On a September night in 2016, I took my seat at a theater in the heart of Canberra for a Chinese national day celebration organized by the pro-Beijing Chinese Students and Scholars Association. There was a commotion and all of the seats around me were suddenly filled by men in black suits communicating with walkie-talkies. They followed me into the bathroom and tried to have the theater’s security staff kick me out.
Earlier, I had reported for a student newspaper on Chinese government ties to the group and its efforts to censor anti-Communist Party material at my university. I later identified the men at the theater as members of the Chinese student association, and it was clear that the attempt to intimidate me was a result of my articles.
Beijing’s reach into Australia goes far beyond groups like the student association. Its interference in Australian society is becoming increasingly bolder. And as Australians debate how to respond, the voices of the Chinese-Australians alarmed by Beijing’s encroachment are being drowned out by an aggressive Chinese government campaign to silence critics here.
With so many Chinese-Australians left unheard, misunderstandings surrounding the Chinese-Australian community are rife. More than one million Australians claim Chinese ancestry, out of a total population of about 24 million.
The Chinese Communist Party is actively fostering in the Chinese-Australian community what the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died while in custody in China last year, called an “enemy mentality”: the idea that the liberal West is China’s enemy and that supporters of freedom are enemies, too. Those objecting to the Communist Party’s oppression, like pro-democracy activists, are widely referred to as “poison” or “hostile forces.”
Fear is among Beijing’s most potent weapons in silencing Chinese-Australians. Like me, other Chinese-Australian critics of Beijing are targets of threats and intimidation. Last year, a Sydney-based university professor, Feng Chongyi, was detained in China for a week. The Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian was briefly detained in 2014 after creating a diorama of Tiananmen Square to commemorate the 1989 massacre.
China also monitors the social media accounts of dissidents in Australia, and many fear that their private messages and social networks might make them targets of the Chinese government. Badiucao, a Chinese-Australian cartoonist and street artist, has never revealed his face or real name out of fear.
Even those who avoid actively criticizing Beijing are affected. Last month, word spread of a Taiwanese waitress in Sydney who claimed that she had been asked by her boss at a Chinese hot-pot restaurant if she thought Taiwan belonged to China. “Definitely not,” she replied, and a few minutes later found herself without a job.
As part of Beijing’s campaign, Chinese-language media here, relied on by the many Chinese-Australians for whom English is a second language, are pressured into self-censoring. These news outlets avoid any criticism of the Communist Party. Beijing has also been quietly expanding its state-owned media across the globe, including into Australia, by buying stakes in local Chinese media. Posts on WeChat, a social media app owned by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent that is widely used among Australia’s Chinese, can be deleted at Beijing’s whim.
Beijing’s control of the Chinese-language news media helps to elevate the pro-Beijing voices here, while critics of Beijing find themselves with few public platforms. Prominent supporters of Beijing are rewarded by Beijing with trips to China.
Few Chinese organizations publicly opposing the Chinese Communist Party are left, their rallying power having been stunted by the lack of coverage by Chinese-language news outlets. And some independent organizations have been taken over by pro-Beijing members, who then change the club’s mission.
Beijing’s domination of the conversation in the Chinese community gives the wider public a skewed view of Chinese-Australians. The rest of the country is left with the impression that Chinese-Australians are a unified bloc that supports Beijing. One right-wing commentator even wrote an article titled, “A Million Chinese Here May Not All Be on Our Side.” This mind-set affects Australia’s policymaking process.
Beijing’s agents here are also keen to remind Australians of this country’s shameful history of racism against Chinese. The result is that when a Chinese-Australian is accused of having ties to Beijing, he may cry racism, saying that he’s being tarnished by connections to Beijing only because he’s ethnic Chinese. In the absence of balanced reporting in the Chinese-language media, many Australians are inclined to believe these claims.
A series of new bills in Parliament on foreign interference, including the introduction of a foreign-agents register and a ban on foreign political donations, would weaken Beijing’s levers of control among Chinese-Australians. It may also inspire new confidence among Chinese-Australians that our struggles are being recognized, that we are no longer being left to fend for ourselves in this fight against coercion.
Still, many Chinese-Australians feel frustrated by the way we are viewed and represented. All Chinese-Australians should have the right to voice their opinions without fearing reprisals by Beijing.
So-called Chinese community leaders who do not in fact represent most Chinese-Australians should be forthcoming about their ties to the Communist Party. And those who do not reveal their ties should be called out not just in English-language media but also in the Chinese-language press. Independent Chinese-Australian community groups should be supported.
The Australian government must do its part to put an end to Beijing’s coercive influence on the local Chinese-language news media and the broader Chinese community. Our government should use diplomatic and security channels to push back against pressure on the media and Beijing’s takeover of Chinese community groups. The independence and reach of publicly funded Mandarin and Cantonese news outlets should be ensured and expanded.
Chinese-Australians are not powerless. We need to speak up. But it’s also time for all Australians, regardless of ethnic background, to unite to protect the country’s sovereignty and dignity. If we are truly a nation of tolerance and freedom, all Australians should support Chinese-Australians’ freedom of expression.
Alex Joske is a China researcher and student at the Australian National University.