Author: Andrew Chubb, Lancaster University
The change of government in Canberra opens the possibility of a thaw in Australia’s diplomatic relations with China. Since 2017, the Australian government has adopted a series of strict Chinese policies on issues ranging from 5G communications to COVID-19. In response, Beijing imposed a diplomatic freeze and since May 2020, informal economic sanctions on Australian exports, including barley, coal, beef and wine.
Substantial political concessions from Australia to Beijing are out of the question, but the new Labor government has an opportunity to steer Australia’s political debate on China away from its current divide, while taking seriously the still unresolved impact of the Chinese government on political freedoms within diaspora communities.
The key to resolving this apparent contradiction is to take a rights-based approach focused on strengthening Australia’s institutions for the protection of democratic rights – in contrast to the previous government’s security-centric view centered on a corrosive narrative of a ” subversive Chinese influence.
Of the many recent bones of contention between Australia and China, none have been so explosive as foreign interference: ‘covert, coercive or corrupt’ involvement in Australian politics and public discourse on behalf of a foreign state . Few people in Australia would disagree that activities fitting this pithy description of the “three Cs” should be banned, with stiff penalties.
But rather than define interference in those terms, Australia’s high-profile legislative response in 2018 criminalized a much wider range of activities, drawing a barrage of objections from legal experts, the civil society and academics regarding its radical extension of the definition of “national security”. Critics – many of whom had no connection to China – argued that the current law would ban activities ranging from whistleblowing and academic research to peaceful protest.
At the same time, the Espionage and Foreign Interference (EFI) laws have done little to improve the situation of diaspora communities facing coercion from foreign states. This is due to loopholes in the legislation, as well as modern communication technologies that allow foreign states to threaten foreign targets.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) has long had an interest in countering transnational coercion, but has focused on the possibility that targets may be coerced into cooperating with foreign security agencies. Addressing the issue primarily in this way redefines victims as threat vectors.
The public debate over “Chinese influence” that propelled the EFI legislation through Parliament has placed Chinese Australians in public life under a racialized political microscope. Used as a shorthand for the PRC’s party-state’s nefarious political activities overseas, “Chinese influence” is divisive and ambiguous. The term blurs the distinction between the PRC’s Chinese community, culture and party-state, and projects an unwarranted association between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Australians.
Even if users of the term are aware of the nuances, their audiences often are not. Surveys indicate an alarming prevalence of anti-Chinese racism in the community. Unsurprisingly, far-right politicians have also increasingly seized on the “Chinese influence” narrative, fueling communal division.
The starkest illustration of the dangerous shift in Australian political discourse was an October 2020 Senate hearing in which three Chinese-Australian witnesses were challenged to “unconditionally condemn the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party”. No other witness – or politician – was subjected to this test of loyalty, which then Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself would not have passed.
The election results suggest that not only Chinese Australians, but many other members of the community were deeply uncomfortable with these developments. The new government must de-secure the idea of “Chinese influence” as a threat to the Australian nation, while addressing persistent loopholes that allow foreign governments, including the PRC, to coerce political targets inside the country. within Australia’s borders.
The new Australian government is expected to establish a Transnational Rights Protection Office within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The AHRC is charged with ensuring the protection of human rights in Australia, but has yet to publicly identify the protection of targeted migrant and diaspora communities from political coercion and harassment as a priority.
The new office would fulfill at least three essential functions: providing accessible information and low-risk contact points where people facing coercion can seek information, advice and support; data on the prevalence and type of transnational human rights crimes in diaspora communities; and help individuals, communities and families access legal assistance, humanitarian visas and seek redress.
The enactment of the long-awaited Magnitsky-style sanctions regime in Australia in December 2021 provides a mechanism to ensure that coercion against those within Australian territory is not gratuitous to foreign authorities.
The new government is expected to make it clear that “Chinese influence” is not a threat to Australia’s sovereignty, identity or “way of life” and is a hugely positive feature of contemporary society.
The government can do more to encourage the participation of Chinese Australians, who remain underrepresented in politics. Politicians and officials should affirm the rights of people from all walks of life to engage in public life and increase engagement and support for Chinese community groups and organizations. This strengthens social cohesion and government-community relations and increases the visibility of Chinese Australians in politics and public life. It would also help reduce the need for applicants from the Chinese diaspora community to rely on the support of state-aligned community organizations in the PRC.
At a glance, de-securing “Chinese influence” may seem equivalent to renouncing foreign interference. But the opposite is true. There are a number of legitimate security concerns regarding PRC political activities overseas that ASIO is right to be concerned about. Yet the most serious existing impact of the PRC on politics in Australia – transnational coercion – has yet to be addressed.
Australia’s new government should make it clear that the issue of transnational coercion is first and foremost about protecting rights, not about security threats emanating from the Chinese diaspora.
Andrew Chubb is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Lancaster University.