A golf club in the west of Sydney. A community newspaper sponsoring a New Year event. The visa of a political donor. The fate of a detained author. A series of meetings that seemed to turn cash payments into unrivalled access to key decision makers – including cabinet ministers Peter Dutton and Christopher Pyne. The series of stories published by the Herald in the past week help us understand a much larger picture of the Australia-China relationship.
It is a relationship that tends to be calculated in the millions and indeed billions, whether we are talking about tourists and students coming to this country or export dollars. When the Labor Party opposed an extradition treaty with Beijing in 2017, top Chinese official Meng Jianzhu is reported to have warned that “it would be a shame if Chinese government representatives had to tell the Chinese community in Australia that Labor did not support the relationship between Australia and China”. As our reporter Nick McKenzie has revealed, when the Chinese consulate in Sydney put pressure on Georges River Council not to include the Vision China Times newspaper in its Lunar New Year event, it used the same terms.
This repetition is part and parcel of what the Chinese Communist Party calls “thought work”, aimed at providing a script and a rationale for those dealing with Beijing which, as former China correspondent and government adviser John Garnaut put it, “collapse[s] the categories of ‘Chinese Communist Party’, ‘China’ and ‘the Chinese people’ into a single organic whole”, so that questioning China’s leaders becomes an “anti-Chinese” and xenophobic act that must be punished.
If we are to uphold Australia’s interests, we need our own rationale, beyond the reactive agenda of “fear and greed” let slip by Tony Abbott a few years ago. Changing the law on foreign donations is a crucial part of this, but if we believe in the benefits and principles of a multicultural society, it is time to go beyond ethnic community fund-raisers and pageantry and enter a comprehensive and ongoing dialogue with our Chinese-speaking communities, who have always been our greatest strength in understanding modern China. If the Communist Party’s campaign of influence aims to exploit divisions in our society, then such a dialogue needs to begin with a clear statement that Chinese-Australians are not a special interest group; they are us.
Beijing’s foreign policy spans the globe, but in the end it is really a domestic policy that seeks to make the world an accommodating place for the Communist Party’s version of China. This means that it views dissent against the state – whether it is in Shanghai, Xinjiang or even Tunisia– as a domestic threat. Yet as Vision China Timesjournalist Maree Ma told McKenzie, to love China means being able to point out its shortcomings as well as what it has added to our life.
In 2008, the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing paid tribute to the Chinese invention of movable type with an amazing synchronised display. It was then revealed that that display was not the work of computers but of nearly 900 Chinese soldiers. We cannot afford to be so awed by the machinations of the Chinese state that we lose sight of the Chinese people underneath. Engaging with them and speaking up for their human rights is a fraught path, but ultimately promises a more certain relationship than the one our reporting has uncovered.