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‘Paranoia and prejudice’: Chinese-Australians in politics face intense scrutiny as Canberra-Beijing ties fray

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 15/11/2020 John Power john.power@scmp.com
a close up of a sign: The Sydney Opera House is seen through a Chinese flag. Photo: AFP The Sydney Opera House is seen through a Chinese flag. Photo: AFP

In the days before the Australian state of Queensland's October 31 election, Peter Zhuang, a candidate for the centre-right Liberal National Party, made a pitch to voters in Chinese-language media.

In a front-page advertisement in the Queensland Chinese Times, the China-born property developer asked constituents in the seat of Stretton, Brisbane, to "elect our own people". The latest available official figures show that China-born residents made up about 1 per cent of Queensland's population in 2016.

The backlash was swift.

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On social media, commentators accused Zhuang of being a "essentially a proxy for Beijing" who was running a "Chinese ethno-nationalist campaign" and would "betray Australia" if elected.

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Then, a Daily Mail Australia article that quoted Zhuang referred to him as a "pro-Beijing" candidate who had once posted a message on social media encouraging China to use "suppression" so that people everywhere, including in Australia, could "feel China's presence". As Zhuang later told the news site, the comments were not his, but a quote from a Chinese comedian discussing Chinese competitors in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Though it included his argument of the need for more Chinese-Australian voices in politics, the article also noted concerns about China "covertly pushing its global agenda" in the context of Zhuang's attendance of events with the Chinese ambassador to Australia, and that he had joined a community event to mark a PLA Navy ship's visit to Brisbane.

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The intense review of his background highlights an increasingly common peril for Chinese-Australians seeking to enter politics at a time of heightened fears about alleged Chinese influence and interference. Zhuang, who was not elected in a seat traditionally held by the rival Labor Party, did not respond to This Week in Asia's requests for comment.

Amid regular media reports and Australian government warnings about attempted infiltration by the Chinese Communist Party, political candidates with Chinese heritage have repeatedly faced questions about their associations with community groups and individuals alleged or known to have ties to Beijing.

My biggest concern is that fellow Australians with Chinese heritage may become collateral damage as a result of the tone of this debate

It is a level of scrutiny that has at times tipped into the realm of paranoia and prejudice, some former candidates and analysts say, even as the representation of Chinese-Australians in politics remains far below their 6 per cent share of the country's population.

"As an Australian, my biggest concern is that fellow Australians with Chinese heritage may become collateral damage as a result of the tone of this debate," said Kun Huang, a local government Councillor in Sydney's western suburbs, who immigrated to Australia with his parents as a young child.

"We have seen evidence of this, such as Chinese-Australians being subjected to loyalty tests by senators, Chinese restaurants getting vandalised, threatening letters, and Chinese-Australians getting racially abused on the street."

a person holding a colorful kite: Thousands of Chinese supporters rally outside Parliament House, Canberra, during the Beijing 2008 Olympic torch relay. Photo: AFP © Provided by South China Morning Post Thousands of Chinese supporters rally outside Parliament House, Canberra, during the Beijing 2008 Olympic torch relay. Photo: AFP

'NO NUANCE'

Australia has in recent years been roiled by a series of controversies related to Chinese influence in politics, leading to the 2018 passage of landmark legislation to outlaw covert foreign interference. In one of the most high-profile controversies, Sam Dastyari, a Labor federal senator, resigned after it emerged that he had warned prominent Chinese political donor Huang Xiangmo that his phone had likely been tapped by security services, and allowed Huang to cover a A$5,000 legal bill.

Dastyari - who is of Iranian descent - was also revealed to have contradicted his party's official policy by advocating a Beijing-friendly stance on the South China Sea during a press conference with Huang, who was later stripped of his Australian permanent residency over interference concerns.

Controversies involving Chinese-Australian political aspirants since then, however, have often hinged on less clear-cut allegations based on more subjective interpretations of the significance of their background and associations.

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After being elected the first Chinese-Australian member of the House of Representatives last year, Gladys Liu came under scrutiny after it emerged she had failed to disclose past honorary positions with several organisations linked to the United Front Work Department, Beijing's political influence body.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the time dismissed the controversy surrounding Liu, a backbencher in his centre-right Liberal Party, as "grubby" and a "smear". Liu, who was born in Hong Kong, denied any active involvement in the groups and explained at the time that she could have been conferred positions without her permission, insisting she was a "proud Australian, passionately committed to serving the people".

Liu, who represents a suburban seat in Melbourne, told This Week in Asia she now viewed the episode as a "misunderstanding" that was exploited by rival politicians. While describing Australians as generally "very, very sensible", she cautioned against judging candidates based on "superficial measures" such as them being photographed meeting particular people or attending certain events.

Scott Morrison wearing a suit and tie: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Liberal member for Chisholm Gladys Liu at Parliament House in 2019. Photo: EPA © Provided by South China Morning Post Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Liberal member for Chisholm Gladys Liu at Parliament House in 2019. Photo: EPA

"People, when they don't understand, they ask questions," Liu said of the controversy she found herself in. "That's what happened.

"When people come and say, 'Hey can we have a photo', most of the time we will say yes," she said. "You take a photo. You can't really check every single detail of the person who wants a photo with you before you say yes."

More recently, Li Zhang, a candidate for local council elections in Melbourne last month, complained of being bullied online and labelled a Communist Party agent over her membership of the local branch of a Chinese community organisation that has been controversially linked in news reports to the United Front Work Department.

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The Chinese Community Council of Australia has denied ties to the body, and at least one prominent Australian expert on Chinese influence has disputed characterisations of the group as a front for Beijing's influence efforts. Zhang, who was ultimately elected after telling fellow councillors she no longer wished to win, declined to comment, citing ongoing legal action.

Adam Ni, director of the Canberra-based China Policy Centre research organisation, said the question of connections between individuals and organisations was complex, with accusations too often relying on guilt by association instead of demonstrated wrongdoing.

"The nuance is just not there at the moment, and often these issues are discussed in a pretty careless and irresponsible way, where accusations are tossed out but not backed up, or in cases are just false," said Ni, giving the example of the quote misattributed to Peter Zhuang, the state candidate in Queensland. "I'm not certain that in the debate we are doing a good job of interpreting and contextualising these connections."

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'VAGUE LINKS'

Last week, Duong Di Sanh, a former Liberal candidate and prominent member of Melbourne's ethnic Chinese community, became the first person charged under Canberra's foreign interference laws after being accused of preparing to carry out an unspecified "foreign interference offence".

In June, authorities raided the office and home of New South Wales state MP Shaoquett Moselmane and those of his staffer John Zhang as part of an investigation into an alleged plot to influence the lawmaker on behalf of Beijing.

Moselmane, who was born in Lebanon, has said authorities have assured him he is not the target of any probe, while Zhang has challenged the legality of the searches against him in court. Neither have been charged with a crime. After it emerged Australian police had named Sydney consul general Sun Yantao in a warrant related to their investigations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin blasted the allegations of interference as a "malicious smear and slander".

The constant questioning of Chinese-Australians or Asian-Australians has already put off some people from running for office

Wesa Chau, who unsuccessfully ran for deputy lord mayor of Melbourne, said political aspirants with Chinese backgrounds were being linked to spying in news reports without hard evidence and by "simple association or surname or a photo with a person who might have links with the" Chinese Communist Party.

"The cases that have been reported appear to be the latter - vague links with little evidence - and I'm yet to see strong evidence," said Chau, who was one of several Chinese-Australians controversially asked by a government senator to condemn the party during a parliamentary inquiry into diaspora issues last month. "The constant questioning of Chinese-Australians or Asian-Australians has already put off some people from running for office."

a man wearing a hat and sunglasses: A police officer stands in front of a Chinese flag during a pro-democracy Hong Kong rally in Adelaide in August 2019. Photo: EPA © Provided by South China Morning Post A police officer stands in front of a Chinese flag during a pro-democracy Hong Kong rally in Adelaide in August 2019. Photo: EPA

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said there was clear evidence of Beijing's "overt and covert influencing attempts" to shape Australian policy, and politicians should be prepared to answer questions about their connections and views.

But while he suggested the political figures to have attracted the most scrutiny were not of Chinese heritage, he accepted there was "a risk that Australians of Chinese origin might be unfairly treated in this debate".

"That would be wrong and far from how most Australians would think about the matter," said Jennings, whose institute is part funded by the Australian, British and United States governments. "I think it's incumbent on everyone engaged in this debate to behave respectfully and to acknowledge that a great national strength is that Australians can think and say whatever they like."

Huang, the Councillor in Sydney, said there should be a more nuanced discussion about foreign interference that distinguished between "legitimate engagement" and illegal activities.

"Too often, it can appear that innocuous activities like attending a community event are cited as evidence of wrongdoing rather than any breach of laws," he said. "Guilt by association goes against basic liberal democratic principles such as due process, the assumption of innocence and the rule of law."

Melbourne MP Liu, however, encouraged Chinese-Australians to not be put off from entering politics, and stressed that Australia remained tolerant and welcoming.

"The majority of people here are very welcoming and they will judge you by your abilities and the willingness to make contributions to the country, rather than your skin colour or where you were born," she said. "As long as you show people that you genuinely want to make contributions to the country, they will accept you. That's my experience."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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