Mind your tongue: language, diplomacy and community in Australia–China relations
2 Oct 2019|

As Australia is compelled to engage a more confrontational China, there’s a risk that political commentary and media reporting on China’s influence and interference operations in Australia could affect Chinese-Australian communities adversely.

The problem is twofold, as I explain in my new report for ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. On one side is the Chinese party-state. Agencies of the Chinese Communist Party misrepresent and distort Australian commentary and reporting about the party’s conduct at home and abroad, its interference operations in Australia, and legitimate Australian responses to its conduct and operations. The aim is to divert or silence criticism of the party, disarm critical voices in the Chinese-Australian community, and drive a wedge between communities within Australia.

On the other side are Australian politicians and media who run the risk of alienating and possibly stigmatising Chinese-Australians through misleading claims or imprecise choices of words.

The CCP takes public diplomacy seriously, both as party and as government. Through its international propaganda arms, it has spent around A$10 billion each year over the past decade to frame what people of other countries say and write about China. The aim is to foster a positive image of China under CCP rule and curate local conversations about issues of particular concern in order to shape other governments’ policies and programs in ways that favour China’s commercial interests and long-term strategic goals.

In seeking to influence foreign opinion in its favour, China’s government resembles other governments. Foreign influence operations are an everyday part of public diplomacy and are welcomed where they’re legitimate and transparent. But public diplomacy crosses the line from legitimate influence to improper interference when it involves covert, coercive or corrupt behaviour. In Australia, such behaviour attracts legislative remedies and security responses in addition to public censure.

The Chinese government engages in a range of visible and acceptable influence operations. At the legitimate end of the spectrum, it targets people outside China through cultural agreements and exchanges, hosts public events, and supports media and print publications and educational programs. In Australia, it provides journalists with free guided trips to China, supplies schools with language learning and cultural studies textbooks, and co-funds Confucius Classrooms in state school systems and Confucius Institutes on university campuses. Those efforts often bear fruit. No other country has managed to embed its own government’s particular reading of history, politics and culture within other countries’ educational systems as effectively as the government of China.

At the improper end of the spectrum, through government and party channels, authorities based in Beijing are known to have censored Chinese-Australian community media, threatened private firms so as to limit commercial advertising in media outlets they disapprove of, made efforts to extend control over Chinese-Australian community organisations, and intimidated religious believers. Embassy and consular officials have called upon university executives to cancel events they regard as offensive. Above all, the CCP has engaged in wedge politics to undermine legitimate public debate on Chinese government policy and conduct within Australia. Similarly, the CCP isn’t alone in reaching out to diaspora communities based in other countries. Yet here the similarity ends.

The party’s united front diplomacy gives particular grounds for concern where it reaches out to people of Chinese descent regardless of citizenship, demands their loyalty to the party, and engages in covert and coercive behaviour to silence Chinese-Australians who harbour deep affection for China but none for the party.

So, what can well-meaning Australians do to help? And how can Chinese-Australian communities be enlisted as equal partners in meeting the challenges ahead?

Australians who are concerned that public conversations about China’s influence and interference operations in Australia could adversely affect Chinese-Australian communities can help mitigate risks by heeding the many voices to be heard among those communities, by cultivating respect among all Australians for minority rights and freedoms, by working for greater minority inclusion in senior positions and peak bodies and councils, and by taking the time to be more thoughtful about what they say and how and where they say it. My report offers a few pointers on how this can be done.

While the risks of fanning anti-Chinese racism through criticism of Chinese government behaviour are real, so are the challenges arising from a foreign government exploiting sensitivities over ethnic identity and cohesion in Australia’s multicultural society as a cover for interference in public life and community affairs.

Both sets of risks require Australia’s education systems and civil society to deal sensitively with intercultural issues and require Australia’s diplomatic and political representatives to defend Australian national interests in ways that don’t jeopardise the social standing of minority communities or damage social harmony. The ongoing challenge from a more confident and confrontational government in China will require firm and principled approaches from Australians for many years to come, expressed in clear and unambiguous language.