Australia's Chinese diaspora: intimidation, suspicion, and under-representation

Below is my opening statement at today’s public hearing for the inquiry into the issues facing diaspora communities in Australia. The inquiry is conducted by Australia’s Senate Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade.

You can find a PDF version of my full submission to the inquiry here, and a transcript (proof version) for today’s inquiry hearings here.

Here is my main point:

Many Chinese-Australians are choosing to remain silent and refusing to speak out publicly on Australia’s foreign and domestic policies. On the one hand, if they criticise the Chinese Government, then their family may face trouble or they may have difficulties going to China in the future. They may also be accused of being a “race traitor” by Chinese nationalists. On the other hand, if they criticise the Australian Government, they are suspected of being an agent for foreign influence, having their loyalties questions, or accused of being brainwashed. This is a toxic environment for Chinese-Australians to be in.

I concluded with:

Chinese-Australians should be treated the same way as all other Australians. It is not fair they be suspected for foreign interference for having appeared at an event. It is not fair that their loyalties be questioned for having a certain political view. And it is not fair to force them to take positions or political actions, such as critiquing Beijing, when similar requests are not made to other Australians.

So it was disappointing that the public hearing today ended up being focused on forcing the three Chinese-Australian witnesses to take positions on the Chinese Communist Party, as some sort of loyalty test.

- Yun


My experience and research is focused mostly on the Chinese diaspora in Australia. I want to talk about three interrelated issues today:

●    the PRC’s intimidation of individuals in Australia

●    foreign interference and its implications for the diaspora communities; and

●    the under-representation of Chinese-Australians in policy-making and public commentaries about policy issues.

PRC intimidation

We know from media reports that the Chinese Government has pressured and intimidated individuals outside China who have criticised the Chinese Government or the Chinese Communist Party. They do so either by pressuring their families in China or wait for these individuals to go to China. There are currently two Australians being detained in China for what seemingly to be political reasons, both are Australians of Chinese heritage.

Because of this, people who maintain a strong connection to China may choose to self-censor when speaking publicly. This disproportionately affects people in the Chinese diaspora and ethnic minority groups such as Uyghurs.

Foreign interference

On the other hand, people in the Chinese diaspora may also choose to self-censor because they don’t want their loyalties to be questioned constantly in the public arena or be suspected of foreign interference simply due to their political views.

Most Australians don’t know what activities actually constitute foreign interference. The Australian Government still has not released any examples or guidelines on which activities constitute foreign interference and which are not, beyond its general definition: activities carried out by, or on behalf of a foreign actor; coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine; and contrary to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests.

However, activities described in media reports are often taken as evidence of foreign interference. This includes very tenuous connections such as attending meetings or speaking at events organised by Chinese officials or organisations with connections to the Chinese state, or even being a member of a chat group. And individuals’ political views, where they do not align with the views of the Australian Government, or sufficiently critical of the Chinese Government or Communist Party, may be presented as a result of foreign interference.

There is a diverse range of political views in the Chinese diaspora. We live in a liberal democracy and we are entitled to hold different political views from those of the ruling government. Otherwise, there will not be an opposition party.

The general suspicions towards people with Chinese heritage in the context of foreign interference means that Chinese-Australians are less likely to publicly advocate policy positions contrary to the official Australian Government policy.

Under-representation of Chinese-Australians

So it’s no wonder then that many Chinese-Australians are choosing to remain silent and refusing to speak out publicly on Australia’s foreign and domestic policies. On the one hand, if they criticise the Chinese Government, then their family may face trouble or they may have difficulties going to China in the future. They may also be accused of being a “race traitor” by Chinese nationalists. On the other hand, if they criticise the Australian Government, they are suspected of being an agent for foreign influence, having their loyalties questions, or accused of being brainwashed.

This is a toxic environment for Chinese-Australians to be in. As a result, many Chinese-Australians have chosen to vacate the public debate on Australia’s China policies altogether.

Commentators like to say that the Chinese Communist Party deliberately conflates Chinese people with the Party. While that is true, it is not just the Chinese Communist Party that is doing the conflating. The foreign interference debate has inflamed racial undertones in Australia. For example, recently, member of the ACT Legislative Assembly Elizabeth Lee, who is a Korean-Australian, was told: “Go back to your country, you’re a Chinese spy”.

Chinese-Australians should be treated the same way as all other Australians. It is not fair they be suspected for foreign interference for having appeared at an event. It is not fair that their loyalties be questioned for having a certain political view. And it is not fair to force them to take positions or political actions, such as critiquing Beijing, when similar requests are not made to other Australians.