Coalition Senator Eric Abetz (Image: AAP)

This month three Chinese Australians fronted up to a Senate inquiry expecting to talk about issues facing diaspora communities. Instead they were ambushed.

Tasmanian Liberal Eric Abetz repeatedly demanded they condemn the Chinese Communist Party: “Can I ask each of the three witnesses to very briefly tell me whether they unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party.”

It was, according to the senator, not a difficult question. But it left Yun Jiang, director of the China Policy Centre, shocked and outraged.

“It really reminded me of McCarthyism,” Jiang told Crikey.

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Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Osmond Chiu said the interrogation was a political game.

“It felt like a gotcha loyalty test, an attempt to goad me, reducing me to a foreigner who needed to prove which side I was on,” he wrote.

Abetz’s posturing received plenty of rebuke from Labor but almost total silence from his own party.

It won’t be the last we see of this kind of rhetoric. Instead it’s a testament to how toxic the China discourse has become in Australia. It’s a debate where genuine concerns about CCP authoritarianism and human rights abuses have been hijacked by hysterical yellow-peril posturing.

And, regardless of their views on the CCP, many Chinese Australians are now afraid to speak up.

The personal is the (geo)political

Relations between Canberra and Beijing have been tense before. But the big difference this time is that people-to-people ties are unravelling, says director of the Australia China Relations Institute James Laurenceson.

Australia’s 1.2 million-strong Chinese diaspora has always counted for a lot, and led to a relationship deeper than the shit we dig out of the ground, a human bulwark against bouts of geopolitical bluster. But there’s now a real feeling that regular people are being dragged into the diplomatic muck.

The CCP bears a lot of the blame. Australian writer and democracy activist Yang Hengjun has been detained since January 2019. Cheng Lei, an Australian news anchor working in Beijing, was arrested last month on opaque national security grounds. Our last two foreign correspondents were booted out of the country. And even here, Chinese Australians critical of the party have faced stalking, harassment and intimidation.

The problem is that concerns about the CCP have created an over-correction, a situation where Chinese Australians are excessively scrutinised for activities that are innocuous, Jiang said. And it’s creating a kind of paranoia that leaves Australia the worse off.

It’s jeopardising our intellectual potential: a story in The Australian about researchers with ties to China was accompanied by sinister mugshot-style photos, leading to outcry from the universities.

“That sort of McCarthyism can really lead to brain drain in Australia,” Laurenceson said.

And last month, Chinese professor Chen Hong’s visa was cancelled at the request of security agencies. Hong, who has taught Australian studies in China for more than 30 years, was stunned. He’d been a part of a WeChat group at the centre of the probe which saw NSW Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane raided by ASIO, but said he contributed little more than the odd emoji.

The current climate can also push Chinese Australians away from politics. Days before the Senate inquiry, Li Zhang, a Labor-aligned candidate running for a local council election in Victoria, announced she’d pulled out after facing racist abuse and repeated allegations of being a CCP agent.

The “smoking gun” was Zhang’s presidency of the Chinese Community Council of Victoria, which some experts have alleged is part of Beijing’s influence-peddling operation. (Others, like China expert John Fitzgerald, disputed this.)

Coincidentally, another past president of the CCCV is race discrimination commissioner Chin Tan.

Afraid to speak

After Abetz’s questioning, University of Technology Sydney academic Wanning Sun said she would not appear at the Senate inquiry.

“I now have no intention of putting myself on trial in this way,” she wrote.

It’s just the latest illustration of the chilling effect this debate is having.

“People including myself are being put in a difficult position because you’re constantly subject to some invisible loyalty test in the eyes of those who think they’re ‘naturally’ in an authoritative position to administer the test,” Deakin University’s Chengxin Pan said.

“But this loyalty test can be really narrowly conceived, and anything that you say that’s seen as not anti-China enough is seized upon as a sign of having that kind of questionable loyalty.”

The problem is the chilling effect cuts both ways. Chinese international students have reported being afraid to speak out against the government after their families were harassed back home. Uyghurs say they face similar pressure. And the CCP has done plenty of work trying to make sure diaspora communities stay onside.

“The group in Australia most subject to bullying and pressuring from Beijing are Chinese Australians,” director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Peter Jennings said.

Old racism resurfaces

What’s often overlooked is how diverse the Chinese Australian community is. Not all are from mainland China and attitudes toward the Chinese government are wildly divergent.

But the increasing polarisation of discourse has destroyed all nuance. When people are called to denounce the party based on no more than the colour of their skin, it’s clear that to many the difference between Chinese people and the CCP is lost on some.

It all comes back to a very old, and very Australian, racism. That homogenisation of Chinese (and indeed all Asian) Australians has its roots in the kind of racist animosity which dates back to the gold rush.

Throughout Australia’s history there’s been an undercurrent of insecurity about our geographic position; our vulnerability to “threats” from the north has manifested in fears of the Asian other.

It’s the twisted logic that underpinned the White Australia Policy and Pauline Hanson’s pronouncements about being swamped with Asians. As tensions with China worsen after a pandemic which began in Wuhan brought Australia to a standstill, it hasn’t taken much for it to surface.

University of Sydney historian James Curran says the China debate has at times sacrificed nuance for “yellow peril imagery straight out of the 1880s”. That racism has been increasingly overt with numerous reports of anti-Asian racism on the rise during the pandemic. It can target all Asian Australians — like ACT Liberal Elizabeth Lee, of Korean heritage, who was called a Chinese spy during the recent election.

But that overt xenophobia is also enabled and reinforced by the subtle forms of institutional racism that often go unacknowledged: references to “Chinese” (rather than CCP) interference headlines mocking Chinese culture; the at-times disproportionate preponderance of white voices. Part of the problem, Jiang says, when it comes to grappling with racism in its more subtle, systemic forms, is that Australia is years behind the United States.

“In Australia there’s a sense that if someone didn’t yell a racial insult at you, or attack you very overtly, it’s not racism,” she said.

Academic Clive Hamilton vehemently denies there’s any element of racism wrapped up in the discourse around China, and says when people put forward that argument they’re acting as mouthpieces for the CCP.

“It’s absurd, it’s misleading. It’s a political trick put forward by the CCP,” he said. “If I’m an anti-Chinese racist, why do so many Chinese people support me?”

The irony, of course, is that a rise in racism works well for the CCP, fortifying its narrative that Australia will never truly accept Chinese people. Even if people like Hamilton say their beef is with the CCP and not Chinese people, it’s hard not to be concerned about the recent rise in anti-Asian racism, or the demands that witnesses at a Senate hearing recite a jingoistic pledge of allegiance.

If the toxic nature of the debate on China silences more people, Australia will be weaker — both from a multicultural and a security standpoint.

Jennings says the best way to build any bulwark against CCP interference is to get Chinese Australians more involved in civil society. And for that to happen, they need to be willing to speak up.

But caught between Beijing’s snooping and politicians clamouring for a return to Cold War-era witch-hunts, it’s little wonder many see the current debate and decide to stay quiet.