Senator Abetz’s loyalty test

Chinese Australians are being singled out by overwrought politicians

Little did I know that the very concerns I raised in my submission to the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s diaspora communities would play out at the committee hearing in Canberra last Wednesday, the day I had been asked to attend and share my thoughts.

I had made a written submission to the inquiry in July, focusing on Australia’s foreign interference laws and the under-representation of Chinese Australians in policymaking roles. I imagined the hearing would be an opportunity to tell senators more about how the foreign interference debate is affecting diaspora communities, and about how interference can be countered without eroding Australia’s democratic values and putting undue suspicion on Chinese Australians.

My opening statement, which highlighted the toxic environment faced by Chinese Australians who engage in public debates, had been circulated to the senators beforehand. One particular reason why some Chinese Australians are choosing to remain silent, I said, is that they don’t want their loyalty to be questioned constantly in the public arena. “It is not fair that their loyalties are questioned for having a certain political view,” I concluded. “And it is not fair to force them to take positions or political actions, such as critiquing Beijing, when similar requests are not made to other Australians.”

This made senator Eric Abetz’s subsequent behaviour all the more shocking. He proceeded to interrogate each of the three Chinese-Australian witnesses about whether we would “unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.” It later emerged that he only subjected Chinese-Australian witnesses to this treatment during hearings that examined diaspora communities in general.

Let’s be clear, the issue is not about whether or not the Chinese Communist Party should be condemned. In a democracy, we are all free to make up our minds and express our opinions. No one should be forced to condemn anyone or any political organisation simply to be accepted. No Australian, regardless of ethnicity, should be subject to political loyalty tests. We are all Australians first and foremost.

In the few days since that ugly encounter, I have often wondered why I was invited to appear at the hearing in the first place. My views on countering foreign interference and on Chinese-Australian participation in public life appeared less important to the senators than my views about the Chinese Communist Party.

Members of the committee certainly made a clear political point, one that I’m sure many Chinese Australians would have noted. Some are already reluctant to speak out publicly — having already been accused of questionable loyalties, suspected of being an agent of foreign influence and dismissed as brainwashed. It seems we must pass a test of loyalty before our views can be heard or taken seriously, and that test is often whether we are sufficiently critical of Beijing. Other Australians are not asked questions of this kind. They have the luxury of not having to justify their participation in political life by condemning foreign governments.

Before I was subjected to this line of questioning, I had already spoken extensively at the hearing about China’s human rights records, at one point noting that “China is one of the top violators of human rights in the world.” I have also talked about the intimidation and harassment experienced by individuals and their families for criticising the party.

Evidently this was not enough. The cynic in me thinks that what I say or do will only be enough for some people when I accept the role assigned to me. It doesn’t matter that I have served in the Australian public service for eight years across three departments, working on a range of domestic and international policy issues to advance the national interest. It doesn’t matter that I regularly critique the Chinese government over its foreign and domestic policies. It doesn’t matter that I might have endangered my family in China by speaking publicly about these issues, including at the public hearing. For some, it seems anything short of a full-throated public condemnation of Beijing will not satisfy them.

A part of me thinks that in today’s environment, the loyalty of Chinese Australians will be questioned no matter what our achievements or records. And any “acceptability” we do achieve could be taken away and suspicion reinstated if we state the “wrong” political view. No Australians should be subject to this.

If I had still been working in the Australian public service and I had appeared at the public hearing in my official capacity, I could have answered Senator Abetz’s question by saying that “the Australia–China bilateral relationship is based on strong economic and trade complementarities, and covers a wide range of mutual interests. In 2014, the Australian prime minister and Chinese president agreed to describe the relationship as a comprehensive strategic partnership.” But imagine the reaction if I had trotted out the official line at the inquiry last week.

Have the prime minister, his cabinet colleagues and the secretaries of their departments also been asked to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship?

Senator Abetz said that members of the Chinese Australian community had privately described their reluctance to speak out “because of reprisals within their community and the possibility of family members back home being targeted by the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship,” a point I also made in my opening statement. But that makes the senator’s line of questioning even more disturbing. If he truly cared about the safety of members of the Chinese Australian community, he wouldn’t have persisted in asking them to publicly denounce the Chinese government.

Interestingly, the behaviour at the hearing mirrored what the Chinese Communist Party does in its numerous political campaigns, including, most famously, the Cultural Revolution. During these campaigns, the Chinese people are forced to declare their positions publicly. They are not even afforded the dignity of having the right to stay silent. Forcing everyone to declare a public view is a tool of authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, Senator Abetz is not the only one holding these views. I was also disappointed that the committee chair, Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, didn’t intervene to stop this show trial. In their eagerness to counter threats and challenges posed by Beijing, they appeared to have forgotten what democracy and pluralist society is all about.

“The very serious function of racism is distraction,” the American writer Toni Morrison once said. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” In a better world, I would not need to write this article. I could have spent my time differently.

Indeed, amid the controversy, issues that actually are important are left unaddressed. How can we counter the threats and challenges posed by China while not erecting barriers that stop Chinese Australians from participating in politics and policy debates? This is what I had hoped to speak about at the public hearing. I especially wanted to warn the committee about the risk that we may, in our effort to counter China, go down an illiberal road and end up becoming more like China.

I don’t see this issue going away any time soon. As bilateral relations continue to deteriorate with no change of direction in sight, Chinese Australians will come under even more pressure and undue suspicion.


This article first appeared on Inside Story on 20 October 2020.