Friday 21 Jan 2022 | 13:12 | SYDNEY
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The Lowy Institute’s Multiculturalism, Identity and Influence Project looks at the efforts of foreign governments to influence and possibly interfere in Australian society, and the impact of these efforts on Australian democracy and multiculturalism. 

Australia’s Multicultural Statement states that Australia is the most successful multicultural country in the world. Further research is needed about the way in which foreign governments may work through foreign language media or culturally and linguistically diverse communities to further their own objectives. Government responses to these efforts should be informed by evidence directly from affected communities. 

The Multiculturalism, Identity and Influence Project, supported by the Australian Department of Home Affairs, will draw on quantitative and qualitative analysis to provide evidence-based policy options and fill some of these gaps in the discourse around multiculturalism and foreign policy. Responsibility for the views, information or advice expressed in this project are those of the author/s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lowy Institute or the Australian government.  


Cover image: Tomoaki INAB / Flickr


Natasha Kassam
Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program
Richard McGregor
Senior Fellow for East Asia
Jennifer Hsu
Research Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program

Latest publications

Rich, hot and popular: the taming of Chinese celebrities

Chinese celebrities are in trouble with the Chinese Communist Party.

The Party has cracked down on a number of Chinese celebrities, including the billionaire actor and filmmaker Zhao Wei (also known as Vicky Zhao). Zhao has drawn the ire of the Party and as a result, her online presence has been scrubbed. TV shows and films she has starred in have been removed from many video streaming platforms and her name deleted from casting lists. And her fan site on Weibo, removed.

The exact nature of Zhao’s infringement is unclear but she is not the only target. Film star Zheng Shuang was fined US $46 million for tax evasion.  

There are several elements to the Chinese Party-state’s crackdown on celebrity culture. The government has sought to characterise the crackdown as upholding the notion of  “common prosperity”. President Xi Jinping on 17 August called for for “common prosperity in the pursuit of high-quality development” at the meeting of the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs. The meeting noted that “common prosperity refers to affluence shared by everyone, both in material and cultural terms”. In line with such ideology, the wealth amassed by tech companies, education firms, Chinese celebrities and other elements of China’s economy and society demands regulation. Therefore, within the common prosperity goal, firms and individuals that have accumulated extraordinary amount of wealth are immediate targets for the Party-state’s goal of wealth redistribution.

Zhao Wei attends an 8 January event in Shanghai, China (VCG via Getty Images)

The Party-state has also stipulated that the fan culture that goes with celebrities is creating “chaos” and is causing harm to society, including young people. The Cyberspace Administration of China announced a list of 10 measures to address the chaos of online fan culture. One of the measures include banning online popularity rankings of celebrities. This also relates to the Party-state’s wider drive to clean up big tech companies and their algorithm recommendations as it relates to celebrity fan culture.

The latest crackdown on celebrities is a demonstration of the recentralisation of the Party-state’s control over all aspects of society,

Perhaps the Party-state’s curbs on the leisure and entertainment industries were not all bad. Many Chinese parents applauded the state’s recent clamp down of online gaming. People under the age of 18 will only be allowed to play for an hour a day of online video games between 8pm and 9pm on Fridays, weekends and on public holidays, as stipulate by the National Press and Publication Administration.

This latest crackdown on celebrities is a demonstration of the recentralisation of the Party-state’s control over all aspects of society, culture and economy, whether it is about celebrity fan culture or celebrities themselves, no one and no company is beyond reproach.

In 2014, Xi clearly delineated the purpose of contemporary Chinese arts and struck out against the vulgarity of popular culture and those who “flaunt wealth and ostentation, and emphasise external appearance over content”. Chinese arts must serve the people and the nation, but it must also adhere to ideology.

Is the Party-state taking all the fun out of life? Whatever the answer may be, the Party-state is certainly regulating how much fun one can have and setting the parameters of that “fun”.

Xi and beyond

After more than four decades of reform and opening up, the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were an opportunity for the Party-state to proclaim the success of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. President Xi Jinping’s speech on 1 July made no bones about China’s future and the centrality of the CCP – “China’s success hinges on the Party.” 

China’s new confidence and its approach to the world is thanks to the CCP. The “rejuvenation” of China is repeated 24 times in Xi’s speech. In practice, though, what does this rejuvenation mean? China will continue to pursue development, domestically and abroad, in its own way – that is, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – but the Party-state will be front and centre in this approach. As I have argued elsewhere, China’s development approach is typified by being state-led – not just economically, but socially, too. It involves an array of stakeholders from both the central state as well as the local level. And now, pivotal to that development is the Party, for it is the Party that has led and will further lead China in its rejuvenation, according to Xi.

This quest to strike the right balance between assertive China and peaceful China is not something that Australia will likely benefit from in its bilateral relations.

The centenary celebrations in Tiananmen Square and Xi’s speech demonstrated a confident China, one that wants to be seen as a nation that will stand up to bullies and rightfully assert its power to do so. Simultaneously, Beijing also wants to be seen as an advocate for peace and peaceful development. While those aims are not dichotomous, they do suggest that Beijing has struggled to find the right balance between assertive – cue Wolf Warrior diplomacy – and being seen as a friend, empathic and committed to “a people-centred philosophy of development … [that] safeguard[s] social fairness and justice”.

As Xi notes, the complexities in the international environment will surely challenge China in its attempt. Nonetheless, this quest to strike the right balance between assertive China and peaceful China is not something that Australia will likely benefit from in its bilateral relations. It seems clear that Beijing is firmly sticking to its approach, where “sanctimonious preaching” – think of Australia’s role in initiating the WHO enquiry into the origins of Covid-19 – is unwelcome. To guard against the bullies of the world, China must have a strong military. And as Kurt Campbell, White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, noted last week, China is seeking to “cut Australia out of the herd”.


Recentralisation of power under President Xi Jinping means Chinese Communist Party (CCP) membership will be even more important (Jean-Marc Ferré/UN Photo/Flickr)

The CCP is the largest governing party in the world with some 95 million members. With the recentralisation of power under Xi Jinping, Party membership will be even more important. Yet, membership to the Party has slowed since Xi came into power. This is largely the result of additional criteria being put in place to recruit “quality” candidates, for example, younger and more educated individuals. By 2019, those with academic degrees made up just over 50 per cent of Party membership, compared to just under 35 per cent for those who identified as workers and farmers, the CCP’s traditional support base.

Figures released by the CCP in 2019 showed that only 8.4 per cent of its members worked for the Party and government. However, anyone in a position of authority – whether in the military, universities, educational institutions or state-owned enterprises – will almost certainly be a Party member. And this coincides with the mandatory and rapid institutionalisation of Party cells in civil society organisations and private enterprises. Efforts to formalise control of these sectors indicate that CCP membership, while increasingly difficult to attain, will nonetheless be critical when scaling the career ladder, irrespective of the sector.

As the CCP enters its second century, its role in Chinese society, politics and the economy will be greater than in the previous decades of reform and opening-up. That will have spill-over effects as Beijing seeks out ties and engagement with other nations to fulfil its Chinese Dream.

Australia-China relations: More hurdles ahead

A recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald found that Australian media outlets quote the Global Times more often than they quote either China’s President Xi Jinping or members of the Chinese embassy in Canberra. This diet from a daily tabloid – viewed in the media industry as a source of propaganda and misinformation – doesn’t help inform or educate the Australian public about China. Rather it distorts the view.

Yet journalists from Australian outlets are no longer in China. And Beijing has refused to take calls from Australian ministers and cut off diplomatic contact under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. It seems things can’t sink much lower in the bilateral relationship.

Of course, relations could get worse. And there are already several obvious challenges on the agenda that could cause the two countries more problems. Each has its own dynamic, but a common theme of tension that will increasingly resonate with the Australian public.

First: the cost of trade tariffs. Australian trade to China has not declined overall as significantly as had been feared or imagined – down just 2% in value, thanks to the high value of iron ore exports. However, China has imposed $20 billion worth of tariffs on a range of Australian goods, affecting wine, barley, coal, wood and other industries. As the Australian media seeks to put a human face on the cost of these tariffs – for example, with the recent ABC Four Corners coverage on the impact of China’s sanctions on winemakers and barley exporters – the Australian public is likely to increasingly empathise with Australians caught in the middle.

All this talk of war among Australian leaders and aggressive posturing on the Chinese side will surely increase suspicion and unnecessarily lead the relationship nearer to the abyss.

Second: the impact of bilateral relations on families and individuals. With Australian media covering the plight of ABC journalist Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith sudden departure from China last year, and the detention of Australian-Chinese journalist Cheng Lei and denial of consular access and communication with her children, these personal stories and accounts will rouse the emotions of many Australians. The anguish of Cheng Lei’s children at not being able to speak to or see their mother is heartbreaking. And such stories build on the nightmare of forced separations between children and parents of Uighur families in Xinjiang. With more frequent reporting in the Australian media of these stories, the Australian public will become more cynical and distrustful of China.

Third: the upcoming trial of Di Sanh Duong. An ethnically Chinese man from Melbourne, Duong is the first person to be charged under Australia’s foreign interference law. A former Liberal candidate, president of Oceania Federation of Chinese Organisations and previous board member of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification, Duong is charged on the grounds of “preparing an act of foreign interference”. The Australian Federal Police has not named the foreign country linked to Duong’s case. But an unrelated AFP probe into the actions of John Zhang while employed as a staffer to NSW Labor backbencher Shaoquett Moselmane was denounced as “malicious slander” last year by the Chinese foreign ministry after reports named some of its consular officials in Australia in connection with the investigation. As Duong’s trial is set to return to court at the end of the month, more local media attention can be expected, with the Chinese government watching closely.

Fourth: the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party on 1 July 2021. As China gears up to celebrate, patriotism and the strength of the Chinese party-state will be on display, with performances, exhibitions, speeches, seminars, symposiums, films and education campaigns all commissioned to commemorate the Party’s achievements. China’s President Xi Jinping will take the opportunity to consolidate his power and demonstrate the party-state’s victory over Covid-19 and its recovery from the pandemic-induced economic slump. While there will be no military parade to mark the occasion, in March 2021 Xi did emphasise the need for the armed forces to focus on “combat readiness” due to the “instabilities” and “uncertainties” faced by China. Such assertive language is certain to further tensions between Australia and China. Australian leaders have not shied away from militaristic overtones in recent weeks when referring to regional dynamics.

All this talk of war among Australian leaders and aggressive posturing on the Chinese side will surely increase suspicion and unnecessarily lead the relationship nearer to the abyss.

While each of these issues is relatively distinct, previous reactions from the Chinese government indicate that they see them as all inextricably linked to the state of bilateral relations, and such events only serve to “poison” the relationship.

The attitude adopted by both Canberra and Beijing is unlikely to soften, and so these unfolding events will only create greater strain between the two nations. Nonetheless, how the Australian media reports such events need not be sensationalist or give more credence to the likes of the Global Times.

The politics of being Chinese in Australia

The release of the Lowy Institute’s Being Chinese in Australia: Public Opinion in Chinese Communities, based on one of the largest surveys of the Chinese-Australian community ever undertaken, shows that the events of the past year, notably Covid-19 and the deteriorating state of Australia-China relations, have affected the daily lives of Chinese-Australians.

Respondents were asked about their attitudes on a range of issues on life in Australia, including experiences of discrimination, Australia’s relationship with China, views on foreign influence, media use and many more themes. Yet the one data point that seems to have drawn attention is the preference for systems of government. It is worthwhile to put this discussion into a bigger context.

To contextualise the result, in which a third of the Chinese-Australians say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, it is important to note that nearly half of all Chinese-Australians felt Australia, on the whole, is a very good place to live. Although 54% of all respondents “sometimes” followed news about Australian politics and government, when asked about their preference for democracy, 41% of respondents selected “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”.

While Australia and China achieved similar aggregate scores (combining “a great deal” and “somewhat”) with regard to respondents’ trust in these countries to act responsibly in the world, 74% and 72% respectively, 50% of respondents were “somewhat” trusting of China, higher than of the four democracies listed in the question.

Casting China’s political system in a different light, vis-à-vis its handling of Covid-19, 43% of respondents were “more favourable” of China’s system of government. The survey results would suggest that the degree of political socialisation of (contemporary) Chinese immigrants in Australia has its limitations – in other words, those who have left authoritarian regimes to settle in a stable democracy do not always regard democracy as the only option. The preferences indicated is not the end of the story.  

The survey results dovetail with existing academic research looking at how immigrants’ pre-migration experience of authoritarian socialisation affects their adaptation to democracy. However, it is important to note that an immigrant’s political learning does not stop, nor does it prevent an active engagement with the democratic process or expression of their political voice. Furthermore, those from authoritarian systems are active in expressing their political voice through electoral channels “at least as much as the Australian-born population and other immigrants”.

It is important to note that an immigrant’s political learning does not stop, nor does it prevent an active engagement with the democratic process or expression of their political voice.

Utilising the 2013 Australian Electoral Studies data, Jill Sheppard and colleagues found China-born Australians, compared to all other migrants, have higher rates of political participation. This context tells us that Chinese-Australians – in fact, immigrants from non-democratic countries more generally – continue their political learning, and in the case of Chinese-Australians, seek to project their political voice once settled in Australia.

While early socialisation is an important point to consider regarding survey respondents’ perception of China’s authoritarian system, sources of information and news are perhaps equally important in reinforcing an individual’s support for democracy. The survey indicates that the use of social media, in particular WeChat, China’s most popular multipurpose social media platform, is an important source of both English- and Chinese-language news. However, 84% of respondents used WeChat regularly to get their Chinese-language news, compared to 64% for English-language news.

Chinese-language media based in China is also a significant source of news and information for the respondents. These findings suggest that the source of news as derived from WeChat (where censorship routinely occurs if it is out of line with the views of the Chinese Communist Party), despite being available and used globally, is likely to shape the respondent’s perception of democracy. Although outside the scope of the survey, the state of Chinese-language media in Australia is lacking in locally produced content and rarely offers Chinese-Australians’ perspectives, thus affecting the lives and choices of migrants.

Context therefore matters. The report highlights the diversity of experiences of Chinese-Australians, as well as their views on Australia-China relations, systems of government, discrimination, attitudes to life in Australia, media habits and other issues.

But in this politically charged landscape around bilateral relations, caution and nuance are crucial, because without them we fall into the dangerous territory of fanning the embers of anti-Chinese sentiment.

Being Chinese in Australia: Public Opinion in Chinese Communities

Amid debates on foreign interference, Australia-China relations and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lowy Institute’s Multiculturalism, Identity and Influence Project conducted a nationally representative poll of Chinese-Australians in November 2020 to better understand their outlook on life in Australia, relationship with China and views on foreign influence. The survey finds a broad diversity of experiences and perspectives across Chinese-Australian communities. There is both continuity and divergence when these sentiments are compared to the broader Australian population.

Explore the interactive site here.

Loyalty tests make Australia weaker, not stronger

Concern about China’s creeping influence in Australia has dominated headlines in recent years. So it makes sense, from a national security perspective, to understand and engage with the very communities most at risk of China’s meddling: Australians of Chinese heritage.

That’s certainly the view of Duncan Lewis, the former Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. In an address at the Lowy Institute last year, Lewis said that ASIO’s engagement with a community was the major source of information. Maintaining proper and respectful relations with a community was critical, he went on to say, to continue to draw on this important source of intelligence.

Otherwise “you can very quickly get to a point where you begin to vilify the many for the actions of a few”.

And yet, last week, at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee about issues facing diaspora communities, Liberal senator Eric Abetz seemed to wander down that very path of vilifying the many. To the three Australians of Chinese heritage appearing before the inquiry, Abetz issued a demand: “Can I ask each of the three witnesses to very briefly tell me whether they are willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship? It’s not a difficult question.”

The line of questioning on display at the parliamentary inquiry plays right into Beijing’s narrative that individuals the world over are liable to do Beijing’s bidding based on the mere fact of their background.

How would Foreign Minister Marise Payne answer that question at a Senate hearing? What about the Prime Minister?

Of course, they aren’t asked that question. The strongest terms in which the Australian government itself is willing to criticise behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party is to be “gravely concerned” about Hong Kong’s national security law or the human rights situation in Xinjiang.

The respondents at the hearing made clear they didn’t support the CCP or its actions, and asserted their belief in democracy and universal human rights. To Abetz, however, refusal to offer a blanket condemnation amounted to an apparent lack of loyalty to Australia.

This is not a question that most Australians are ever asked. Furthermore, to pose it in this context sets a higher bar for Australians of Chinese heritage than even for the Australian ministers and officials actually charged with conducting foreign policy.

Most Australians, if asked (and they aren’t), could condemn the CCP with little cost. For some Australians of Chinese ancestry however, the stakes are much higher. Families back in China are harassed, interrogated or worse when individuals in Australia dare to speak out about human rights abuses in China or support Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Those choices are hard enough without Australia’s elected representatives insisting their fellow citizens publicly condemn the CCP. The idea of guilt by association, without a requisite standard of proof, is closer to China’s authoritarian system than to Australia’s rule of law.

The irony is that Abetz’s behaviour resembles the type of shrill demand more familiar to operations of the CCP, rather than the other way around. It is in China where individuals are required to prove and re-prove their loyalty to the centre.

Through its united front work, the Chinese Communist Party attempts to reduce the array of diverse Chinese communities into an imagined singular whole that is both patriotic and unified under the leadership of the Party. Anyone of Chinese ethnicity is expected to be loyal and not betray the so-called motherland above all else.

As Alex Joske at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute explains, “successful united front work wedges the party between ethnic Chinese communities and the societies they live in”.

Asking Australians to “pick a side” is driving that wedge. The type of loyalty test that Abetz would appear to advocate not only risks alienating whole communities, but it also makes it harder for ASIO to engage with a community that is essential to the work of Australia’s intelligence services in identifying those few who do pose a potential threat.

The line of questioning on display at the parliamentary inquiry plays right into Beijing’s narrative that individuals the world over are liable to do Beijing’s bidding based on the mere fact of their background. And it plays directly into the CCP’s propaganda – that ethnically Chinese people will never truly be accepted elsewhere. Australian academic Yang Hengjun, detained in China, reported that his interrogators’ told him “Australia wouldn’t help because I am not white”.

Loyalty tests only make it more difficult for the Australian community more broadly to maintain the kind of social cohesion that is essential if Australia is to defend itself from foreign interference. The parliamentary inquiry was intended to look into challenges facing diaspora communities, not to add to them.  

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