June 24, 2021


China panic: What can be done about anti-Chinese racism?

By David Brophy

Image © Aleks Taurus / Alamy

The work of combatting Sinophobia must be combined with a critique of Australian foreign policies

Crudely essentialist views of China and its people clearly exist in official circles. Much like “values”, ideas of culture and civilisation permeate popular punditry on international relations, but make their way into more serious pronouncements too. In 2019, the director of policy planning at the US State Department characterised the Trump administration’s relationship with China as “a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology”. It can’t be entirely coincidental that Australia’s China panic coincides with a push to restore pride in “Western civilisation” at Australia’s universities, through ventures such as the Ramsay Centre. Some officials clearly believe, too, that these differences are not just cultural, but genetic. “The East Asian mind and the Western mind are fundamentally different,” an anonymous Five Eyes security source opined to the ABC. “Western thought is based on causality; East Asian thinking is like a spider’s web.”

Usually, though, it is the logic of the security scare that feeds today’s China panic and ends up implicating all Chinese people. There are obvious ways in which specific anti–Chinese Communist Party language can give way to an all-embracing paranoia. When ASIO announced, as it did in late 2017, that it was watching 10 candidates for political office with “links” to intelligence in the People’s Republic of China, it was hard to see how that would not arouse suspicion against all candidates of Chinese background. We find points of slippage too, when avowedly anti-CCP voices show us the extent to which their vigilance extends to anyone of Chinese ethnicity – for instance, when Clive Hamilton mentions in Silent Invasion, apropos of nothing, that Bob Carr’s wife is of Malaysian-Chinese background, or when he expresses alarm at the fact that the Australian Defence Force Academy employs ethnically Chinese janitors. When picked up on this point at a Lowy Institute forum, Hamilton was unrepentant: this was the office of a cybersecurity expert, and vigilance was required.

There’s a principle here that needs defending: criticising the CCP for its policies is not, in and of itself, racist. The idea that criticism of the Chinese government is in any way inherently “anti-Chinese” has to be dismissed. I have to note the irony, though, of the Western public sphere loudly defending this principle in the case of China, while often overlooking it in the case of Israel, allowing critics of Zionism and supporters of Palestinian rights to be frequently attacked as anti-Semites. While he insists that criticising the CCP is not anti-Chinese, Senator Eric Abetz – chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee – has been one of the most vocal in branding criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, and in advancing a definition of anti-Semitism (that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) that is widely recognised as endangering free speech. Once again, foreign-policy priorities trump principle: friends of the West can silence critics with accusations of prejudice, but enemies cannot.

A misguided accusation that someone is personally motivated by racist bigotry can stifle debate, but this is far from the only way debate is discouraged. The fact that China has, on occasion, described the criticism it receives as racist has given rise to the view that criticism of racism might itself be part of a CCP conspiracy. “What if the accusation of Australian racism is itself a weaponised narrative?” asks Chris Zappone, Nine journalist and member of the Futures Council of ANU’s National Security College. A “weaponised narrative” attack, according to the US think-tank promoting the concept, “undermines an opponent’s civilisation, identity and will. By generating confusion, complexity, and political and social schisms, it confounds response on the part of the defender.”

It’s a straightforward logical fallacy that certain opinions should be avoided or rejected because of who else holds them, but it’s a fallacy that is working its way into Australia’s China debate. Anti-racist critique itself is now seen as suspicious, because China engages in it too. By this logic, self-criticism becomes an unaffordable luxury. Owning up to Australia’s conflicted past, and the way it lives on in the present, could be giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Particularly in light of Australia’s foreign-interference laws, which permit security agencies to investigate accusations that individuals are collaborating with a foreign principal to influence Australian politics, it’s not hard to see how framing anti-racist critique as a “weaponised narrative” serving CCP interests might have a silencing effect.

Today, if someone offers a criticism that coincides with something Beijing says, this is often seen as sufficient grounds to dismiss it as a “CCP talking point”. An even worse sin, of course, is to express such criticisms in a Chinese forum. This was what New South Wales MP Shaoquett Moselmane did last February: he published an article on a Chinese website criticising anti-Chinese racism as the resurgence of anachronistic White Australia sentiments, and he was pilloried for it in the media.

At the time he was writing, Moselmane was pointing to something that was already obvious: the association of COVID-19 with China and Chinese people was sparking an upsurge of racism. Tabloids superimposed the PRC flag on images of the COVID-19 particles and spoke of “Chinese virus pandemonium”. As returnees from Wuhan were diverted to Christmas Island, headlines singled out “China kids” as domestic risk factors. Speculation that China had engineered and/or weaponised the virus was rife. Sky News seized on a “dodgy dossier” linking COVID-19 to the Wuhan lab, possibly provided by the American embassy. Donald Trump’s open indulgence of these conspiracy theories was given support by Scott Morrison’s more cautious, but no less mischievous, proposal that China must submit to an independent inspection to determine the origins of the virus. China’s entirely predictable opposition to the scheme gave Nine political and international editor Peter Hartcher the opportunity to keep stirring the pot: “it suggests the Beijing regime has a lot to hide”, he claimed. Letterboxing by Falun Gong activists, along with members of the recently established “New Federal State of China”, brought COVID-19 conspiracy theories to the kitchen tables of Australia.

Brophy cover

As early as February 2020, Australia’s Human Rights Commission was noting a serious spike in racial discrimination complaints attributable to COVID-19. A group of Asian-Australian activists launched an anti-racism survey, which recorded some 400 racist attacks in a three-month period. In April, 16 prominent Chinese Australians penned an open letter on anti-Asian racism, asking for “fairness in our national debate, our media reporting and in our communities”. This call took note of the way styles of “Chinese influence” reportage – by now well-established – were exacerbating hostility to Chinese Australians during the crisis. The period saw a sustained campaign, for example, to blame “United Front” organisations for depriving Australia of medical supplies by exporting them to China – or, alternatively, for doing political propaganda by importing the same goods from China.

A serious shift in public opinion towards immigrants from China was confirmed by the Scanlon Foundation’s “Mapping Social Cohesion” report for 2020, which found that almost half of Australians (47 per cent) had negative views towards this community. This was a huge increase from 2013, when only 13 per cent of Australians felt this way. A Lowy Institute poll released in March 2021 explored the consequences of this shift from the victim’s perspective, finding that in the preceding 12 months, 31 per cent of Chinese Australians had suffered racial abuse, and 18 per cent – almost one in five – had been physically threatened or attacked because of their Chinese heritage.

This rapid rise in racial animosity is simply inexplicable without reference to the way the Australian media has binged on the “CCP influence” paradigm since 2017. One survey of major news outlets found stories on this topic have been rising exponentially: from 40 stories in 2016, to 331 in 2017, and 747 in 2018. During 2020, the suspicion that all Chinese were linked to the CCP combined in toxic ways with the stereotype of Chinese people as carriers of outlandish diseases. When Sydney man Raimond Kelly stood outside the Chinese consulate in Sydney cracking a whip, haranguing Chinese lined up there, he saw their masks as evidence that they were part of a CCP conspiracy to infect the world with COVID-19. “You fucking knew about it, it’s your plan,” he bellowed at them.

Something we can also say with confidence is that any antagonism that begins with Chinese in Australia will not end there. Just as Sikhs and other non-Muslim immigrants of Middle Eastern or South Asian appearance found themselves victims of Islamophobic violence in the wake of 9/11, so too Asian Australians of a wide range of backgrounds are at risk of falling victim to the new climate of anti-Chinese racism.

The security officials, politicians and pundits responsible for this rapidly deteriorating situation have ignored the warnings for some time now, and I have little confidence they’re ever going to heed them. Those committed to a path of confrontation with China increasingly invest their hope in popular sentiment to sustain the momentum: “The crucial factor in this fight is Australian public opinion,” Hamilton writes. From this point of view, a generalised racist hostility towards Chinese immigrants may be a regrettable by-product of Canberra’s “world historical” showdown with Beijing, but certainly not something that should prompt any rethinking of it.

At a time like this, the work of anti-racist activists is essential. They have highlighted the many factors that make Australia ill-equipped to contain a new wave of racial prejudice: the dominance of white perspectives in politics, and the cultural ignorance and insensitivity to issues of race that this breeds; the lack of diversity in media and the toxic, inhospitable environment this is often said to create for minority employees. They point to the need for the government to position itself as consciously anti-racist in its policies, to devise a national anti-racism strategy and to engender a culture of respect in the workplace and civil society.

These are all eminently worthwhile goals, and the activists pursuing them in an unreceptive climate deserve our full support. When Chinese Australians come out publicly and demonstrate against racism, we should stand alongside them. But there are limits to what anti-racism, in this form, can achieve. Even the most vociferous rejection of racism at the political level will count for little if it is not combined with an interrogation of the policies and postures that have generated this new wave of Australian Sinophobia. I’m convinced that, to be effective, anti-racism has to be combined with a critique of Australian foreign policies and the country’s orientation to the world. Otherwise, the current trend towards an increasingly bigoted and discriminatory society will continue, to the detriment of us all.


This is an edited extract from David Brophy’s China Panic, published by La Trobe University Press.

David Brophy

David Brophy is a historian of Uyghur nationalism and the author of Uyghur Nation. He is a frequent commentator on the Xinjiang crisis and a senior lecturer on modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney.

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