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

May 23, 2018

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).

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