‘A green light to be racist’: Experts slam the government’s China scare campaign

Experts fear the government's anti-China rhetoric could have serious consequences for Asian-Australians.

Experts fear the government's anti-China rhetoric could have serious consequences for Asian-Australians. Photo: AAP

The government’s China scare campaign against Labor could have serious consequences for Asian people in Australia.

As the federal election looms, the government has repeatedly highlighted several minor links between Anthony Albanese and the Chinese government.

The rhetoric, such as when Peter Dutton called Mr Albanese “China’s pick” or when Scott Morrison dubbed deputy Labor leader Richard Marles a “Manchurian Candidate”, can have the effect of branding anyone associated with China as bad or untrustworthy.

“The problem with the government’s language is that it lacks a lot of nuance and it’s actually very lazy,” Erin Chew, founder of the Asian Australian Alliance, told The New Daily.

“When someone that high up – a senior minister – is using lazy language like that, what happens is there is going to be a racial backlash against people like myself who look Chinese.”

Ms Chew has compiled more than 600 cases of anti-Asian racism in Australia since the pandemic began, and says the reality is likely much more widespread.

With this context, she believes the government’s anti-China rhetoric gives certain people “a green light to be racist”.

Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison have both accused Anthony Albanese of being soft on China.

Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have both accused Anthony Albanese of being soft on China. Photo: AAP

Jennifer Hsu is a research fellow with the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program who worked on the Being Chinese in Australia report last year, and she also saw a similar spike in racist incidents.

“We found that there was a surprising number of people – 18 per cent – who self-reported that they’ve been physically threatened or attacked attacked because of their Chinese heritage,” Ms Hsu told TND.

Ms Hsu said more people could feel emboldened to racially attack Asian-Australians during the upcoming election campaign.

“In some ways, the current tone of the political debate around China and Australia-China relations, I’m scared to say, might give those who are on the extreme ends of the political spectrum reason to voice and act upon their dissatisfaction with a state of Australian politics, Australian society and community at large,” she said.

Government on the attack

Earlier in February, ASIO announced it had foiled a foreign interference plot without mentioning the country responsible or the political party that was targeted.

Defence Minister Dutton then singled out the Labor Party but provided zero evidence.

“We now see evidence that the Chinese Communist Party has also made a decision about who they’re going to back in the next election, that is obvious, and they have picked this bloke as their candidate,” said Mr Dutton, pointing to Mr Albanese.

Mr Albanese called the comments “desperate”.

Days later, Chinese state newspaper the Global Times ran an op-ed by former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh in which he praised Mr Albanese over Mr Morrison.

In response, Mr Morrison pointed at Mr Albanese in Parliament and said: “The Chinese government has picked their horse and he’s sitting right there.”

The Prime Minister also referred to deputy Labor leader Richard Marles as a “Manchurian Candidate” for giving a speech in 2019 at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, where he called for strong ties with China.

Manchurian Candidate poster

A poster for the 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate. Photo: Getty

The term “Manchurian Candidate” comes from the political thriller novel of the same name (with two film adaptations) where a US soldier during the Korean War was brainwashed in the Manchuria region of northern China.

A day later, News Corp ran a story about a similar 2018 speech Mr Albanese gave at a gala hosted by the Australia China Economics, Trade & Culture Association.

“At the moment, we’re all being thrown in front of the bus, and even though they haven’t specifically mentioned it, we’re being pushed to choose a side,” Ms Chew said.

“Are we all for the so-called Australian values, whatever that means, or are we loyal to the Chinese government?”

“There’s no middle ground.”

It’s something former prime minister Kevin Rudd called a “McCarthyist campaign”, while ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said the politicisation of national security was not helpful.

Labor’s response didn’t help either, Ms Hsu believes.

In response to the ASIO statement, Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching used parliamentary privilege to claim billionaire property developer and philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing was the “puppeteer” in question.

Dr Chau denied the allegations and slammed Senator Kitching’s speech as “baseless and reckless”.

“When you make these allegations saying that it’s one particular philanthropist or a particular country, without actually giving any evidence to support the allegations made and using parliamentary privilege, it’s actually irresponsible because it changes the tenor of the debate,” Ms Hsu said.

“The focus then becomes on Chinese people and people of Chinese heritage, rather than the actual conduct of the threat.”

Polling day looms

The federal election must be held on or before May 21.

Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders, political commentator Niki Savva claimed the Liberal Party’s internal focus found that the anti-China rhetoric might not be working as planned.

“Internally, in the government, they’re very worried about what the impact will be in seats where there are high populations of Australians with Chinese heritage,” she said.

She added that Labor’s polling suggests Australians don’t buy the government’s scare campaign about China and national security.

Dr Monica Tan, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, said Australia has a history of anti-Chinese politics (and discrimination) since the colonial era.

Her research into anti-Asian attitudes in Australia found that many people will still conflate political criticism of the Chinese government with the Chinese diaspora as a whole.

“I think the government’s rhetoric is powerful in shaping the public anti-Chinese sentiment,” she told TND.

Ms Chew from the Asian Australian Alliance said it’s unfair for the government, or political parties in general, to use these talking points one day, and performatively pander to those same ethnic communities another day.

“They will be nice to the Asian or Chinese-Australian community when they need our votes,” she said.

“But when we’re not needed, they’ll push us into a corner, or just throw us away.”

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