WANNING SUN.-Response to ‘Red Flag: Waking Up to China’s Challenge’ by Peter Hartcher

Mar 25, 2020

Following the logic of his own argument, can we assume that Hartcher now wants to recant the position he has advanced in the Quarterly Essay?

On my first reading of Hartcher’s ‘Red flag’, the following passage leapt out at me:

‘In other words, we understand that you have ties of sentiment and bonds of kinship to other countries, and we’re unconcerned. We know it takes time to put down roots in new social soil. This is part of democratic pluralism and it’s an enrichment of a society. But a nation cannot tolerate acts to advance a foreign political movement with hostile intentions’. (pp. 63-4)

Further down in the essay, Hartcher argues that the Australian government should consider

‘changing the composition [of Australia’s immigration profile] in favour of Chinese immigrants from places other than mainland China. Screening must still apply, of course, but prima facie ethnic Chinese immigrants from Taiwan or Hong Kong are more likely to value Australian liberties. … [Therefore,] preference should not only be given to immigrants with the most suitable work skills but also to those with the most compatible values. (p. 83)

Hartcher also makes it clear that he is making this recommendation in order to ‘improve the balance of risks’ (p. 83).

Let’s think through the logic of Hartcher’s argument. He is saying that PRC migrants are a source of risk, and I presume that he reached that conclusion based at least partly on his own observations of the actions and behaviour of the majority of the PRC migrants who are already here in Australia. Or was it based mainly on the claims made by Dr Feng Chongyi? Or perhaps he received an undisclosed briefing from ASIO that provided him with some concrete evidence to substantiate the public assertions made by retired ASIO head Duncan Lewis – whom Hartcher quotes approvingly? Hartcher leaves us to speculate widely and wildly about the factual basis for his grave fears – fears that are so grave that he advocates a discriminatory change to our immigration policy in relation to our largest trading partner, and the source country of our largest non-Anglo migrant population. Assuming, for a moment, that there is some factual, moral and political cogency to his argument, and that in response the Australian government decides not to accept any further migrants from the PRC. What should the government do with the half a million PRC migrants who are already naturalized Australian citizens?

Given that PRC migrants come from a country with ‘hostile intentions’, as Hartcher puts it, and given that their past, current or possible future behaviour is apparently of sufficient concern to Hartcher that he wants to ‘armour-plate’ (he used this phrase in an interview with Tom Switzer) Australia against any risks posed by them and their homeland, the logical and most urgent thing to do would be to take measures against them – those Chinese who are already here. Surely they are a more credible and imminent threat than any future PRC migrants, who, in the current climate, would come under intense scrutiny during the screening process – even without an outright ban on PRC immigration? Shouldn’t Hartcher be urging the government to take a leaf out of China’s own playbook – or Australia’s own wartime internment playbook – and argue for putting them all into detention or ‘re-education’ camps, as with the Uighurs? If that is the case, then what do you do with the thousands of non-Chinese Australians who have married PRC migrants, not to mention the thousands of children these PRC migrants have produced? How many generations of ‘distance’ from the PRC would they need to demonstrate before qualifying as politically trustworthy? At a minimum, and drawing instead on George Orwell, shouldn’t our domestic intelligence organisations implement widespread and personalised surveillance of all PRC migrants and their close associates – if they haven’t done so already – just to play it safe? And this, of course, would be an excellent justification for a vast increase in funding for these organisations. If China is to be treated seriously as a country with hostile intentions – rather than just being a sacrificial pawn in a game of rhetorical brinksmanship – then the logic of Hartcher’s argument seems to lead him ineluctably down a path very much like this.

Max Suich, a former chief editorial executive of Fairfax, recently observed in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald that ‘The conspiratorial material, unsourced, that often purports to document the Chinese threat, can only come, directly or indirectly from the intelligence community’s conduits and media handlers’ (Letters to the editor, SMH, 5 December 2019). Suich further observes that ‘these “scoops” have made the threat the dominant theme in discussion of relations with China in what is the liberal wing of the Australian media, which might usually be expected to be a bit more sceptical about the actual dimensions of the threat.’

Like Suich, I’m baffled about why the Left and the Right have become such odd bedfellows over this issue. Does it not intrigue or bother Hartcher, as a senior journalist of the ‘liberal wing of the Australian media’, that he seems to be singing from the same song sheet as Andrew Bolt on the topic of China and Chinese influence?

I think I understand – up to a point. Hartcher abhors Communism, and he’s wary – no, he’s extremely worried – that China intends – and is actively seeking – to infiltrate the so-called free world. He’s keen to see that our democratic values stay constant and strong. He wants to find a way to minimise the likelihood that Australia and the Australian way of life are jeopardised by China’s current and future actions. And many PRC migrants would agree with him; that’s why they’re here, not in China. However, if we were to bring a halt to immigration from the PRC – during peace time – without presenting any evidence that many – or even any – of these possible future migrants harbour ‘hostile intentions’ towards Australia, then this would seem to give expression to a profound lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the capacities of our security and intelligence establishment in screening potential PRC migrants. And if that’s the case, then why should we rely on that establishment in relation to potential immigrants from other nations? Shouldn’t we just pull up the drawbridge on immigration altogether?

Hartcher cites Huang Xiangmo as an example of a Chinese person who was a ‘covert agent of influence for the CCP’ within Australia. But even if we imagine that Huang had been brought to trial and found guilty of the accusations against him that dominated media reports for several weeks, it remains true that the vast majority of PRC migrants in Australia do not act in these ways. So my question to Hartcher is this: what does a PRC migrant or permanent resident in Australia have to do in order to be exempted from his suspicion – given that Hartcher stops short of using ethnic Chineseness as his criterion for discrimination? If Hartcher is reluctant to go down the path of internment camps for former citizens of a country suspected of having ‘hostile intentions’ towards Australia, then what would he count as proof of their loyalty to Australia, in order to justify allowing them to continue going about their lives as normal?

It may be useful for Hartcher to know a few things about how pro-China patriotism works. First, it’s important to make clear that the love that many PRC migrants harbour for their homeland is not exclusively the handiwork of the CCP. If Hartcher believes that, then he’s giving the CCP and its propaganda apparatus far too much credit. It’s also the market – nationalism sells. It’s also the Internet – nationalism can be click bait. And it’s also simply the sense of oneness that we humans seem almost inevitably disposed to feel towards the culture that we are born into and the people who nurture us; even from an evolutionary point of view, nationalism looks like a useful default position. Finally, Hartcher should realise that journalists such as himself may unintentionally lend a helping hand to the CCP in advancing its ideological work within Australia, by effectively pushing many migrants closer to ‘the other side’.

There seems to be a huge blind spot in the narrative of the ‘untrustworthy PRC diaspora’: modern China has experienced only one-party rule. These migrants, and those who remain in China, did not choose to live in a Communist country. They were born into that system. It’s not that there’s the CCP and one or more opposition parties, and that Chinese people have chosen to side with the CCP. It’s therefore not only unfair but also illogical to assume that citizens of the PRC – or PRC migrants – are loyal to the CCP simply because they live – or have lived – in a nation that happens to be ruled by the CCP.

I currently lead a research team, funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant, to investigate the cultural practices of PRC Chinese communities in Australia and their use of Chinese-language digital social media. We have published some of these findings in peer-reviewed journals, and while our research is ongoing, we’re already fully convinced that this is an extremely heterogeneous cohort, marked by great diversity in terms of class background, education level and cosmopolitanism, as well as in their political distance from the PRC. We’ve conducted large-scale surveys, in-depth interviews and longitudinal ethnographic research. Our surveys suggest that PRC migrants don’t always side with the Chinese government on matters of political policy (just as non-Chinese Australians don’t always side with the Australian government on such matters). Most of our survey respondents were very happy to promote Australia and many of them were already active in doing so (https://theconversation.com/new-research-shows-chinese-migrants-dont-always-side-with-china-and-are-happy-to-promote-australia-126677). Our careful analysis of the content of Australia’s Chinese-language media suggests that they are not functioning merely as a blunt and unquestioning tool of the Chinese government and its state media; nor are they just a ventriloquist for mainstream English-language media. Rather, wedged between a frequently anti-Chinese public rhetoric in Australia’s mainstream media 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 (https://www.abc.net.au/religion/what-we-learn-from-chinese-language-media-in-australia/11735478). And our engaged ethnographic interaction with more than 40 WeChat groups of PRC migrants indicates that there is a very high level of enthusiasm among first-generation PRC migrants to learn about democratic values, practices and processes. Throughout the summer months when Australia’s bushfires burned, I closely followed how PRC Chinese migrants used WeChat to organise fund-raising events and mobilise fellow citizens to make donations for bushfire victims; how they spread stories about volunteer fire-fighters of Chinese heritage and other generous and compassionate non-Chinese Aussies; and how they engaged in heated debate on the relationship between climate change and bushfires. Their reason for doing these things was simple: as one Chinese community organisation put it, ’Australia is our home‘.

Democracy is Australia’s biggest soft power asset, and we must work hard to keep it. But if you start to think, talk and behave like an authoritarian government, and start to distrust your own citizens and question the allegiance of PRC migrants on the basis of the actions of a few individuals, then you are taking a crucial step towards undermining the ‘brand’ of Australia as a liberal democracy, and effectively shooting yourself in the foot. And that’s certainly not the way to ‘armour-plate’ Australia.

Finally, I’d like to quote an excellent piece recently written by Hartcher on the topic of Scott Morrison’s lack of leadership. There, he says:

Populism – of the left and the right – is a political style offering unworkably simplistic solutions to complex problems. … Our leaders do not single out Muslims or Mexicans or other minorities for special exclusion. Our leaders do not risk national breakup by sponsoring divisive shocks, like the one now testing the unity of the United Kingdom. (‘“In denial, in hiding or in Hawaii”: Scott Morrison goes MIA’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 2019; https://www.smh.com.au/national/in-denial-in-hiding-or-in-hawaii-scott-morrison-goes-mia-20191220-p53lw1.html)

In this piece Hartcher appears to be arguing directly against the position he had articulated in the Quarterly Essay, where he urged our leaders to ‘single out’ prospective PRC migrants – literally – ‘for special exclusion’. There, he appeared unconcerned that his position amounted to an ‘unworkably simplistic’ and seemingly populist solution to a deeply ‘complex problem’. Following the logic of his own argument, can we assume that Hartcher now wants to recant the position he has advanced in the Quarterly Essay?

Response to ‘Red Flag: Waking Up to China’s Challenge’ Published in Quarterly Essay, Issue 77, 2020, pp.133-137

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

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