2017 has been an eventful year for Sino-Australian relations, with media exposes and public debate about purported Chinese infiltration – in the political arena, Australian universities and Chinese media outlets Down Under.
News of Australian politicians meeting with wealthy Chinese business people after donations were given to the two major political parties was followed by warnings by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) about the growing level of “harmful espionage and foreign interference” operations being carried out in Australia.
This led to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing last week that his government, which has just a slim majority in parliament, will ban foreign donations to political parties, activist groups and some charities. The proposed law will also require former politicians, lobbyists and executives working for foreign interests to register if they seek to influence politics in Australia.
This has made life tough for diplomats on both sides. On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed during a press conference that Australia’s top envoy to Beijing, Jan Adams, was summoned to the ministry recently for a reminder on China’s stance on their bilateral relations.
Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador to Canberra, Cheng Jingye, was also invited for talks on Monday by Penny Williams, deputy secretary of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Caught in the middle of this mess was Sam Dastyari, a Labor Party Senator from New South Wales, who was forced on Monday to surrender his seat following a series of scandals – detailing how he contradicted the government and Labor Party’s position on the South China Sea, that he warned a prominent Chinese businessperson his phone might be bugged by Australian intelligence, and that he allowed a businessman thought connected to the Chinese Communist Party to pay a legal bill he faced.
News of the ban on foreign political donations sparked a strong response from Beijing but Turnbull insisted that the Australian government must defend its own interests – a message he sought to deliver in Mandarin: “澳大利亞人民站起來” (Australians [must] stand up [against China]).
But there have also been reports about Chinese expats and students being assaulted in Canberra, and that xenophobia is rife among rank-and-file Aussies, and has been whipped up by Turnbull’s remarks. Turnbull, however, has said the legislation is not specifically targeted at China, and that any suggestion of him harboring anti-China sentiment is absurd, given he has a Chinese grand-daughter and the fact Australia has one million people of Chinese ancestry.
Given the diplomatic spat, analysts in Australia have speculated on whether Beijing may want to teach the Aussies a lesson. The Australian newspaper feared that Beijing may want to punish Canberra by choosing to buy iron ore from Brazil or limiting the number of Chinese tourists or students.
The question is whether these matters will affect a key by-election in the Federal seat of Bennelong on the lower North Shore in Sydney this weekend, which has the largest number of ethnic Chinese voters of any electorate in the country.
In a new twist, an open letter written in Chinese to Chinese Australians who are eligible to vote in Sydney has stirred fresh talk prior to Saturday’s by-election.
The letter exhorted Chinese voters in Bennelong to “vote out” Liberal Party candidate John Alexander, a former tennis star, because his party has supposedly deteriorated into a “far-right group” with an anti-China and anti-Asian outlook.
The letter itself has been seen as fresh evidence of Beijing sticking its nose in others’ business, given it was reportedly composed by the Association for the Peace Reunification of China, a pro-Beijing entity in Australia.
Recent polls suggest the vote will be close. Alexander is up against Kristina Keneally, a former premier of NSW. The importance of the vote could not be higher. If Turnbull loses Bennelong on Saturday night, he loses his absolute majority in the lower house of parliament.
Observers say Turnbull has played the nationalist card to fend off threats to his premiership, given his admission on Wednesday that Labor Party leader Bill Shorten could replace him as PM if his party loses Bennelong.
It’s not clear yet if the debate over foreign influence will be a factor in the by-election. But all Australians will be watching the Bennelong ballot on Saturday night.