I have sometimes wondered how people felt when they were dragged in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities with Congressmen demanding that they prove their loyalty. Never did I imagine I would be placed in a similar situation.
I have followed the debate about our relationship with China, but I did not fully appreciate how toxic it had become until I appeared before the Senate inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities on Wednesday.
I spoke to the committee about the underrepresentation of multicultural communities in Australian politics. Australia’s Parliament is significantly less representative of cultural diversity than Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
Instead of being asked about complex issues facing multicultural communities or how Australia could benefit from a more diverse Parliament, I was asked by Senator Eric Abetz to “unequivocally condemn” the Chinese Communist Party. Presumably, the association trying to be made was that, by virtue of my ethnicity, there was some likelihood of divided allegiances.
It felt like a gotcha loyalty test, an attempt to goad me, reducing me to a foreigner who needed to show which side I was on.
I may have Chinese heritage but I’m Australian. I was born here and my family has been here for half a century. This is my home, the only home I have ever known.
I refused to answer that question, refusing to participate in a political game.
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.
None of this denies foreign interference needs to be combated or that there are dissidents and minorities who fear harassment and surveillance from china. But our government must act so people feel safe in Australia.
We have a serious problem if Chinese Australians cannot even appear before a Senate committee to talk about complex issues in a respectful manner, without senators demanding proof of their loyalty through some grandstanding condemnation of the Chinese government. What hope is there in the wider public sphere?
Among the evidence at the hearing on Wednesday was that Chinese Australians were reluctant to appear in public debates because they feared their remarks would be taken out of context and twisted. Is it any wonder when elected representatives treat us with such scepticism and derision?
By Osmond Chiu
Research fellow at Per Capita, a progressive think tank.