MELBOURNE–As Malcolm Turnbull prepared for his first visit to Beijing as prime minister last month, prominent members of Australia’s Chinese community inserted themselves into one of the stickiest issues dividing two nations increasingly bound by trade.
In Sydney, some 60 community leaders affirmed Beijing’s hotly-disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, warning Australia’s political elites against “irrational” or “incorrect” interpretations of the situation.
Among the goals of the gathering, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, was “to bring together forces which could protect the core interests of the Chinese nation.”
The meeting was organized by the Australian Action Committee for Protecting Peace and Justice, a Sydney-based association which, among other causes championed by Beijing, has protested against the Dalai Lama and historical revisionism by Japan.
Even though vocal pro-Beijing activism by Australia’s Chinese diaspora is rare, the gathering threw light on a discrete political lobby that has emerged periodically to advocate the Chinese government’s position on contentious issues.
During the Canberra leg of the torch relay for the 2008 Olympic Games, community leaders and the Chinese embassy helped rally thousands to counter-protest pro-Tibet demonstrators in an incident that was marked by violence and several arrests.
In recent years, affiliates of the Communist Party of China have also bought up Chinese-language media in Australia, prompting concerns here about the suppression of commentary that is critical of the government.
South China Sea quandary
What makes advocating Beijing’s position noteworthy is it can often fly in the face of the official line coming from Canberra.
On the South China Sea issue, Australia finds itself in an especially uncomfortable position: while it does the most trade with China, it relies on the United States, a persistent critic of Beijing’s territorial ambitions, for its defense.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, denying the overlapping claims of a host of Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines and Vietnam. While Canberra has not taken a formal position of the validity of the various claims, it has agitated Beijing by supporting arbitration and conducting air and sea patrols ostensibly intended to uphold freedom of navigation.
The AACPJ did not respond to inquires about its advocacy. The Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, another group which pushes Beijing’s stance on Chinese independence movements, declined to comment.
Ethnic backing for Beijing ‘common’?
But Erin Chew, co-founder of the Asian Australian Alliance, told Asia Times that pro-Beijing sentiment among Chinese-Australians, who make up around 4% of the population, was likely common but often went unsaid.
“A lot of it is quite passive,” said Chew, who is of Chinese origin. “So they will send emails around, some may talk to specific politicians and things like that but they are not really active in regards to talking to the media about it or making it a big issue.”
Chew said that many within the diaspora were reluctant to voice their opinions for fear of being labelled “50 cent,” a Mandarin term for overseas Chinese alleged to receive government money for writing positive posts online, or even a Chinese spy.
“All these words kind of loom around and I do feel that a lot of people do think that way (supportive of Beijing), but it’s very difficult to quantify it because people are not speaking out about it because they are afraid to be called pro-China, they are afraid to be called pro-Chinese government,” she said.
While Chew personally believes Australia should not intervene in the South China Sea dispute, she stressed there was a wide variation in opinion among Chinese-Australians, with differences often based when they or their family emigrated, and from where.
“Some Hong Kong Chinese will support Australia’s position because of other political factors that are happening, whereas others may see it differently. So again it depends how it is viewed, what political situation is happening in their own Chinese community,” she said.
Conservative Aussies react
Along with more general anti-Chinese sentiment, often connected to land purchases by Chinese concerns and rising house prices blamed on Chinese investment, pro-Beijing activism has provoked a negative reaction specifically tied to the nature of Australian identity.
Reacting to the recent AACPJ meeting, high-profile conservative columnist Andrew Bolt lamented the “tribalization” that saw people pledge loyalty to a certain race, religion or country of origin rather than Australia.
But Chew said such commentary assumed that immigrants had to assimilate and accept the majority viewpoint to be considered members of “team Australia.”
“So he, in a way, is trying to segregate the community and divide and rule the community by what he says,” she said.
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.