Vigilance against foreign influence does not require overzealous suspicion of Chinese-Australians
Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Attempts by Australia to grapple with what is often described as the “foreign influence” debate have left many Chinese-Australians trapped in a contest for their loyalty.
Claims that China’s government wields influence through community groups in Australia have led to prominent and politically difficult “exposés”, including the cancellation of a visa for a politically active permanent resident. But, away from the world of alleged influence-peddling, intrigue and espionage, the reality of many community organisations in Australia is far more pedestrian.
In new research published with colleagues from the Lowy Institute, we find many of the people we interviewed and surveyed had limited knowledge about the reaches of the Chinese Communist Party-state in Australian politics, society and economy. If they know about organisations such as the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China – frequently named in Australian media when reporting about foreign interference and one of the organisations referenced by ASIO when deciding to cancel Huang Xiangmo’s permanent residency in Australia – then generally what they have seen and heard is from the Australian media.
No doubt some Chinese community organisations have connections with the party-state. Links to these groups have even caused the downfall of a prominent Australian politician, Sam Dastyari. Other political candidates have come under strong criticisms for their connections to China and Chinese-Australian associations. But we must exercise caution to not paint all Chinese community organisations as being vectors of foreign influence.
Many play an important and functional role in Australian civil society, supporting marginalised and vulnerable people and communities, as well as providing a sense of connection. Acknowledging their importance does not exclude the discussion on foreign interference and Australia’s national security. But the debate so far has caused significant consequences for Chinese-Australian communities. Senator Eric Abetz went as far as insisting Australian citizens of Chinese descent condemn the CCP when appearing before him at a parliamentary inquiry.
Certainly, the party-state reaches out to overseas Chinese communities in Australia to promote China’s political interests and economic development. Demands from both China and Australia provoke insidious debates about dual loyalties, something that many of our interviewees complained about. Such emotions are heightened when bilateral ties are on a road to nowhere.
The answer is not to ban Chinese-Australian community organisations, irrespective of their political leanings. Doing so would show that Australia is no better than China, which routinely cracks down on civil society and shuts down organisations at will.
Instead, Australia should work to better implement and enforce its foreign influence laws as a way of allowing civil society groups to continue to thrive and serve and represent the country’s multicultural communities.
There is an urgent need to improve awareness around the nature, level and extent of foreign influence in Australian democratic processes. The government would be well served to focus on community outreach – to inform and educate organisations on the nature of foreign influence and, most importantly, to let people know how they can report such activities and how they will be supported when they do.
Australian civil society is predicated on the country’s liberal democracy. Let’s not threaten its vibrancy and importance by vilifying and attacking Chinese-Australian communities and organisations ad hominem simply because of their ethnic heritage or the state of bilateral relations.