Racism and the China debate: a response to Chris Zappone

Those of us who’ve criticised the conduct of Australia’s China debate have become accustomed to insinuations that we’re soft on Beijing, or even in league with it. Finger-pointing at the enemy within was a feature of Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion, and has continued in the wake of that book’s publication. Chris Zappone now adds a new charge to the rap-sheet, with the claim that the question of anti-Chinese racism has become a ‘weaponised narrative’, and those bringing it up might be aiding and abetting a Chinese information war.

Introducing readers to a group of scholars who signed a public letter cautioning against stigmatising Chinese Australians, Zappone then asks whether ‘talk about anti-China bias is itself part of a strategy to muddy the discussion in Australia and undercut Australia’s ability to defend its sovereignty?’ Relying on the views of five experts who think it is, and only one who doesn’t, he unsurprisingly reaches the conclusion that, indeed, talk of Australian racism represents ‘another dimension in a powerful challenge to Australia’s independence’.

That’s right, our very independence is at stake.

No-one wants to see the debate on China derailed by distracting accusations. But treating vigilance towards anti-Chinese racism as just one more facet of an all-pervasive Chinese threat will have precisely that effect. More than that: with laws in the pipeline that greatly widen the scope of criminal ‘foreign influence’, loose talk such as this threatens to shut down the debate entirely.

According to the government’s proposed new Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, being ‘part of a strategy’ (and we all know whose strategy) will become a serious crime: anyone engaging in an undisclosed collaboration with a foreign principal to try to sway public opinion on a policy question is looking at a sentence of seven years in jail. Zappone might think he’s doing smart commentary, but he’s actually casting a pall of suspicion across a large section of Australia’s scholarly community.

Of course there are disclaimers. Zappone’s not saying that people are ‘pawns of Beijing’. And while Chinese media portrays Australia as a racist country, Kevin Carrico acknowledges that ‘not every person who agrees with that is “receiving orders”.’ But still, that means that some are. And how’s the unwitting Australian public to know the treasonous from the loyal? Should we investigate every critic just to be on the safe side? The Transparency Scheme gives Canberra the authority to do just that.

It’s hard enough as it is to raise unwelcome questions in the field of Australia-China relations. Simply questioning the long-term viability of Australia’s alliance with the US was enough for Hugh White to be singled out as a Munich-style ‘capitulationist’ in Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion. But in the climate that the new laws will create, similar accusations of selling out Australia’s interests will have an even more chilling effect. Those with the most ties to China – that is, Chinese Australians – will inevitably have the most to worry about.

Obviously Australia’s China debate has global implications, and people outside the country are weighing in. Hillary Clinton was recently out on a tour of the Pacific, spruiking the Chinese threat. Clive Hamilton has just wound up his own tour of North America, where he met with intelligence agencies and think-tanks. Given this trans-Pacific exchange, it’s only natural that we see similar talking points in the debate on Chinese influence in Australia and the US. But to conclude from this that Hamilton, or anyone who holds similar views to him, is a ‘stooge of Washington’ would be ridiculous. Rhetoric like this only leads in one direction: away from the substance of the debate.

In this case, though, we’re not even talking about a coincidence of talking points. To try to make his charge stick, Zappone’s depiction of the ‘weaponised narrative’ of anti-Chinse racism blurs some very obvious differences between the attacks of the jingoistic PRC press, and the criticisms voiced by Australian scholars.

It’s important to be clear, therefore, about where the question of racism has arisen in this debate, and where it hasn’t. No serious voice critical of the discourse surrounding Chinese influence has argued that those pushing it have racist motivations. Zappone’s also off the mark when he writes that ‘The question is to what degree does anti-China bias explain Australia’s political action in cracking down on perceived foreign influence.’ That might be a talking point in China, but it’s not here in Australia.

The question is, rather, to what extent does the crackdown on foreign influence, and the media blitz surrounding it, needlessly alienate the Chinese-Australian community, and prepare the ground for a possible resurgence of actual anti-Chinese racism? In raising these questions, people have naturally pointed to Australia’s history of suspicions and scare campaigns towards immigrants from China.

People are welcome to dismiss these questions and argue that there’s nothing to worry about. That’s what a normal debate would look like. But instead of having a normal debate, the dismissals almost always come with accusations that those asking the questions are, wittingly or unwittingly, doing Beijing’s bidding. The language of a weaponised narrative attack lends that accusation an even more sinister tone, situating discussion of Australian racism along a spectrum of threats to our national security.

But talk of a ‘weaponised narrative’ doesn’t just distract from the debate: it carries an implication that debate itself is a bad thing. 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 [which] confounds response on the part of the defender’.

A reasonable reader could easily conclude that the best way to thwart such attacks would be to reject complexity and rally around our ‘civilisation’. Obviously, though, any campaign for social justice calls into question mainstream definitions of what it is to be Australian. Whiteness was once considered an essential part of Australian identity: undermining that was a good thing. Today, when Indigenous Australians mourn 26 January as Invasion Day, they create a schism, and challenge one of Australia’s ‘core narratives’. Are they also weakening our ability to resist China?

This isn’t a reductio ad absurdum. We’ve already reached this point in the debate in the US, with some arguing that the debate on police violence serves Russian interests by dividing Americans among themselves.

By going down this path, we end up where we so often do: standing up to Chinese authoritarianism by mimicking it. Critics of the PRC rightly point to the way that Beijing imposes a homogenous vision of Chinese culture and identity on its citizenry, and seeks to foist this vision onto Chinese abroad. In China, questioning this civilizational unity is treated as inherently subversive, particularly if foreigners are listening.

Let’s not treat our own national narratives in the same way. The only way to create genuine unity among Australians is to be honest about our conflicted past, and conscious of the way it lives on in our present.

Any thought that we should downplay or avoid talk of Australian racism to resist foreign influence would be a mistake at the best of times. But arguments like this could well turn into serious threats to free speech, if Turnbull’s national security legislation gets through the parliament, and commentators invoke the logic of the ‘weaponised narrative’ to implicate those who disagree with them in a Chinese conspiracy. If we’re going to preserve a space for public debate in Australia, it’s crucial that these reckless insinuations come to an end, and we all take a stand against laws that threaten our civil liberties.


Image: ‘Mao (still) lives’ / flickr

David Brophy

Dr David Brophy is a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney.

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  1. The charge of ‘racism’ is just too useful a weapon in political debate to give up, especially since it makes the person using this weapon feel very moral and superior. I doubt that any attempt to counter it will have much of an impact.

    Also: be careful about defending ‘free speech’ in the abstract. As we have begun to see on American campuses, advanced opinion understands that speech should be free only for those who do not hold hateful views.

  2. Glad you’ve countered Zappone’s essay. “Weaponized narrative” is a vague, alarmist meme directed against a range of perceived adversaries of the US-led western alliance — uppity Russians and Muslims, as well as Chinese. The meme is promoted by a group based at Arizona State University, the Weaponized Narrative Initiative. As the group acknowledges on its own website: “We do not pretend to yet have a coherent integrated perspective on weaponized narrative…”

  3. I would disagree about not having seen a resurgence of anti-Chinese racism. Maybe it isn’t part of the academic debate, or “serious” debate, but prejudice works on an emotional level. The stories about Baby Formula resellers and a supposed shortage for “Australian babies” have already laid the groundwork. More people see those than read academic discourse and this has led to harassment. The Australian article about Chinese sailors buying infant formula explicitly connected the two “threats”, on the one hand to the most powerful, on the other to the least.

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