Chinese students pose for a graduation photo at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

As disapproval of the so-called pro-Beijing “panda huggers” has become the leading rhetoric of some Australian media, we should probably consider the views of ethnic Chinese people themselves.

Australian citizens of Chinese heritage who are highly critical of Beijing’s policies have drawn the most media attention, calling for sympathy for Chinese dissidents and denunciation of the so-called “evil regime.”

However, those with an approving, accepting or even just a less critical view of Beijing than the prevailing narrative are not only not publicly praised but are unfairly suspected of being spies or traitors without any legitimate evidence. I wonder if this environment really helps Sino-Australian relations.

Nothing is more powerful than personal experience. To me, Chinese born, with a bachelor’s degree earned in China, completing my master’s degree in Moscow and along the way becoming a Russian speaker, and then gaining work experience in ZTE in the post-Soviet space, it has been an interesting ride, particularly after Canberra kicked out ZTE.

Since then there has been a noticeable increase of suspicion in Australia. Apart from being mocked and doubted as a potential spy by certain acquaintances, I have even encountered the shocking situation where one media-based individual asked me not to assassinate him. Seriously. 

The situation faced by other Australians of Chinese heritage may be even worse. A Labor Party-aligned candidate, Li Zhang, running in a Melbourne council ward said she no longer wanted to win after being accused of being a Chinese agent of influence.

Yun Jiang and Osmond Chiu, researchers in the Australian National University and Per Capita, and Wesa Chau, deputy lord mayor candidate for the City of Melbourne, have argued that Chinese-Australians feel intimidated against speaking out on issues concerning their community and their country.

They say they experienced something like a loyalty test during a parliamentary inquiry by being requested to condemn Beijing unconditionally in order to show their allegiance to Australia.

Osmond Chiu published a piece criticizing this unfair treatment, especially egregious since he was born in Australia. Why should he have to answer this demeaning question and renounce Beijing when he has never been a citizen of China? 

The environment of this discourse may have unintentionally nurtured a scary atmosphere where only negative criticism of China is encouraged and sought. People of Chinese ethnicity have to be critical of Beijing, otherwise they may be subtly or directly labeled as either a threat to Australia or just being disloyal.

However, those of Chinese ethnicity are not equivalent to China, so it is not rational that individuals of Chinese heritage are considered spies or traitors, while at the same time an improved bilateral relationship with Beijing is being pursued, as Anthony Pun, national president of the Chinese Community Council of Australia, has pointed out.

Furthermore, if the discourse heats up to such a level that Chinese tourists and students choose not to come to Australia, this will be harmful to both countries, as they need each other economically and can work well together culturally.

Although Beijing warns Chinese students to be cautious about studying in Australia and the online-learning experience is well acknowledged as being below par, Tim Dodd, higher-education editor at The Australian, found that despite the pandemic, “Chinese students who are enrolled to commence Australian university courses in second semester this year is over 70% of the number which commenced courses in second semester last year.”

Additionally, China is heavily reliant on Australia for 85% of its iron-ore imports. Because of the high quality of Australian ore and its geographic proximity, Australia’s importance to China is self-evident.

Australia also needs China, despite Canberra’s endeavors in its market-diversification agenda. Notably, a recent Asialink report said, “India will not be the next China for Australia, and Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea are all important markets but without China’s scale for the same commodities and services.” 

The Economic and Fiscal Update released by the Australian Treasury on July 23 revealed that among all of Australia’s top 10 trading partners, China’s is the only one with GDP expected to grow this year and because of this, “Australia’s external outlook remains in a better position than many other economies.”

That said, China is more than the binary description that is either a security concern or an economic powerhouse. Therefore, Australia’s behavior can be baffling to China and its people. In fact, China is a puzzle of complexity and vicissitudes that transcends the simplistic binary definition of friend or foe, customer or market manipulator.

For example, China is the world’s top global emitter of greenhouse gases, but it is also one of several major powers that aims to achieve carbon-neutrality; China’s Great Famine killed up to 45 million people, while China is also a nation that has lifted more than 850 million people out of extreme poverty in the past 40 years.

However, as former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has said, “One way or another, we must find a path for peaceful co-existence with China.”

As a matter of fact, Australia’s choice between the US, its strongest security ally, and China, its largest trade partner, “like many other enduring foreign-policy problems,” may not be resolved. “It must instead be managed,” argued by John Edwards, senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.

Nevertheless, purely criticizing one side doesn’t lead to any relationship management. Less critical or approving voices should be encouraged as well, provided they do not infringe on the rights of others. Probably it is these people who comprehend both sides’ concerns and pragmatically seek conciliation rather than untainted criticism who can eventually push the flow of bilateral relations.

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Yuan Jiang

Jon (Yuan) Jiang is a Chinese PhD student in the Digital Media Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology. He completed his master’s degree in political science at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and bachelor’s degree of law at Shanghai University. As a Russian speaker, he worked with ZTE Corporation as an account manager, and as a special correspondent with Asia Weekly and Pengpai News, all in Moscow.