No one wins in a race to the bottom on national security: Let the Chinese academics back in

Secret raids on four Chinese journalists and the effective exiling of two Chinese academics from Australia mark a new low in the state of Australia-China relations. They also take us across a dangerous threshold in the use of national security provisions to exclude non-citizens from this country. Far from upholding liberal values, heightened sensitivity towards “foreign interference” is putting those values at risk. If politicians don’t change course, the deterioration of Australia’s relationship with China will go hand in hand with the erosion of our civil liberties.

The Australia-China convergence on national security

When Bill Birtles and Mike Smith made their dramatic exit from China last week, the news cycle had 24 hours to tell a familiar story, of Beijing’s paranoia and intolerance of foreign scrutiny. When news broke of the June 26 raids on four Chinese journalists, and the August termination of two Chinese academics’ visas, some pundits were visibly uncomfortable at having to complicate this narrative of Australian victimhood. The protestations that there was no comparison between China’s actions and our own only betrayed an anxiety that there was.

In the sensitive field of Xinjiang studies in which I work, I’ve seen colleagues who are critical of China lose their visas to the country. It’s a practice we all abhor. It’s worth noting, though, that when China applies its bans, it’s usually not solely on the basis of what someone has written or said, but on suspicions that they’re linked in some way to nefarious foreign state efforts to interfere in Chinese politics. This is precisely the treatment that has just been meted out to PRC scholars Chen Hong and Li Jianjun.

Much of the commentary so far has held back from directly criticising Australia’s security agencies, instead calling on them to explain their actions. This strikes me as overly optimistic. Since 2017, ASIO has been reciting the mantra that Australia faces “unprecedented levels of foreign interference,” without ever having satisfactorily justified this claim.

In this case, furthermore, there may well be no more information to give. There is no defined standard of evidence for the Home Affairs Minister to cancel someone’s visa on character grounds. All that is required is for Peter Dutton to believe that an individual poses a risk. 

We know this thanks to the case of Huang Xiangmo, who was kicked out of Australia in 2019, not on the basis of any infringement of Australia’s laws, but on the grounds that he might commit such violations in future. He was punished, that is to say, on pre-emptive grounds.

Huang Xiangmo may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But as Noam Chomsky has written recently regarding Julian Assange, “[w]hen setting a gravely dangerous precedent, governments don’t typically persecute the most beloved individuals in the world.” An ability to distinguish questions of procedural fairness from whether we like someone or not is an important principle in a democratic society. In dispatching Huang, we threw it out the window.

That scalp has emboldened the security agencies to go after more reputable figures like Chen Hong. A scholar of Australian literature, he has spent much of his life promoting Australian studies in China, and has assisted many of my colleagues in their work. 

He has also been publicly critical of Australia’s post-2017 hawkish turn against China, and it’s hard to avoid the perception that this commentary is what put him on ASIO’s radar. 

Lest anyone doubt that someone’s take on Australia-China relations might be a factor here, witness Peter Dutton’s comments on ABC Insiders on Sunday, responding to a question on the raided Chinese journalists: “If people are here as journalists, and they’re reporting fairly on the news, then that’s fine. But if they’re here providing a slanted view to a particular community, then we have concern with that.”

The foreign interference laws and civil liberties

Of course, the security agencies have a mandate for their actions. As in the case of the Australian Federal Police’s raid on the offices of the ABC last year, there are laws on the books to permit their dawn home invasion of Chinese journalists in Sydney, as well as the scrapping of Chen and Li’s visas. 

The fact that the ABC case involved Australian citizens, while these involve foreigners, should not prevent us from asking the same basic question of them: are we comfortable with the powers that these agencies have acquired?

When the 2018 Foreign Interference laws were introduced, critics, including myself, said that they were a threat to civil liberties. They rely on vague terms like “collaboration” with a foreign principal, and define national security so broadly as to include Australia’s “political, military or economic relations with another country.” A lot of very ordinary forms of political discussion and exchange between Australian citizens and foreigners—in this case, it would seem, membership of a private WeChat group—could serve as grounds for intrusive enforcement actions.

The risk is, having introduced these laws, such actions become necessary to justify them. Defenders of the legislation have been calling for more raids for some time. Meanwhile, a bill currently before parliament will extend ASIO’s compulsory questioning powers from terrorism investigations to cases of “foreign interference.” Left unchecked, today’s China panic will drive an expansion of the Australian security state in just the same way that 9/11 and the War on Terror did in the 2000s.

Reinstate the visas

In the midst of this tit-for-tat deterioration of Australia-China relations, it can become hard to see the wood for the trees. The roots of this crisis, I believe, lie in Australia’s determination to support America in upholding its flagging position in Asia. That objective has only become more explicit in 2020: in the fanfare surrounding Morrison’s multi-billion-dollar arms purchases, for example, or in July’s AUSMIN meeting, which is said to have resulted in a “secret defence plan with [the] US to counter China.”

The tip-off that gave The Sydney Morning Herald a front-row seat to the raid on Shaoquett Moselmane shows the politicking at play in these actions. The outcome of such raids is secondary to the effect they have in advancing a politics of fear. This is directed domestically, to heighten public animosity towards China, but also internationally, to show America that we’re willing to keep pace with its own draconian measures. Last week, Homeland Security revoked the visas of more than a thousand Chinese students studying in the US. 

Worryingly, it is not only the security agencies who now practise the politics of fear. DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson was quoted in The Australian on Friday in terms indistinguishable from ASIO’s hyperbole: “The institutions we take for granted—our parliament, our democracy, our legal system, our freedom of speech and association—they really are at stake now.”

If this is an example of the “nuanced” diplomacy towards China that some hope will balance the brinkmanship of the security agencies, we are in serious trouble. Pace Adamson, Scott Morrison’s evident willingness to let Australia’s security agencies run amok constitutes a far greater threat to our democracy and rule of law than anything China is doing.

Meanwhile, Chen and Li will carry the stigma of this decision for the rest of their lives. If, as seems likely, this was an act of ministerial fiat, the law affords them no right to examine, let alone test, the advice on which their visas were torn up. There is no route of appeal. Their ability to ever again set foot in Australia will depend on our ability to recognise the threat this move poses to civil liberties as well as academic freedom, and to apply pressure for their ban to be overturned. 

If they’re to mean anything, Australia’s “liberal values” must be more than just an anti-China slogan. Anyone with the slightest commitment to such values should be calling for Chen and Li’s visas to be reinstated immediately.