Editor’s Note: Adjunct Professor John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. From 2016 to 2018, he served as senior national security adviser to then-Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.
A minor political scandal in Australia has shone a bright light on the threat the Chinese Communist Party and its chauvinistic attitude to race poses to Chinese-heritage politicians in democracies across the world.
In May 2019, Gladys Liu from the Victorian seat of Chisholm became the first female Chinese-Australian elected to sit in the Australian Lower House of Parliament. That was a significant milestone and not before time given there are approximately 1.2 million citizens with Chinese ancestry in a nation of 25 million. What was then a celebration of progress with respect to ethnic diversity amongst the ranks of politicians has descended into controversy.
Over the past month, it was revealed that Liu was previously associated with Australia-based organizations with alleged ties to the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party. Known as an effective fund raiser for her Liberal Party, there are also questions about the links of those donors to Beijing, which Liu allegedly tapped for money.
Liu has strenuously denied any association with the Chinese government, saying she would always put “Australia’s interests first,” and said she would audit local organizations which had listed her as a member without her permission.
Australia is at the forefront of calling out and passing legislation against covert influence and foreign interference activities by Chinese operatives. The United Front, which is supported by considerable resources and a vast bureaucratic operation, was called one of his “magical weapons” by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2014. One of the objectives is to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and organizations in foreign countries or else silence dissent.
Unlike the former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari who was forced to resign in December 2017, there is no evidence Liu has opposed government policy nor colluded with foreign entities against Australian authorities in return for financial largesse from donors allegedly linked to the United Front. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has strongly backed Liu and indicated there were no adverse findings against her made public by Australian intelligence agencies.
Regardless of how this plays out for Liu, the deeply uncomfortable issue for pluralistic democratic societies of the link between race and allegiance has been pulled into the spotlight.
Are Australian citizens of Chinese origin less supportive of Australian interests and values? Will this question be asked of large ethnic Chinese diasporas in countries such as the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and New Zealand? One should expect that an increasing number of ethnic Chinese citizens will seek to win office in their respective countries. Might the controversy surrounding Liu dissuade them from doing so – to our collectively detriment – and how to ensure that does not occur?
As awkward as it is, there is no escaping that race and ethnicity has become a legitimate political and national security issue and we need to be frank and upfront about the cause.
It is occurring primarily because the Communist Party has chosen to politicize and even weaponize race as a tool of foreign policy and subversion.
Xi has delivered multiple speeches and made it formal policy to demand loyalty and commitment from diasporas who the Party refers to as the “sons and daughters” of China. The United Front is the apparatus of choice. This implies one’s identity and loyalty are not defined by nationality but race or ethnicity.
In Australia, the majority of Chinese-language press are owned by entities with at least partial links to Beijing. The problem is compounded by the reality that social media platforms used by Chinese-Australians such as WeChat and Weibo are already moderated and censored. Some Australian-based Chinese community organizations have either been set-up specifically to influence the diaspora while existing ones are targets for influence and infiltration through financial incentives or else intimidation. The result is that many of these organizations now parrot Communist Party views on sensitive issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.
As in all liberal democracies, Australians of every ethnicity should feel free to hold and express their legitimate views without fear of censure or consequences. The point is not to tell the Chinese diaspora what they should think – it is to protect them against foreign governments telling them what they must think.
Members of Chinese community organizations in the West and the population at large both need to have the assurance that these organizations are not front entities for Beijing or have been otherwise infiltrated to support the Communist Party’s agenda. If that assurance is lacking, all members will inevitably and unfairly be tainted simply by association. That will only lead to the fracturing of multicultural societies.
If Chinese diasporas are to feel respected and valued in Australia and other countries, and if more ethnic Chinese citizens are to be encouraged to run for political office, the countering of Beijing’s United Front operations needs to be taken seriously. That is the source of the divide in the first place. Legislation prohibiting such activities ought to be passed. There needs to be transparency in media ownership. Politicians, community leaders and individuals must be given the space and support to call out external attempts to covertly influence, silence or intimidate.
Most of all, the perceived link between race on the one hand and one’s loyalty and views on the other, must be broken. In Australia’s case, failure to do so could mean that Liu is the first and last Chinese-born Australian to enter federal politics in the country – with ramifications in other democracies.