In the four decades since Stephen Fitzgerald became Australia’s first ambassador to China in 1973, the relationship between the two countries has moved from the periphery to the center stage.
Today, China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and one of its main sources of inward migration. But alongside growing interdependence, there is also creeping unease in Australia that Beijing is seeking to undermine national policy and even Australian values — a fear recently articulated by none other than the veteran diplomat himself.
Speaking at a conference in Perth last month, Fitzgerald expressed concern about how the Chinese government was trying to control the country’s image and advance its policies in Australia, especially through the ethnic Chinese community.
He pointed to Beijing’s control of Chinese-language media and its mobilization of resident Chinese to rally against official policy in Canberra, such as its stance on the South China Sea. Like the United States, Australia denies Beijing’s expansive territorial claims over the waters.
“There are instances, many instances, where people have been heavied by Chinese official representatives, where journalists have been quite deliberately approached and pressured,” Fitzgerald, who was ambassador to Beijing from 1973-76, told Asia Times. “And in one case that I know of, there was even physical pressure brought to bear. Now I’m sure that the Chinese government didn’t say you should go out there and use … physical pressure against people, but that’s how someone chose to interpret the policy of the Chinese government.”
The specter of Chinese influence is a constant source of headlines in Australia, which finds itself balancing vital trade relations with China against its traditional security alliance with Washington, which has actively challenged key tenets of Chinese foreign policy.
Last month, a high-profile senator with the opposition Labor Party was forced to resign from the Cabinet after it was revealed that a firm with links to Beijing had covered a portion of his travel bill. The same month, a planned series of concerts in Sydney and Melbourne to commemorate Mao Zedong was canceled amid controversy.
Fitzgerald said that Beijing’s growing assertiveness within Australia aligned with President Xi Jinping’s calls for all ethnic Chinese, regardless of nationality, to unite behind China.
“All countries seek to use their influence and exercise what’s called soft power but in this case, in the case of China, a lot of it is being done in ways that are not transparent,” he said.
Others feel the anxiety is overblown, and risks fueling a rising anti-immigration sentiment that recently saw the political far-right party secure its best election result in two decades.
“I’ve never seen a migrant community more eager to become integrated with Australia,” said Bob Carr, a former foreign minister and state premier who now heads the Australia-China Relations Institute. “The community is focused on its economic success and the success of its children. Even in the white hot heat of an election campaign, it would be very hard to engage Chinese Australians on matters of foreign policy.”
Isolated examples of ethnic Chinese agitating in support of Beijing have been wildly exaggerated, Carr said.
“I think there has been a gross defamation — the way some media have elevated the so-called Mao commemorations that were organized by telephone box minorities was a defamation of the community,” he said. “To say they’re subject to divided loyalties was a defamation of the community. They are loyal to their adopted country.”
Questions of loyalty and influence from afar are further complicated by the sheer diversity of Chinese communities in Australia. As well as attracting negative attention from the general public, the planned Mao concerts exposed divisions among ethnic Chinese, whose views on the Communist Party of China are often shaped by whether they were born in Australia or immigrated — and if the latter, where they came from and when.
“Saying that China is undercutting Australian values is a huge assertion, and I do not think it is true because this type of Chinese patriotism only appeals to the ‘newer Chinese’ and Chinese international students,” said Erin Chew, the head of the Asian Australian Alliance. “The majority of Chinese Australians either do not care, do not support the Chinese government at all, or support China but from afar. The newer Chinese — those that have come within the last 10-20 years — will be the ones who are influenced by controlled media.”
Even then, castigating new arrivals for supporting their home country would be unreasonable, Chew said.
“Getting Chinese students to protests for China causes, is no different from say Indian students protesting for Indian causes, Hong Kong students protesting for democracy, or American students going to events supporting the US Government,” she said. “So I do feel these fears are unfair to Chinese students because most of them are international students and their allegiance is to China, like for us who are Aussies our allegiances — in the most general sense — are to Australia.”