Statements in the Global Times last week by Huang Xiangmo, chairperson of the Yuhu Group and president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, have been widely reported on the basis of highly controversial statements about maximising the relationship between making donations and political influence. In his opinion piece, Huang states, “Chinese donors still need to learn from others about how to participate in politics, how to realize their political appeals by donations, and how to deploy the media to promote their political ideas.”
There are countless problems with Mr Huang’s view. The perspective is clearly at odds with principles underlying Australia’s system of political finance. The system itself would probably implode before donations were considered a legitimate basis for political influence. Certainly, this position was judicially legitimated through the McCloy case, where the High Court stated “guaranteeing the ability of the few to make large political donations to secure access to those in power is antithetical to the great underlying principle” of representative government and elections.
Huang’s conclusions are also problematic. The ABC’s claims about the risks to democratic practice may be racist, but they are far from groundless. It is clear that Mainland China’s growing exercise of soft power in Australia will be a national security challenge in the next two decades.
Nonetheless, there is a very important point in Huang’s opinion piece, which Australian media and commentators have not properly understood. The ABC has embarked upon a dangerous game of race bating, inferring Mainland Chinese patriotism on the basis of a Chinese name, or a corporate entity with Chinese connections. This actually plays into the hands of those who wish Mainland China to assert greater soft power across Chinese Australian communities. If this had been better understood, the ABC’s approach may have been more attuned to our true national interests.
The ABC reports
Just over a week ago, the ABC published reports from a special ‘investigation’ that claimed Chinese businesses with “close ties to China” donated $5.5 million to Australian political parties between 2013 and 2015. As part of the investigation, the ABC published a list of names that made up the $5.5 million over that period.
To the unassuming reader, this would have looked like an explosive expose, reinforcing the concerns of Defence analysts about Mainland China’s growing exercise of soft power in Australia, extending from investment in critical infrastructure to the purchase of political influence. To most ordinary Chinese Australians, these allegations would have been just as shocking. But even more shocking—when we look through the list published by the investigation—would have been the inclusion of Australian citizens, some long-standing party fundraisers, and even individuals who are clearly not part of Mainland China’s circle of influence.
In the best case scenario the ABC’s ‘investigation’—which listed many donors on the basis of a ‘Chinese’ surname was clumsy. In the worst case scenario, they were attributing blame to Chinese Australians in general. Another term for this is race baiting.
Diaspora and transnational politics
So let’s start with this simple fact. As Chinese Australians, we may share the same ancestry. We may effectively identify as of the same race. But in terms of political loyalties, there are good reasons why no-one should assume that the primary commitment of Chinese Australians is to Mainland China.
Take the following breakdown from the 2011 Census. The graph shows the range of birth nations of people who described themselves as coming from Chinese ancestry. On these figures, the largest proportion of Chinese were indeed born in Mainland China, but this was only 35.1% of the total.
The diversity of nations of origin reflects the fact that Chinese peoples have traded in the Asia-Pacific since 600 AD and built communities outside China, such as Peranakan Chinese communities in Indonesia and Malaysia, for over four hundred years. The cultural experiences of Chinese populations are very diverse. We differ in relation to socio-economic status, religious and even political beliefs.
Chinese people from some nations have an intimate understanding of British traditions (take Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore). It also means we have very different interests in democratic values and practices (take Taiwan and Indonesia, both fledgling democracies). Furthermore, more than one quarter of Chinese Australians were born in Australia, and have grown up internalising Australian values.
Even in terms of transnational and homeland politics, the attitude to Mainland China does not operate as a unifying political force. It’s why an organisation like the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC) led by the late William Chiu was formed in the late 1990s. These kinds of tensions were evident with the Hong Kong handover in 1997 and when the Umbrella Revolution took hold in Hong Kong in 2014. The Mainland Chinese government itself understands that homeland political loyalties only stretch so far — that’s why it has previously sought to make public statements seeking to rally Chinese nationalism.
It is in this context that the list of donors provided by the ABC is so curious. Huang rightfully asserted one thing, the report “failed to distinguish among local Chinese firms, China-invested Australian companies and branches of Chinese domestic firms.” The list tars all Chinese Australians with the same brush. In fact, beyond this, it includes a former Liberal Nationals Party candidate in QLD, born in Taiwan, and whose parents were actually involved in Taiwanese politics. It includes other names that are recognisably long-term political fundraisers. Many on the list are Australian citizens.
It is clear that a wide array of corporate interests have spurred corruption or exercised improper influence through donations in NSW and other states (just look at the ICAC’s recent Spicer report). Donations from Chinese businesses and business leaders have been a part of political fundraising at least since the Liberal Party’s special Chinatown branch in the mid 1990s. Most donors in this time have had no intent to assert political influence from another state power. Though some donations at the top end have absolutely been about corporate influence. There are many on the list provided by the ABC for which this undoubtedly remains true.
In composing its story, the ABC has actively associated people with a Chinese surname as vulnerable to Mainland China’s nationalistic appeals. Does this mean if we have a Chinese name we shouldn’t be donating to political parties, or we will be publicly shamed as a proxy for the Mainland Chinese government? We should be asking whether individuals should be donating massive sums to political parties as a way to assert political influence. But the discourse when associated with a specific nation’s foreign influence is heading into territory that is plain dangerous.
Hearts and minds
The worst thing about this investigation is that it diminishes very serious issues. The first is around our system of political finance. As argued by one academic commentator, “A distorted focus on ‘foreignness’ results in a failure to appreciate how ‘foreign’ political donations simply highlight broader problems with how political money is (not) regulated at the federal level.”
And does it matter whether the donations are about foreign influence? Shouldn’t we equally reject improper relationships with corporate entities, whether allegations of financial benefit derived from a foreign company are tied to improper influence, such as in relation to Sam Dayastri, or whether the improper benefit derived from a foreign company is tied to personal corruption, as was the case with Stuart Robert, or before him Michael Johnstone?
The second and more important issue is that the Mainland Chinese government is indeed increasingly involved in the exercise of soft power in Australia. How Australian civil society handles issues around political donations does in fact have national security implications. Making Australia’s largest Asian resident population feel that when push comes to shove, they will be seen as a proxy for Mainland authorities, and warned against participating in the political process is not a long-term strategy. Considering the stakes over the South China seas, this is just not a good time to be inferring that Chinese Australians should think about choosing sides.
I assume that the ABC’s approach was a mistake, and they never intended to suggest that all Chinese Australian political donations should be under suspicion. Such a position would actually play into the soft power aspirations of the PRC, by reinforcing and building diasporic Chinese patriotism. If the ABC had more journalists from ethnic and migrant backgrounds maybe this approach would have been red-flagged earlier. But the way it has been reported tells you a lot about how little we, as a society, have wrestled with the realities of the Asian Century. Not only do we know less about our Asian neighbours in the last twenty years than before, our public broadcaster knows less about its largest Asian community.
Table: Chinese ancestry groups by birth nation in Australia, 2011
Source. ABS Census
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