government and its state media, nor just a ventriloquist for mainstream English-language media. Rather, wedged between anti-Chinese public rhetoric in Australia and anti-Australian responses in China’s state media, this sector seems to exist profitably by actively giving voice to PRC migrants’ sense of ambivalence towards both Australia and China. 

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney. She is best known for her work in Chinese media and cultural studies; rural-to-urban migration and social inequality in contemporary China; and soft power, public diplomacy and diasporic Chinese media. She is the author of three single-authored monographs: Leaving China: Media, Migration, and Transnational Imagination (2002); Maid in China: Media, Morality, and the Cultural Politics of Boundaries (2009); and Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media, and Cultural Practices (2014). Two of her edited volumes—Media and the Chinese Diaspora: Community, Communication and Commerce (2006) and Media and Communication in the Chinese Diaspora: Rethinking Transnationalism (2016)—document the history and development of Chinese language media in Australia, North America, Europe, Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. She is the author of a major report, ‘Chinese-Language Media in Australia: Developments, Challenges and Opportunities (2016).


Wanning Sun FAHA is Professor of Media and Communication Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UTS.

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4 Responses to WANNING SUN. Is Anti-China Rhetoric Harming Social Cohesion in Australia?

  1. Vincent Cheok says:

    Winning Sun,
    Your article touches superficially on the sensitivity of a subject that continues to be discussed in undertones. Why should Australians not be frank the way they normally are. Why shy away, why shirk open discussion, when hide behind the coat tail of American protection?
    I am a 3rd generation Chinese Malaysian now living in Australia. The Chinese issue is very much like the Jewish issue, that is the inherent inalienable right to be Chinese or Jew, respectively.
    I suggest that it would be worthwhile to take a step or two backwards, almost in time, speaking metaphorically, to understand –
    (1) the Chinese people culturally as a living antiquity of a civilisation, like a living dinosaur, of 5000+ years, for want of a suitable Western term, let us call it ‘The Middle Kingdom’. Leave aside for the moment the current affiliation or identification that the world identifies China with a particular political ideology. Leave aside for the moment that were it not for the Manchus and the Mongols who conquered China, the Middle Kingdom, would not have geographically extend to what is now Tibet, Sinkiang, Outer Mongolia of Manchuria. China is keeping these territories however for historical reasons of reparations for centuries of ‘foreign’ rule and oppression and subjugation.
    Although a member of the huge Chinese diaspora overseas, and thus not a Chinese citizen at all, I am nonetheless for example a traditional Chinese through and through, and if I may put it limply, more ‘Chinese’ than most of the Chinese in Mainland China today. For I retain and practise traditional values relating to the Three Pillars of Chinese Society – Taoism, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, which for the record have made a comeback in Communist China only since the death of Mao Tse Tung.
    (2) that the Sinophobia has not quite been exorcised from the Australian Anglospheric mindset, psyche or conscience, despite the ‘in principle’ revocation or repeal of the obnoxious White Australia Policy, the very same that help sponsored Federation. Mind you this is not racism or xenophobia simpliciter. It is not just being condescending or feeling superior or supremacist or degrading another for his or her colour or religion alone. Who knows why the Anglosphere should dread or fear or be threatened by the ambivalence, the equanimity, the nonchalance, the indifference, the assiduousness, the introverted-ness, the insularity, the parochialism of the ‘worker ants’ that are the Chinese, or why the Chinese are so adamant about retaining and maintaining their ‘Chineseness? Why all these chopsticks, kungfu, taichi, qigong, Zen, yin and yang and filial piety and concepts of shame and honour to family, respect for elders and teachers, worship of ancestral spirits, education being on a higher pedestal than wealth etc etc.
    Can an ‘orange’ ever be transformed to an ‘apple’?
    Can the Chinese ever put the ‘individual’ higher than the ‘family’ unit?
    Can ‘freedom from’ poverty, homelessness, public disorder, unemployment, ill health, in short communal duty and responsibility, be subordinated to an individual ‘freedom to’ exert his rights and opinions?
    (3) that the Chinese as a collective are not mentally psyched up politically in the Western sense, i.e. rather that the Chinese have a mercantile and familial mindset. Ideology means nothing as it is always family welfare and wellbeing first – ‘it does not matter whether it is a black or white cat so long as it catches the rat!’ as per Deng Hsiao Peng. Any old or new Western ideology, if it has any benefit to offer to the Chinese culture, must first be ‘immunised’ or ‘vaccinated’ with Chinese characteristics to bespoke it to the ancient culture that is the Middle Kingdom.
    Thus China is neither Communist in the Soviet sense nor Capitalist in the U.S. sense, nor can we say that Chinese Taiwan (the other identity or alter ego that is China) is democratic in the Greco-Athenian or even in the British Westminster sense.
    China has always been ruled by Emperors, even foreign ones like the Mongols and the Manchus, subject to the mutual covenant called ‘The Mandate of Heaven’. The new Emperor is now incorporeal in the form of the Communist Party. But if it fails to retain popular acceptance (90% rating at the moment) and it fails to deliver on the communal ‘freedom from’s, we do not need foreign intervention or assistance, we will evict the Emperor, as we have done, again and again, in our long history, i.e. the ‘Rebels of the Marsh or Water Margin’ will rise up again!
    (4) the Chinese are not imperialistic and do not covet other nations’ land or people. The Chinese are an insular people! We built the Great Wall remember! We also closed our doors to the West until the British blew open the doors through the Opium Wars! Like the Jews, there is no thought or means of proselytising or converting others. Nor can any land other than Israel be the Promised Land. Similarly, only the Middle Kingdom can be the Middle Kingdom, and our Chinese ancestral spirits that we worship can only reside in the Middle Kingdom. We belong to the Middle Kingdom and not the Middle Kingdom Be want we draw it up to be! Any statement that the ‘Chinese’ conquered lands outside what is perceived as the Middle Kingdom is totally false. Refer back to Note 1 about the Mongols and the Manchus who conquered China.
    (5) all this fracas and turmoil about Communist China’s occupation of the South China Sea is totally misleading. The claim was lodge by the democratic Kuomintang Government (now Chinese Taiwan) as the ’11 dashes territorial sea’ with the United Nations before the Communist takeover. The claim was lodged in the context of unequal treaties and border boundaries unilaterally drawn up by the Colonial Masters of Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, Laos etc. So ideology has nothing to do with the South China Sea claim. Both Communist and Democratic Taiwan, the two geographical or ideological Chinas – that each consider to be the legitimate government of the One China – both maintain the same claim. So it is not something that the U.S. will want to go to war with Communist China for! If it did it would actually unite the ‘two’ Chinas!
    Vincent Cheok

  2. Tony Ryan says:

    I think Wanning Sun and Jim Kable are making assumptions about Australian history and the attitudes of most Australians.

    First, there is this constant preaching by immigrants about Australia’s glorious tradition of multiculturalism, and of the Policy of Multiculturalism. Let me disabuse you of these myths and, please note, I am making no value judgements of my own here.

    First, we have no tradition of multiculturalism here. This former British colony has always rejected other cultures; even indigenous. Immigrants were expected to integrate into mainstream Australian culture and to learn Australian English ASAP.

    My several surveys into Australian demographics and attitudes has shown an increasing leaning in this direction since 2001 (my first survey).

    As to the Policy of Multiculturalism, this was imposed on Australian politicians by the UN, who then inflicted this nonsense on us. And before the academics protest, in 1979 (I think it was) the NT Director of Welfare asked me to host a committee from Canberra who had arrived, he said, to introduce the new policy to the NT, as with the states.

    We both laughed at that notion, Darwin at that time being home to 73 nationalities…all without racial tensions being manifest. In fact, Darwin was world famous for this.

    Anyway, the committee members had no idea what multiculturalism entailed . Specialist Paediatrician Alan Walker tried to explain what kind of conflict such a policy would precipitate, citing the legal and moral unacceptability of female circumcision as an example. The committee accused us of making up that monstrous example. They were clueless and we sent them back with fleas in their respective ears.

    Many migrants now regularly lecture Australians on ABC and SBS on how we are failing to accept foreign impositions on our culture and way of life and are clearly oblivious as to the fury building up out there in the national electorate.

    I am not telling you what to do or what to believe but, I strongly suggest you remember the old salesman adage: you have two eyes and two ears but only one mouth. Be guided by nature.

    • tasi timor says:

      ‘all without racial tensions being manifest. In fact, Darwin was world famous for this’

      Not true. East Timorese and their Australian families/supporters were often in conflict with Indonesians and their Australian families/supporters, occasionally violent. Darwin’s small population magnified the problem, which reached into every layer of the community, schools, govt. No manifest tension between indigenous and non indigenous? have you never heard of the CLP?

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    I am an Anglo-Australian. I have lived a third of my adult life in east Asia (Japan) I am 68. I wish for an Australian national anthem which is not a lie (Verse 2 “For those who’ve come across the seas, We’ve boundless plains to share” – Oh, yeah? Unless you’ve been sent to the gulags of Nauru and Manus or other tidy little hell-holes as determined by Dutton, Morrison, Abbott and the Trembler)!

    I want a flag untied from the British flag in the top corner. I don’t want links to the British Royal Family – no matter how hard-working/jolly they might be. I am not excited by wealth and privilege and those who won’t pay their taxes but receive largesse from that same source as paid by the little people – when ever the PM hides much of his own wealth away in the Caribbean tax haven of George Town on Grand Cayman. I’ve been there and had the building pointed out to me! Scandalous stuff! I want the primacy of Indigenous Australians properly recognised. I want a decent Civil Service – no more short term contracts – no more contractors paid to do civil service work. So I am critical about all of these things and more! Freely so – so I think. That’s my right as an Australian.

    That is/should also be the right of Professor Wanning SUN – I imagine a descendant or family connection to the great SUN Yat-sen – of course. Or part of the extended clan at the very least. I think we need to be able to speak whatever is our view of the political/Big-Biz machinations going on around us – with freedom, without fear. I am distressed to think that recent events are conflating US politics with our own (The US international craziness supported at every step by the quislings leading our nation – from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria – the terrible slaughter of the Palestinian Innocents in recent days by coward Israeli snipers included) and that at whichever nation the US directs its evil eye – Iran, NKorea, Syria – the LNP immediately adopts that position.

    China is large and ancient and modern and complex. Nearly 70 years ago my mother was looked after in a rural NSW country town by a local Chinese family – the elderly couple of which had arrived in 1900 in the colony of New South Wales. This somewhat positively colours my perspectives – as did university days mates from Hong Kong or ABC (the first time I had come across that term) – or later as colleagues from south-east Asia – or from my time in Japan – yes, academic friends from China, there, too.

    I am distressed to think that friends – and family connections, too – via marriage – of Chinese background – here in Australia – are not being better served – especially when two recent PMs including the current one have such close ties themselves to China. Why are those ties now not being foregrounded in answer to the politico-racist insinuations current.

    We need more light being shed on these matters. Thanks Professor SUN for starting this.

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