In Debate Over Chinese Regime Infiltration of Australia, Academics Say Racism Not the Issue

April 1, 2018 Updated: April 5, 2018

A group of Australia-based academics who study China have issued an open letter arguing that there is concrete evidence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s “unacceptable interference” in Australia’s society and politics—dismissing the argument by some that the debate about Chinese regime infiltration is driven by racism.

The Australian government has proposed laws that criminalize foreign political interference, after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said late last year that foreign powers were making “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process.”

Turnbull cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence,” after prominent Australian Labor Party lawmaker Sam Dastyari was swept up in allegations that he was acting on behalf of CCP-aligned interests in the country.

“Sam Dastyari is a very clear case of somebody who has literally taken money from people closely associated with the Chinese government and, in return for that, has delivered essentially Chinese policy statements,” Turnbull said after Dastyari publicly backed the CCP’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea.

Dastyari had accepted donations from Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo, the head of the Sydney-based Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, which has ties to the United Front Work Department, a key apparatus for the CCP’s propaganda warfare. Dastyari resigned from the Australian Parliament in December.

Critics of the CCP have accused some universities in Australia of self-censoring through the curtailing of their independent China research because they receive funding from donors said to have ties to the CCP.

The critics also cite the CCP’s public statements about its plans of “unrestricted warfare” overseas.

“No one should be under any illusions about the objective of the Communist Party leadership—its long-term, systematic infiltration of social organizations, media, and government,” said Anson Chan in 2016. Chan was Hong Kong’s top civil servant from 1993 to 2001, the period during which the then-British territory was handed over for its first period under CCP rule.

“Australia is a very open society, so it wouldn’t occur to most people the designs of the one-party state. And it wouldn’t have occurred to the people of Hong Kong until we experienced it first hand.”

But some academics have doubted these concerns from critics of the CCP, because they say they have yet to see “evidence,” for example, that “China is intent on exporting its political system to Australia, or that its actions aim at compromising our sovereignty.”

In a March 19 submission to the parliamentary review of the proposed foreign interference laws, one group of academics said that their main concern was about a racial backlash against Chinese in Australia. “The media narrative in Australia singles out the activities of individuals and organisations thought to be linked to the Chinese state,” the submission read.

Largely dismissing reports that the CCP is intentionally infiltrating Australia, they said that such discussions about China would “encourage suspicion and stigmatisation of Chinese Australians in general,” although they did acknowledge that if the Chinese Communist Party were indeed seeking to infringe the “rights to freedom of expression” of those in Australia that “appropriate steps may be required.”

In response to these academics, another group of academics who are critical of the CCP acknowledged the concern among their colleagues about a racist backlash against Chinese living in Australia. In a March 28 submission to the parliamentary review, they agreed that “it is vital that the debate is driven by fact-based research and reporting rather than sensationalism or racism.”

But they emphasized, “it is also vital that this debate is not stifled by self-censorship,” referring to a number of well-documented reports of the CCP’s influence on Australia’s educational institutions, media, and Chinese community networks, many of which are echoed by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

“There is a critical need to clearly distinguish between Chinese people and the CCP and avoid conflating the two in public discussions,” the submission read.

“We firmly believe the current debate is not characterized by racism and that it is crucial for Australia to continue this debate.

“Identifying, recognising, and winding back CCP interference as an unacceptable and counterproductive part of bilateral engagement is a step towards developing a healthy China–Australia relationship over the long term.”

Feng Chongyi, an associate professor of China studies at the University of Technology Sydney and one of the letter’s signatories, said he and other academics mainly wished to respond to the March 19 letter, which he believed lacked academic integrity. “They [the academics who signed the March 19 letter] were imitating the tone and reasoning of the Chinese regime by saying that the proposed laws would lead to anti-Chinese racism or would cause Australian society to become divided,” Feng said in a March 29 interview with New Tang Dynasty Television, a sister media of The Epoch Times.

In an attempt to divert attention away from the CCP’s subversive activities overseas, the Chinese regime’s state media and 50 cent army have long claimed that any criticism of the CCP must be rooted in “racism” against the Chinese people.

“It just shows you how desperate they are,” Turnbull said after CCP state media again waved its “racism” card, labeling the discussion on reforming Australia’s foreign interference laws as “China phobia.”

Feng instead urged the academic world to openly debate the issue of Chinese infiltration, rather than feeling pressured to withhold their opinion for fear of being labeled as racism or accused of having a “Cold-War mentality.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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