Early in 2014, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) abolished its Chinese language news and current affairs programs in anticipation of landing a deal with a government media organisation in China. The ABC's agreement with the Shanghai Media Group was signed on 4 June, 2014, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
For Beijing, the deal eliminated critical voices on a major foreign national media platform and guaranteed that the ABC would make no mention of the Beijing Massacre in Chinese programming on the 25th anniversary of the event or any time in the future.
For its part, the ABC secured a world-first media agreement. ABC management could justly claim to be the first major foreign media corporation to secure Chinese government approval to broadcast programs from within China, although in this case predicated on eliminating general news and current affairs in the Chinese language.
ABC management continues to celebrate the achievement today without regard to its reputation for journalistic integrity or concern for Chinese language readers disappointed by the apparent decision to trade values for market share.
In relations with China, Australia is largely concerned with trade and security, 'fear and greed' in Tony Abbott's colourful language. Beijing has other priorities, including a long-standing investment in overseas Chinese affairs that is without parallel in Australian policy circles. The Chinese Communist Party cares deeply about its own values and interests when it reaches out to manage and control Chinese communities and Chinese language media overseas.
Overseas Chinese have long been a focus
It's not the first Chinese regime to do so. Management of overseas Chinese affairs has been a high priority in China's approach to Australia for well over a century. The Qing empire's first direct formal contact with the Australian colonies involved a tour of imperial commissioners inspecting the conditions under which Chinese lived and worked in Australia in 1887. A second imperial commission visited in 1906 on a similar mission. After the Qing empire opened a consular office in the federal capital of Melbourne, in 1909, the welfare and management of Chinese overseas remained a paramount concern of the resident consul along with trade. Educational and cultural initiatives soon followed.
China was decades ahead of Australia in planning for bilateral educational programs involving Chinese-Australian communities. Between 1921-1925, 400 student visas were issued by the Commonwealth government, at the request of the Chinese consulate in Melbourne, enabling young Chinese students to stay with Chinese families and study in Australia. This little known educational initiative, comparable in scale to the later Columbo Plan, was well in advance of Australia's earliest initiatives in international educational diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
Later governments, including the KMT Nationalist Government of the 1930s and 1940s, made strong and consistent representations on behalf of Chinese Australian businesspeople, students and workers through its Australian consulate, particularly on matters relating to discrimination under the White Australia Policy. And at a time when few in Australia were promoting wider understanding of China, Consul Tsao Wenyen (1936-1944) advised that relations should be built on greater investment in mutual understanding of 'history and culture' (cited in Mark Finnane's contribution to In The Same Bed Dreaming Differently).
In addition to government representatives, the KMT Nationalist Party sent party liaison officers to rally local Chinese communities to support the governing party in China. One of these visiting KMT Party Liaison Officers, Yu Chun-hsian, met and married the daughter of the Rev John Young Wai in Sydney. One happy result of their liaison was the birth of their son, Dr John Yu, esteemed 1996 Australian of the Year.
Advancing China's national interests now part of the agenda
Today, China's governing Communist Party maintains this legacy, focusing on overseas Chinese affairs for purposes of education, trade, and regime security as in the past but with an additional mission to advance China's national interests in the region and, increasingly, to project China's bland and blameless self-image abroad. The Communist Party is highly strategic in how it goes about this mission.
The peak agency responsible for Overseas Chinese strategy and policy today is the Communist Party's United Front Work Department. The phrase United Front (Tongyi zhanxian, literally 'Unified Battlefront') is a term of war in orthodox Communist Party language, originating in the 1920s when the Communists briefly formed a military United Front with the KMT Nationalists to wage civil war against the Government of China then based in Beijing. The Communists revived the term a decade later during the war with Japan (1937-45) in a second United Front with KMT Nationalists to fight the Japanese invaders. The Party's United Front Work Department was set up during the war to harness sympathetic elites within China and among Overseas Chinese to serve the Communist Party cause. After the defeat of Japan, the United Front Work Department ran clandestine operations during the civil war in which it overthrew the KMT Nationalist Government of China.
Still on a war footing
To this day the Department has not been disbanded nor has the term United Front been discarded. The Party still considers itself on a war footing in relating to Chinese overseas.
At war with whom exactly? The formal tasks assigned to the United Front Work Department read:
To protect the proper and legitimate rights of overseas Chinese, unify overseas Chinese on a broad front, enhance friendship with overseas Chinese citizens of other nations, and struggle for the rejuvenation of the Zhonghua [nation], for the reunification of the motherland, and for developing unity and friendship and cooperative exchanges with people in all nations.
It follows that the party is on a wartime footing with all who oppose the 'reunification' of Taiwan, or who stand in the way of the 'rejuvenation' of the Zhonghua nation and its extended territorial claims over the South China Sea. The Party frames Overseas Chinese policy with these strategic targets and implied enemies in mind.
The command structure for overseas Chinese affairs reflects the old style of wartime command operations. The United Front Work Department takes precedence over the Foreign Ministry and all other line ministries on overseas Chinese affairs. Chinese overseas affairs, for example, are not listed among the 19 'main responsibilities' of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is because they are formally managed at a higher level of state through the overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, which adopts an all-of-government approach under the ultimate direction of the Party's United Front Work Department (through its Third Office). As detailed in James Jiann Hua To's Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese, embassy and consular attachés from different government agencies based overseas, including the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, each work to a common strategic plan on Chinese diaspora diplomacy formulated within central Party headquarters in support of the Party's strategic objectives and State Council directions.
Historically the management of overseas Chinese affairs on a wartime footing made sense. From the 1950s to the end of the century, political competition between the Communist government on the mainland and the nationalist government on Taiwan drove their respective efforts to win the hearts and minds of Chinese Australians and other overseas Chinese. Both parties were in a real sense on a war footing.
Political competition between Beijing and Taipei for the loyalty of the diaspora abated in the 21st century as the KMT Nationalists no longer associated loyalty to their party with loyalty to China under Taiwan's multi-party liberal democracy. Still, mainland officials have not retreated from their core assumption that loyalty toward the Communist Party and support for its strategic objectives is a necessary indicator of patriotic loyalty among Chinese overseas. Securing the loyalty of Chinese Australians to the values, aims, objectives, policies, conduct and leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the over-riding goal of China's diaspora-diplomacy program in Australia.
Most often this involves China's missions in Australia building fruitful links with community networks, participating in national and civic festivals, and supporting a wide range of cultural activities. But it can also entail clandestine monitoring, infiltration and subversion of perceived enemies of the Party, including religious organisations, democracy activists, constitutional reformers, journalists, film-makers, artists, and media personalities in the diaspora who present no existential threat to China but whose activities unsettle the Communist Party itself.
It also involves taking control of Chinese community newspapers, radio, and other media in Australia and elsewhere, and enticing mainstream international media to limit or remove Chinese language offerings the Party might find offensive.
The ABC agreement serves China's strategy
This can involve persuading foreign news corporations that their interests are best served in China by reducing their Chinese language footprint in news and current affairs. ABC management's decision to abolish all Chinese language news and current affairs programming on the national and international media platforms of Australia's national broadcaster, in return for running a semi-commercial operation within China's media firewall, serves China's strategy well.
To appreciate what has been lost under this arrangement, Australia's relations with China need to move beyond 'fear and greed' to acknowledge the importance of values in the relationship, and to respect the important contributions that Australia's Chinese-speaking communities make to research, educational and cultural relations with China in addition to business and trade. With 1.3 million people of Chinese descent now resident in Australia it is no longer possible to pretend that Chinese-language media counts for nothing.
What should Australia do? The Qing empire started on the journey of recognising the role of Chinese residents of Australia 130 years ago. The People's Republic moved relations with overseas Chinese onto a wartime footing. Beijing's current approach risks damaging mutually respectful ties between Australia and China at the people-to-people level. Australia should not reciprocate in kind.
Australian governments and communities could however consider adopting a more concerted policy response embracing active cultural and social inclusion, and effective diaspora diplomacy, to match the effort and resources that Beijing invests in Chinese overseas affairs, including Chinese language media.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris Phutully