In late September I wrote about how China was blurring the lines between ethnicity and citizenship when it came to Chinese Australians, as ethnic nationalism has become a more pronounced feature of the Communist Party’s operational framework. This is creating significant insecurities for this group of people, and limiting the way in which they are able to engage with China. Unfortunately, members of the Australian parliament are now playing a similar game, pushing and pulling at Chinese Australians for their own domestic political purposes, and compounding their insecurities.
In mid-October, during a Senate Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Committee focused on issues facing diaspora communities in Australia, three Chinese Australians who were invited to contribute their expertise to the committee were repeatedly asked by Liberal Party Senator Eric Abetz to “unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.” Abetz was effectively demanding a demonstration of loyalty from these experts before submitting their contributions to the committee. This was both demeaning to the participants personally, and had the effect of marking all Chinese Australians as suspicious internal actors until they prove themselves otherwise.
For politicians like Abetz who like to make assertive and swaggering pronouncements about their opposition to the CCP as part of their political identity, the implications of their rhetoric are not high on their list of considerations. They are instead attempting to secure a domestic constituency that sees chest-beating as policy. Due to its increasing global assertiveness, China has become a very useful device for this kind of domestic politicking. Yet responding to belligerence with a thoughtless counter-belligerence is not a sophisticated way for Australian politicians to behave.
In fact, by seeking a loyalty test from Chinese Australians, Abetz was doing exactly what the CCP wanted him to do: making Chinese Australians feel unwelcome and insecure in Australia in the hope that these people will see their security coming from the Chinese government rather than the Australian government. That would further the CCP’s goal of being the primary voice for all ethnic Chinese. Useful idiots do not need to be fellow travelers; they can also be clumsy politicians engaging in acts of rhetorical grandstanding without any concern for the people they are using as political tools, or any understanding of the knock-on effects of their actions.
What makes Abetz’s behavior even more concerning is that the committee he was a member of was designed to assess how diaspora communities are engaging with Australia’s body politic. Australia has a noticeable underrepresentation of Asian Australians in general in its parliaments, both at federal and state level, and part of the committee’s remit was to understand why. Instead Abetz’s behavior will only compound this problem, as asking Chinese Australians to submit themselves to a loyalty test will discourage people from engaging in the country’s politics. It will give them the sense that they will forever be viewed with suspicion regardless of their positive contributions to Australian society.
More broadly, the incident brings to attention the primary dilemma for liberal democratic societies in their response to powerful authoritarian regimes: the temptation to “defend” their societies by means that are not liberal democratic. When this occurs the authoritarian regime has achieved a victory; it has been able to make a country undermine its own values, to make that country more like itself. As Yun Jiang – one of the experts submitting analysis to the committee – has subsequently written on the encounter, asking people to publicly declare their political positions is a tactic the CCP uses on its own people. It is “a tool of authoritarianism.”
These types of crude actions by senior politicians that undermine the country’s values are especially dangerous for a multicultural society like Australia. As the CCP increasingly uses ethnic nationalism as a major branch of both its domestic behavior and international influence operations, Australia’s multiculturalism will be given a stress test. The response to Beijing’s behavior cannot be ethnic suspicion within Australia. The opposite of ethnic nationalism is not a different variety of ethnic nationalism, it is pluralism; a commitment to the inherent human value of each citizen regardless of their background.
Australia’s social stability is reliant on its commitment to its pluralistic liberal democracy, and this commitment needs to be shared, guarded, and promoted by its public representatives. This requires an actual understanding of these ideals, what they mean, and how they are defended and reinforced. Unfortunately, there are now a number of Australian politicians – including Abetz – who have identified China as a domestic political opportunity to prove how tough they are. But in their graceless attempts to demonstrate their opposition to the CCP they have instead ended up working for it.