Chinese Australians federal election
Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison attend the Chinese New Year Grand Opening Ceremony in Box Hill (Image: AAP/Ellen Smith)

Amidst all the usual political vaudeville in the lead-up to an Australian federal election, there’s a powerful yet quiet cohort of citizens who are often overlooked: Chinese Australians.

This time around — thanks in part to anti-Asian comments made by New South Wales Labor leader Michael Daley — the group has caught some of the spotlight. This week Bill Shorten has attempted to mend the damage with visits to electorates with large Chinese-Australian populations and a WeChat Live session in which he stressed his party is pro-immigrant and active in fighting racism.

With the federal election looming, Chinese-Australian voters could well play a crucial role in determining which party takes office. So what are voters’ views and concerns, and what tricks do Morrison and Shorten have up their sleeves to get them on side?

What’s in the playbook?

The government has many standard tricks in the playbook. For starters, Morrison could play the funding card — as he did in the Wentworth byelection last year, where he attempted to entice Jewish voters by floating embassy moves and $2.2 million in security funding to Jewish schools and institutions. In Ryde, where the largest racial group is Chinese, local Liberal MP Victor Dominello has already announced a $479 million upgrade for Ryde Hospital.

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Justin Li, a former Ryde councillor and the current president of the Australian Asian Association of Bennelong, tells Crikey he expects there’ll be similar promises in the lead-up to the election. Erin Chew, founder of Asian Australian Alliance, agrees: “Any gesture now from the government will be seen as a gesture made to shore up the vote”.

Another prong of the major parties’ strategy is mastering communications mediums. WeChat (the Chinese social media platform, which has a staggering 1.08 billion monthly users number of  in China) and other Chinese language media is being used to bolster Chinese Australian support. Currently 1.5 million Chinese Australians are on this digital platform and, although the numbers don’t necessarily indicate the extent of the voter base, it’s a large enough segment to exploit.

Last month, Morrison opened a WeChat account. He wasn’t fast enough, though — Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen was the first Australian politician to use WeChat Live back in October 2017. And in the last month, Bill Shorten has posted twice as many times as Morrison on WeChat — probably trying to reach younger, more tech-occupied Chinese Australians.

It’s not a bad tactic. A study of Chinese Australians from 2018 conducted by Wanning Sun, professor of media communications at the University of Technology Sydney, revealed that while 93% of respondents found WeChat subscription account content from major political politicians irrelevant to their interests, 60% of respondents put WeChat as their No. 1 priority news outlet. More than half of participants also reported that WeChat would be their main source of news and information about the major parties’ policies.

Justin Li believes that reaching out to voters through WeChat is therefore almost mandatory for politicians who want to win over Chinese voters. “WeChat is the Facebook/Twitter equivalent for Chinese Australians who primarily communicate in the Chinese language with their friends and family. Not reaching out this way puts you at a competitive disadvantage.”

When it all comes down to it, however, finely tuned messaging will be the key in tipping over undecided Chinese voters — and it is harder than it looks. With concerns brewing over Chinese influence in Australia, Chinese Australians have been receiving confusing messages; their motherland has been put under suspicion over political donations, spying and foreign interference issues.

Despite ASIO head Duncan Lewis assuring us that Chinese Australians are not targeted specifically with this messaging, Erin Chew believes the racial backlash will impact anyone who looks remotely Chinese — not just those who identify as having a “proud” mainland Chinese background, but the broader diaspora. “We have Chinese descendants who have been in Australia since the mid 1800s, and then the subsequent migrations coming from South East Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and they’re all different,” she said.

What resonates with voters?

So where are Chinese Australians likely to land? The likely answer seems to be the Coalition. Chew believes Morrison may garner a stronger voter base than Shorten due to Chinese Australians’ inherently conservative economic values.

“Chinese traditional values are very conservative, so that is a match in terms of explaining why Chinese Australians tend to be and vote more conservative. They carry on the cultural idea of maintaining self-sufficiency and are therefore economically-centred [and] more economically conservative … To certain sections of the Chinese Australian community ‘control’ is about law and order and stability.”

This is something Morrison will capitalise on.

Not all Chinese Australians will fit this class of voter, however. Justin Li believes that most will be more concerned with day-to-day issues impacting their lives directly: health, education, transport, etc. Chew agrees, saying it’s essentially the same as the rest of the population: “economy, education, jobs, immigration and healthcare”.

Furthermore, specific concerns from Chinese Australians may not actually be heard. Many cultural barriers contribute to feelings of being unseen in this country. Despite Australia’s celebrations of multiculturalism, Chew says the bamboo ceiling is still a major issue; there are very few Asian Australians in positions of authority or leadership, and therefore scarce opportunities to be seen, no public platform to speak out, to possess a public arena or space.

As Chinese-Australian writer Yen-Rong Wong writes in her essay “The very model of a model ethnic minority”:

We are quiet, obedient, complicit. We don’t complain. We keep our heads out of trouble. Working hard, saving well and keeping themselves out of trouble are traits drummed into us by virtue of our upbringing, part of traditional Chinese culture.

These are not the hallmarks of what is required to be effectively heard and represented in politics.

It’s important to take a step back and acknowledge the common factor in all this: the stigmatised perception of being Chinese in Australia. As Andrew Jakubowicz, professor of sociology at UTS, notes: “Many Chinese Australians are angry at being labelled as though they were [People’s Republic of China] agents, and they have no sense of how they can push back politically … It’s not so much that they’re being overlooked, as consciously avoided”.

Between China’s growing global influence and Australia’s crucial trade relationship with the country, it’s clear that Australian politics and political commentary cannot avoid this community any longer.