Australia Has a China Problem and a Chinese Problem
Australia Has a China Problem and a Chinese Problem
As Australians head to the polls this month, China’s role in domestic politics is becoming increasingly important. Yet many politicians, journalists and voters seem to be unable to distinguish between China the nation, the Communist Party that governs it, and people of Chinese ancestry. This is stoking fear, while also derailing attempts to make Parliament as diverse as its citizenry.
The China question comes into play across all facets of government. In economics, China is the biggest market for the resource-rich country. Environmental policy cannot ignore the fact that Australia is a major exporter of coal, though Beijing has sought to block purchases. In military and foreign affairs, a record budget this year for cybersecurity defense and a deal with the US and UK to procure nuclear-powered submarines were announced with one threat in mind. These economic and political challenges with China, the nation, are too often conflated with Chinese identity.
Almost 30% of Australian citizens were born overseas, double the ratio in the US and UK, with Asian-Australians accounting for close to 15% of the population. Around 11% of national legislators were born overseas, while just 4% of elected representatives have non-European ancestry, with Hong Kong-born Gladys Liu becoming the first ethnically Chinese member of Australia’s lower house when she won her seat in 2019.
Liu, from the center-right Liberal Party that holds government, has come to symbolize the tightrope politicians must walk between representing a growing ethnically Chinese population in Australia, and rising apprehension about China’s impact on the nation. Balancing concerns over foreign influence with a need to engage with one of the nation’s largest trading partners could be a swing factor in the May 21 ballot, especially in marginal seats like Liu’s diverse electorate in Melbourne that may help determine the outcome.
Part of the problem lies with more extreme elements of the ruling conservatives, and the non-aligned MPs and minor parties who tend to vote with them. Independent Bob Katter, who sits in Australia’s lower house and is a former member of the right-wing National Party, has called for tougher action against China, including building a “missile fortress wall” to combat the military threat. Katter is not alone. Senator Pauline Hanson was first elected to federal parliament as an independent in 1996. Her maiden speech included a tirade against pro-Aboriginal policies and a warning that the country was in danger of being “swamped by Asians.” She’s since gone on to advocate for an end to multi-culturalism.
While on the fringe of mainstream views, Hanson’s views aren’t entirely out of keeping with Australia’s past. For almost seven decades until the 1970s, the government maintained a “White Australia policy” to keep non-Europeans away. Refugees have been an issue in every election for the past two decades, with both major parties supporting offshore detention centers that see those arriving by boat incarcerated overseas while awaiting processing.
Fears about Beijing’s influence are mostly vocalized by the right — including from the Liberal-National coalition — which sees a threat from the CCP that must be contained. On the left, however, others note that China is a key commercial ally and a growing power that ought to be embraced rather than feared. Some on the left have also branded as racist any call to rein in Beijing influence, labeling such concerns overblown and an attack on people of Chinese ancestry. Others say they support Chinese people but oppose the government because of its harsh treatment of Uyghur Muslims and restrictions on free speech. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied claims of interference in Australian politics.
But concerns aren’t entirely unfounded, and according to one report, China’s influence is quantifiable. New data released last month show Australia faces more pressure from Beijing than almost any other country in the world, according to Doublethink Lab, a Taipei-based research group. A months-long survey of 36 nations across nine spheres of influence found Australia topping the charts when measuring China’s role in domestic politics and the economy. It was also fourth in efforts to frame media coverage. In other domains like Australian academia, technology, foreign policy and the military, Beijing’s role was considered mild.
Australian intelligence agencies have long warned of Beijing’s attempts to interfere with local politics. In 2005, a former Chinese diplomat defected, claiming his home nation was developing a huge network of casual informants, with many pro-China activists in Australia being on Beijing’s payroll.
In 2018, Australia became the first developed country to pass sweeping laws against foreign interference, in a move widely seen as targeting China. It added to diplomatic tensions between the two nations that had escalated when Canberra banned China’s Huawei from its 5G wireless networks because of national security concerns.
The following year, a former chief of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization warned that the Chinese government was working to exert influence over political, business, media and social circles in order to sway political decisions. The agency has uncovered plots by Beijing, using CCP-linked businessmen, to infiltrate or interfere with both major parties. Canberra has also toughened rules on foreign interference in universities following the harassment of Hong Kong protesters on Australian campuses in 2019, and worked to strengthen the regional Quad grouping that includes the US, Japan and India. China has said the most recent reports of electoral interference in February were "not worth refuting."
Australia’s muddy regulations on donations and lack of a federal oversight body make it difficult to police the relationship between parties and those who fund them. The current environment therefore means that any person of foreign descent, particularly of Chinese ethnicity, who wishes to build connections with political powerbrokers is viewed with either extreme suspicion by one side and not enough by the other.
The result of this historic racism, spate of interference cases, and opaque funding rules creates a hazardous landscape for anyone engaging with the Chinese-Australian community in electoral politics — contributing further to underrepresentation in government. A survey of the Chinese-Australian community last year found nearly one in five have been physically threatened or attacked because of their ethnicity and 52% of victims felt that relations between the two nations were a factor in cases of racist abuse. Two-thirds said the Covid-19 pandemic also played a role.
But not every person of Chinese descent is from China — thousands come from Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. And not all ethnic Chinese are fans of the Communist Party. Countless immigrants fled after the Tiananmen Square violence in 1989, while another wave arrived more recently and continue to get harassed in Australia by authorities back in their motherland.
Understanding the diversity that exists within the Chinese community will go a long way toward redressing largely binary positions of either complete suspicion or total complacency. But it needs to be done unhindered by external interference or by internal racism. Maybe then, Australia’s parliament will start to look a lot more like the nation it represents.