The China Fears

It will be increasingly necessary to develop strategies to deal with concerns over the way China seeks to influence debate in the West, without stereotyping an entire community to the detriment of our own interests, writes Donald Greenlees.

Parliament House, Canberra  - Image by MomentsForZen

Two former federal ministers from different sides of the political aisle have in recent days spoken of the danger of debate over the ‘China threat’ causing significant collateral damage to Australia’s interests.

Former Labor foreign minister and Chancellor of the Australian National University Gareth Evans last week warned of the emergence of Sinophobia, generated by fears that China and the Chinese Communist Party were infiltrating Australian business, politics and universities.

The consequence was that Chinese-Australians were “going to find it even more difficult than they do at the moment to aspire to leadership positions, especially in any fields that are seen as even remotely security sensitive,” Evans said in the annual  Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop Asia Lecture, presented by Asialink in Sydney.

A day earlier, former Liberal trade minister Andrew Robb hit out at former colleagues for stirring anti-China sentiment.  He revealed a plan by a company he was associated with to develop a major commercial health precinct in China had been rejected in Beijing because the relationship between Australia and China “had become so toxic”.

Both Evans, foreign minister between 1988 and 1996, and Robb, trade and investment minister between 2013 and 2016, have vast experience in dealing with China.  Evans had the task of steadily rebuilding Australia’s relations with China after the Tiananmen Square massacre and has spoken in the past about Australia’s “excessive nervousness” about China.  The 2015 China-Australia Free Trade Agreement was signed during Robb’s tenure as trade minister.

Their comments highlight an important aspect of Australia’s dilemma in managing relations with a more powerful China: the domestic repercussions of how we do it.

Western intelligence agencies, including our own, have amassed considerable evidence of cyber-attacks emanating from China, of attempts to purloin valuable information from national institutions and of activities to influence political debate.

But Australia needs to find the right balance to manage what is genuinely threatening without jettisoning genuine opportunities.  One of the big tests of that balancing act will be whether Chinese-Australians are treated with suspicion and ostracised or take their place as indispensable contributors to reaching a modus vivendi with China, as indeed Australia eventually must.

As Evans has pointed out, there are 900,000 speakers of Chinese dialects in Australia who can provide the linguistically-skilled and culturally-sensitive talent Australia needs.  They potentially are able to open economic doors in China and contribute in a broad sense to our security.  They need to be seen as an asset, and made to feel like one.

Politicians and security officials in the West have expressed growing concern in recent years that China would exploit the cover of a large global diaspora to pursue its own interests.  The latest such warning came from the US Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations into language and cultural education offered by Confucius Institutes.  The committee found no evidence the institutes were used as a tool of espionage, but still concluded they were an unwelcome intrusion.

It will be increasingly necessary to develop strategies to deal with such concerns over the way China seeks to influence debate in the West without stereotyping an entire community to the detriment of our own interests.  This is a growing problem and one that could get a lot worse if it is not dealt with pre-emptively.

There are several things we can do.  Government can quietly review the range of policies it employs to integrate Chinese Australians and ensure their knowledge and skills are fully utilised in pursuit of Australia’s interests in dealing with China.

Beijing can be reminded as part of our regular diplomatic discourse that there is a mutual interest in avoiding activities that provoke hostility or suspicion towards the Chinese diaspora in Australia.  China can be reminded that it would helpful to encourage Chinese Australians to celebrate both their culture and heritage and their membership of the Australian community.

Chinese students coming to Australia can be encouraged before they leave to understand they will get the most of their educational experience by mixing widely and respecting an ethos of open debate on campuses, even as that means sometimes tolerating points of view starkly at odds with their own. Host institutions also can do a lot more to ensure students are supported and provided quality education.

Political parties and state institutions can play a part in selecting more Asian Australians in general for public office.  In his Dunlop lecture, Evans noted that Asian Australians account for 12 per cent of the population (and growing), but only 3.3 per cent of first and second tier leadership positions, including members of state and federal parliaments.

It should not be, and never has been, a pre-condition of citizenship that people abandon cultural identities or all their ties to countries of origin.  There are many Australians that have strong attachments abroad.  Greece and Israel are two examples.  But Chinese Australian community leaders and media can do more to encourage Chinese Australians to seek a prominent place in public life and promote a distinct Australian identity without diminishing ethnic identity or personal beliefs.  Federal and state governments can encourage them to play that role.

It is not all down to government and community groups – business can help close the ‘leadership gap’ by ensuring Asian Australians have the same promotional opportunities as others.  For some roles, they will be the best candidates to lead.

Australia is not alone in simultaneously facing the challenge of maintaining good relations with a large domestic Chinese population and an increasingly powerful Chinese state.  Comparing notes with countries like Canada could prove useful in developing fresh ideas for how to achieve both goals.

Marginalising Chinese Australians as a reflexive response to perceptions of China as more threatening would not only be a missed opportunity, but could itself be a source of future friction.  It could easily lead to a cycle of recrimination.

China has had a long history of coping with the fraught politics of a large diaspora in the region.  Chinese minorities have often faced violence and discrimination.  During one episode in Indonesia in 1957, a ban on Chinese retail and trading enterprises in the countryside, followed by forced evacuations, resulted in 119,000 ethnic Chinese accepting assisted passage to China.

Former premier Zhou Enlai once described overseas Chinese as like “married daughters” – the blood ties remained even as they found new households to live in.  The point is the People’s Republic has seen protection of the rights of overseas Chinese as a state duty regardless of whether the individuals are mainland-born.

Still, China for most of its history lacked the power to do much more than deliver threats and diplomatic demarches when Chinese minorities suffered discrimination.

After Indonesia’s May riots of 1998, as Chinese Indonesians were again attacked and vilified, then Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan was limited to expressing “indignation” and demanding Jakarta do more to protect its ethnic Chinese citizens.

That China then did not back the rhetoric up with economic and diplomatic penalties owed to Tang’s assessment that Beijing needed good relations with Indonesia.  He was aware he could not afford to “act impetuously”.

A more powerful China is likely to be less accommodating if it feels ethnic Chinese face systematic discrimination in future.  Several of China’s neighbours have seen in recent years how trade and investment; students and tourists are taps that are easily be turned on and off.

But this is not the reason to take steps to protect and promote the rights of Chinese Australians and, indeed, all Asian Australians.  We do it because we have an obligation to fellow citizens.  It also is in Australia’s interest to draw on the talents of this community and make them feel like they belong.  Not only do we enhance our own credentials in dealing with China, we avoid the risk of unnecessarily adding to our differences.

Donald Greenlees is Asialink senior adviser and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.

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Don Greenlees

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