Chinese diaspora a bridge not an enemy

Despite links that extend back more than two centuries, the Chinese community in Australia is often viewed with suspicion. Not only is much of that suspicion not founded in reality, it can work against national economic interests as it marginalises a community with a wealth of knowledge in dealing with Australia’s most significant economic partner.

8 March 2021 | Brian Wong

The Chinese diaspora community has come under heightened assailment under the surge in racist violence and confrontations in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak and the unravelling relations between China and parts of the West.

A UN report published in August last year noted “racially motivated violence and other incidents against Asian-Americans have reached an alarming level across the United States since the outbreak of COVID-19”. A recent ANU study highlighted that nearly 85% of surveyed Asian Australians were subjected to racist abuse and discrimination during the pandemic.

Over 2,800 reports of hate incidents directed at Asian Americans were reported to Stop AAPI Hate last year. The number of reported attacks against Asian-Americans in New York City increased from three in 2019 to 27 in 2020.

The situation is further complicated by the entanglement with geopolitical interests. Politicians, activists, and scholars of Chinese origins have been viewed with default scepticism in light of rising instances of espionage and ostensible Chinese infiltration, with some being compelled to renounce the Communist Party of China even though they are not even Chinese born.

This is, notwithstanding the fact that they may have families and associates residing still in the country, or that they do not necessarily align themselves with the party’s objectives despite their nominal partisanship, or, indeed, they have long renounced their membership and yet are confronted for no reason other than their race.

It seems nobody is above suspicion

Even ethnic Chinese MPs, such Federal Liberal Gladys Liu, have had their loyalties called into question – though the extent to which the charge of racism is employed as an excuse to deflect against legitimate grievances, of course, should also be recognised.

It would be disingenuous, abhorrent, even, to rationalise or justify the ongoing events through invoking the above explanations – political interests should not be, and cannot be an excuse for racism. Setting aside the moral qualms of racism for now, and speaking purely from a pragmatic, realist perspective, the bellicosity with which Chinese migrants have been received would only contribute to the burgeoning strains of nationalism and isolationism across both China and the West, amplify mutual distrust and antagonism, and benefit no one save from select opportunists.

Last week the Guardian reported that at a number of local Chinese-Australian politicians, elected members of three different councils across Sydney, had been victims of harassment, intimidation and death threats. These threats are now being investigated by NSW police.

Alienating diaspora is playing into hands of China’s hawks

The inflammatory rhetoric directed towards the diaspora community is unhelpfully alienating. The dualism of patronising remarks (such as the Chinese are ‘brainwashed’ into their way of thinking ) and openly hostile rhetoric (framing the Chinese as threats to national security) deters Chinese-Australians from engaging with the community at large – thereby sustaining echo chambers of hyper-defensive rhetoric and resentment towards their host countries.

Wary of potential attacks and accusations, Chinese migrants are likely to withdraw from public and civic life, where open dialogue and conversations could otherwise be held. The resentment towards their treatment would render programmes of community outreach and integration indubitably difficult – especially given the importance of buy-in from local leaders and figures.

Secondly, the assault on the diaspora feeds into the virulent, defensive rhetoric employed by nationalistic hawks in Chinese, who portray their aggressive foreign policy as upholding China’s stature and the interests of Chinese citizens abroad. The dog-whistling rhetoric adopted by the likes of Donald Trump has fed directly into the vocal, militant faction of the Communist Party, who argued that only through baring its teeth and laying down the law, could the country stifle – for once and for all – the attacks on ethnic Chinese overseas.

Hence the ascent of ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is no coincidence – it had much to do with reports of heightening anti-Chinese sentiments, as well as a party leadership that was simultaneously alarmed and infuriated by the wanton ‘disrespect’ exhibited by foreign states towards the nation. It is one thing to resist excess capitulation to Chinese interest and guarding oneself against rising Chinese hegemony; it is another to intentionally obfuscate the lines between valid critique and thinly veiled racism.

Australia lacks the nuance of our Kiwi neighbours

Unlike New Zealand, Australia has strayed dangerously close to the latter position – no doubt in part spurred on by altercations such as the country’s open call for an investigation into China’s ostensible role in the COVID-19 pandemic, and China’s self-undermining ban on coal imports from the country; yet equally the product of a political system that fails to hear or engage with the lived experiences of Chinese citizens.

China critics in the Australian media lambasted New Zealand’s foreign minister for suggesting Australia shows China more respect. However, they ignored the fact that New Zealand’s foreign policy stance on issues related China are virtually identical and New Zealand sits alongside Australian in the Five Eyes intelligence group. The other fact that escapes them is the Kiwi lobster fisherman are enjoying their biggest ever boom in lobster exports to China, as Australian producers are locked out. The same goes for US barley and beef producers with reports exports to China are “soaring”.

Above all, the attacks on the Chinese migrant community could well put off many prospective talents – economically savvy and productive labour, financial capital, or, indeed, folks with a passion for public service – from moving abroad. This is especially to the detriment of countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom, for which high-skilled labour is well sought-after and in high demand. Cultural exchange, social pluralism, and the robustness and competitiveness of academic research could well be compromised, too, as prospective migrants opt to remain in the country.

The Chinese diaspora is not the enemy. Treating them as the enemy is in nobody’s interests.

Indeed, to the extent that they are willing (and many are), they ought to be drawn upon as connectors and resources that enable the bridging between China and the world at large. As the Chinese economy continues to grow, with the country potentially becoming the largest economy in the world within the decade, it remains all the more important for communication channels with the country to be kept as open and filled with vigorous debate as possible.  

We need mediators who can speak the Chinese language, understand the idiosyncrasies and subtleties of Chinese culture, and yet also appreciate the value of Western ideals and politics. These individuals see where both sides come from, and could act as the bridge across cultures – if only given the opportunity to do so. The West could ill-afford to alienate those within the Chinese political system who are most amenable and open to their beliefs and tenets. With the surge in populist xenophobia and radical, assertive conservatism, we can only hope that cooler heads will prevail.

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar (2020) from Hong Kong, DPhil in Politics candidate at Balliol College, and the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review. He has been a contributor to TIME, South China Morning Post and The Diplomat, and is also a Founding Fellow of Governance Partners Yangon.