A conservative Australian senator provoked outrage among the Chinese community in Australia last week, after he demanded that three Chinese-Australians testifying to a Senate hearing on diaspora communities unconditionally condemn the CCP. The Guardian’s Daniel Hurst reported that Senator Eric Abetz, a member of the Liberal Party, is facing widespread criticism for targeting the three witnesses with what one called a “loyalty test” on the basis of their ethnicity:
With the witnesses before a Senate inquiry denouncing the “McCarthyist” tactics, and with the opposition Labor party likening it to a loyalty test based on ethnicity, the veteran Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz insisted his questioning had “nothing to do with race and everything to do with values”.
The episode comes at a time of increasing tensions in the relationship between Australia and China, its largest trading partner, while security agencies in Australia have intensified their investigations into foreign interference.
The Senate inquiry – which is investigating issues affecting diaspora communities in Australia – has heard evidence that members of some communities in Australia face pressure not to speak out, in part because of fears about potential retribution against family members still living overseas. [Source]
CDT has previously written about Chinese foreign interference in politics and communities in Australia and elsewhere.
As Abetz pressed the three further to condemn the CCP, one of the witnesses, Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at a progressive Australian think tank, refused to answer his questions. In a subsequent op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald, Chiu explained why he refused to respond to Senator Abetz:
My refusal set off what could be best described as a tirade. I have appeared before Senate committees before but never have I experienced such behaviour from any senator from any party.
I have no doubt that people will ask me why I refused. I did it because it was demeaning and I would not legitimise his tactic with an answer.
A person who has dedicated their life to public service, who takes the effort to help build a more participatory society, should not have to profess their belief in the universality of human rights. Surely, at some stage, it should go without saying. [Source]
As Su-Lin Tan reported for the South China Morning Post, anger over the incident grew over the weekend, after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to directly condemn the senator:
Said Morrison: “There is only one pledge that any Australian citizen should take and that’s the pledge they take when they become an Australian citizen.”
Asked what he made of Abetz’s question, he did not respond directly but only said “the normal practices should be observed”.
The prime minister’s spokesman on Saturday told This Week in Asia that while Morrison did not directly condemn his party colleague’s actions, he “contradicted” Abetz’s approach. [Source]
Part of what made the exchange so significant was that Senator Abetz’s questions came during an inquiry precisely into the issue of political pressure on the Chinese-Australian community. In an article published on Monday in Inside Story, one of the witnesses, Yun Jiang, a China analyst who had previously worked for the Australian government, wrote that she had appeared before the committee to raise concerns about undue suspicion being placed upon Chinese-Australians:
Little did I know that the very concerns I raised in my submission to the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s diaspora communities would play out at the committee hearing in Canberra last Wednesday, the day I had been asked to attend and share my thoughts.
I had made a written submission to the inquiry in July, focusing on Australia’s foreign interference laws and the under-representation of Chinese Australians in policymaking roles. I imagined the hearing would be an opportunity to tell senators more about how the foreign interference debate is affecting diaspora communities, and about how interference can be countered without eroding Australia’s democratic values and putting undue suspicion on Chinese Australians.
My opening statement, which highlighted the toxic environment faced by Chinese Australians who engage in public debates, had been circulated to the senators beforehand. One particular reason why some Chinese Australians are choosing to remain silent, I said, is that they don’t want their loyalty to be questioned constantly in the public arena. “It is not fair that their loyalties are questioned for having a certain political view,” I concluded. “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.” [Source]
Chinese-Australians have faced growing pressure from both the Australian and Chinese governments. PRC intimidation of the Chinese community in Australia, particularly of individuals who are vocally critical of the CCP, has grown in recent years. Chinese-Australians say they are scared to speak out because of fear that their family members in China will be targeted. At the same time, many Chinese-Australians are worried about falling afoul of Australia’s new foreign interference law. In China Neican newsletter, a newsletter co-edited by Jiang, she wrote about these competing pressures and the reluctance to speak and resulting underrepresentation of Chinese-Australians in the country’s politics:
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. [Source]
In an interview with ABC news, Jiang described Abetz’s questions as surprising, derailing the original agenda of the meeting. In her Inside Story article, Jiang reflected on the effect of his remarks:
“The very serious function of racism is distraction,” the American writer Toni Morrison once said. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” In a better world, I would not need to write this article. I could have spent my time differently. [Source]