“When a scholar meets a soldier …”: Why I’ve decided not to speak to the senate inquiry on diaspora communities in Australia

Last year, on an episode of The Minefield, I discussed a tendency towards “internal othering” in Australia’s public discourse, with particular reference to Chinese communities in Australia. In my conversation with Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens, I posed these questions: “At what point can we say that this person of Chinese heritage has been here long enough to deserve our trust? What does this person of Chinese extraction have to do in order to prove that they’re one of us? Is it possible that this person can be loyal to Australia while at the same time still loving his or her motherland?”

Our discussion did not produce any answers; we left these questions dangling. More than a year later, it seems that we have clear answers to at least some of them.

In the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee’s inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities in Australia, Senator Eric Abetz asked each of three witnesses of Chinese heritage to tell him “whether they are willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.” All three were attending the hearing voluntarily at the invitation of the committee, to clarify and elaborate on their written submissions.

Apparently not happy with their answers, Senator Abetz went further:

There’s a difference between not supporting something and actively condemning a regime that engages in forced organ harvesting and having a million Uighers in concentration camps — the list goes on, and all we have is this limp statement that we don’t support it.

In the eyes of some, these three witnesses, with their different cultural backgrounds — one Australian-born (Osmond Chiu), one Hong Kong-born but raised in Australia (Wesa Chau), and one China-born but raised in Australia (Yun Jiang) — may have failed a loyalty test, and were found wanting as Australian citizens. Worse still, their inability to answer this question to Senator Abetz’s satisfaction could be taken as further evidence of their questionable allegiance to Australia.

The impression that this was a loyalty test seems hard to avoid, although it should be noted that Senator Abetz has since put out a statement denying that he was demanding proof of loyalty. Regardless of his intentions, the consequences have nevertheless been unfortunate.

Senator Abetz is certainly entitled to his views on China and his assumptions about Chinese Australians. But in his role as a committee member of a public senate hearing, he enters problematic territory when his personal views influence the committee’s line of inquiry.

All of a sudden, these three Chinese Australian witnesses came to suspect that this inquiry had, as former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it, “no interest in listening to [their] insights about the challenges faced by ethnic minorities in our country.” Instead, they were there as targets of investigation. Small wonder that Yun Jiang felt that the experience was “less like a public inquiry and more like a public witch-hunt.” The witness has become a suspect. Hearing has become inquisition.

I had also made a written submission to the inquiry because, as an academic in a public institution, I believe I have a duty to present evidence-based research to inform public policy-making. As a result of that submission, I too received an invitation to appear before the committee — my appearance was due towards the end of October. I initially accepted the invitation. While I didn’t expect the committee members necessarily to like or agree with the points I raised in my submission, I was nevertheless hoping that appearing before them would give me a chance to clarify, elaborate on, and further discuss these findings and the evidence on which they were based.

However, after reading about the experience of these three, it now seems there is little point to my appearing before the committee. The terms and conditions of the inquiry seem to have been changed. Is a public hearing still a public hearing if committee members don’t want to listen? And why should I subject myself to interrogation, since, as a migrant who came to Australia from the People’s Republic of China as a young adult, I would by default most likely score even fewer loyalty points than the other three, and be subject to an even more “rigorous” line of questioning and probing? Knowing how these other three were treated, I now have no intention of putting myself on trial in this way.

News of “the unfortunate three” has been met with much anguish, anger, and a disturbing level of sadness by those Chinese Australians I talk to on social media. Among many people in my WeChat groups, most of whom are first-generation migrants from mainland China, one question that keeps being asked is this: “Our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister do not openly condemn the Chinese Communist Party for fear of jeopardising Australia’s trade relationship with China. Why should we ordinary Australians be expected to do so, at the risk of our own personal safety?”

These WeChat users also question the motives behind this line of inquiry. What purpose does Senator Abetz’s questioning of Chinese Australians serve, other than to make them feel that they will never belong, no matter how long they have lived here or how hard they have tried?

Quite a few older Chinese Australians who lived through the 1960s and 1970s have reported feeling a chill down their spine at the news of Abetz’s questioning. Some commented that this “feels eerily similar to China’s Cultural Revolution.” During that era of political purges, people were demanded to denounce “enemies of the state” — even though those “enemies” may have been their own friends and family. Those refusing to “draw a clear line” were automatically put in the category of the politically untrustworthy.

I raised a number of issues in my written submission — including anti-Chinese racism, the demonisation of the Chinese community, suspicion of Chinese Australians’ political loyalties, and the lack of civic and citizenship education for new migrants. But now that I see some of these same issues being reproduced in Senator Abetz’s line of questioning, it makes me doubt whether this senate inquiry represents a genuine attempt to address them.

Why I will not appear before the inquiry

I have several reasons for reversing my original decision to speak to the committee. First, although I am impressed with how the other three responded to this line of inquiry with dignity and eloquence, I fear that I may become too emotional and lose my cool, given the high likelihood that I too would be confronted with a similar level of aggressiveness. I would find it difficult to “front up” to the inquiry, knowing full well that, as one Australian colleague not of Chinese background warned me, “they will come for you.” As a result, I believe that it would take a toll on my mental health.

Second, my appearance is most likely useless. Since the hearing is clearly not a hearing, it seems that my original wish to help shed light on a very misunderstood diaspora community, in the hope of injecting some nuance and complexity into the debate, now seems rather quixotic.

Third, I have to think about the potential repercussions. What should I say if I’m asked to condemn the Chinese government unconditionally, as the other three were? If I do as asked, I may satisfy Senator Abetz, but I may thereby put myself and my family in China at risk. But if I refuse to do as he asks, my refusal may be interpreted as evidence that my allegiances lie with China rather than with Australia. This may also leave me open to public abuse and trolling, or to misreporting by hawkish journalists keen to flush out “Commie sympathisers.” So I would be damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.

My fourth reason is based as much on strategy as it is on principle. I believe that by withdrawing from the process, I may send a stronger and more effective public message than I would by appearing. I also see withdrawing as a more potent way of standing in solidarity with Osmond Chiu, Yun Jiang, and Wesa Chau. Were I to appear, my contribution would quickly be absorbed into the mass of other submissions, most of which will likely end up being ignored by the committee, the parliament, and the media. By making a point of not appearing, some of the concerns I’ve expressed in my submission may stand a better chance of being heard.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems that the implementation of this senate inquiry has been politicised — perhaps not along party lines, but politicised nonetheless. As a result, I suspect that its outcomes are already more or less predetermined.

There’s an ancient Chinese saying that goes, “When a scholar meets a soldier, the scholar with an argument to make doesn’t stand a chance.” At this moment, I also feel I don’t stand a chance of getting my message across in front of those politicians who come to the inquiry with closed minds and blocked ears, and with a bagful of preconceptions and assumptions that they freely — but perhaps unconsciously — reveal in the questions they ask and the answers they refuse to accept.

What’s more, based on the experience of the three Chinese Australians who went before me, it’s most likely that, in the eyes of Senator Abetz, my Chinese background would trump my scholarly credentials, as a result of which I probably wouldn’t be treated as a credible researcher capable of producing independent research in the first place. Worse still, he may think that my ethnic Chinese background itself would preclude me from any claim to independence and credibility. Without wanting to grandstand, I now see no reason, as a self-respecting academic researcher, for wanting to be associated with such an exercise.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Technology Sydney.


This article first appeared on ABC Religion & Ethics on 21 October 2020.