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Chinese Australians are no political wallflowers

Tseen Khoo |  06 September 2016


For a community that has been traditionally represented as averse to getting involved in politics, Chinese Australian groups have recently made headlines for doing just that. This doesn't mean Chinese Australians have not been politically active all this time; more that it hasn't often been noted.

 Cartoon by Chris JohnstonDuring and since the federal election, there have been instances of Chinese Australian political action that are useful to note. In the first instance, in the aftermath of the election, commentators highlighted the influence of an anti-Labor Chinese language campaign conducted through WeChat and targeting voters in the strongly Chinese-speaking seats, including Chisholm in Victoria.

This campaign spread disinformation about what it meant to vote Labor, especially targeting topics such as the Safe Schools program, same-sex marriage, and refugee policy. Commentators credit this scaremongering campaign with winning Chisholm for the Liberals.

In a similar vein, all New South Wales MPs received the same form letter on 15 August, signed by people with apparently Chinese names, demanding that the Safe Schools program be removed from NSW government schools. On the heels of this, a petition — again, apparently from the 'Chinese community' — was submitted for tabling to NSW Parliament.

One could argue that this particular set of anti-Safe Schools actions are a continuation of the sustained attack on the program by Australia's conservative Christian Right, and have more in common with their homophobic values and virulent tactics than representing 'Chinese Australians' per se. Counter-petitions supporting Safe Schools, generated by Chinese Australians, are now circulating.

In the second instance, the Chinese Australian Forum (CAF) witnessed the traction that One Nation had regained, and the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson as senator. This spurred them to mobilise against the rising prevalence of racist hate-speech against Muslim communities.

Informed by previous experiences of One Nation coming to prominence in the 1990s, the CFA launched a #saynotoPauline campaign that sought to 'stand by any minorities at risk of vilification'. The solidarity with which the CAF would like to stand with Muslim groups is just one example of inter-community collaboration that is rarely noted yet crucial in building momentum for broader anti-racist activity.


"Chinese Australians should feel free to comment and debate any issue we choose to, not just those that appear to have cultural community or racialised relevance."


In the final instance, Alpha Cheng wrote an open letter to publicly shut down Hanson's exploitation of his father's death as part of her party's anti-Muslim platform. Cheng's considered dissection of the politics of intolerance perpetuated by One Nation is an intervention that hollows out Hanson's repeated attempts to set up an oppositional dynamic between 'Australian' and Muslim groups.

Far from being wallflowers, these three instances demonstrate how embedded and active Chinese Australians are in politics and as politicised actors, across the spectrum. The ways in which these various groups' politics play out, however, are very different and certainly not indicative of a single community voice. Australian media and public perceptions of ethnic communities tend to conglomerate them as a single group with consistent perspectives.

For example, a survey that attempted to find out what the priorities were for Chinese Australians in the lead up to the federal election targeted Chinese-speakers who frequented one particular website and two Chinese-language social platforms. Responses were received from 280 individuals and this article extrapolated from this sample that these opinions stood for 'Chinese Australians'. Chinese Australians are estimated to comprise four per cent of the Australian population — about 960 thousand people. When the survey makes their small, niche-recruited sample stand for all Chinese Australians, it fails to recognise how diverse the category of 'Chinese Australian' can be, whether individuals are born here, where they come from, and how they might arrive in Australia.

This flattening of a group that holds many groups within it, all with very different opinions and who agitate for varied ends, offers a very shallow understanding of Australian society. Indeed, attributing opinions and sociopolitical beliefs to people or groups only because of their heritage or ethnicity obscures the complexity — and porosity — of the inter- and intra-community networks in which everyone is embedded. Your version of Chinese Australia may not be mine, and that is fine. There is no correct version, after all.

Chinese Australians should feel free to comment and debate any issue we choose to, not just those that appear to have cultural community or racialised relevance. While we may be racially marked, we are not just — or even! — experts on culture and race.

Politics is about power and who gets heard. Ensure you are not being spoken for by groups who purport to be of your 'community' but who hold views that run counter to yours. There is room on the public stage for dissent and debate. After all, that is what real political participation looks like.


Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), a network for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.



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Submitted comments

Another initiative needed too. Thomas Berry has said that Chinese cultural roots - of all civilizations - have the strongest of all human-nature traditions. Let's help them explore these (FORE@Yale does) and see them deflect from the obsessive drive towards a neo-liberal capitalism future. If we can't help them do this, they will simply repeat the mistakes, the damage, that European settlers wreaked on this extraordinary continent.

Len Puglisi 07 September 2016

The Chinese should be curtailed from buying and leasing Sate owned assets and quangos. This includes ports and utilities. State Governments selling off the family silverware to aggressive Chinese multinationals will inevitably lead to disharmony and penury to say nothing of the security risk. In China there is no free speech and no freedom of worship. Any criticism of the Government is trounced. Especially their military expansion of bases in the South China Sea.They purport to stand up for the Muslim community here but you can bet they would never support that attitude in China.

francis Armstrong 07 September 2016

Thanks for this excellent, informative piece. Much of the coverage regarding 'the Chinese' lacks understanding and glosses over the subtlety and complexity of what is a diverse population.

Myrna 07 September 2016

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