Australians need to engage in serious debate about China.
We should debate the appropriate response to the genocide in Xinjiang, and ongoing colonial oppression in Tibet. We need to debate how to respond to China's punitive economic measures against Australia. And we should debate our reaction to the assault on Hong Kong's democracy.
One thing that shouldn't be up for debate is the need for a staunchly anti-racist approach in how we talk about China in Australia.
Rising tensions with China are hurting Asian-Australians. The Asian Australian Alliance has recorded nearly 500 attacks on Asian-Australians since April 2020, mostly against women. One of the first publicly reported attacks during the pandemic targeted two Vietnamese-Australian sisters in Sydney. This follows a common pattern around the world where COVID-19, China, and people of "Asian" appearance have been repeatedly conflated, with harmful consequences. Those who attempt to sideline or actively oppose an anti-racist analysis become complicit in these attacks.
Chinese-Australians are particularly hard-hit by this toxic mix. Nearly one in five Chinese Australians surveyed by the Lowy Institute had been physically threatened or attacked in the past 12 months. At least three Chinese-Australian councillors in Sydney received vitriolic hate mail, targeting them as "Chinese", and in at least one case included a death threat.
Resistance to anti-racism ensures that the conflation of Chinese-Australians with China continues unabated. While public opinion of China in Australia and around the world has plummeted to all-time lows, a recent report by the Scanlon Foundation found that nearly half of Australians surveyed (47 per cent) held negative attitudes towards Chinese-Australians. We therefore need a consistently anti-racist approach when discussing China, in order to ensure that concern for international human rights and geopolitical tensions don't spill over into the lives of people in Australia.
And yet, some commentators in Australia currently oppose anti-racism by equating it with support for the Chinese Communist Party. A recent op-ed in Green Left claimed that anti-racists (including one of the authors of this article, Gerald Roche) are "siding with the persecutors" by "attempting to silence" critics of the Chinese Communist Party. Suggesting that either author of this article is a front for the CCP is patently absurd. This conflation of anti-racism with support for the Chinese Communist Party is now also being aired in news commentary depicting anti-racism as a Chinese strategy to "sow chaos".
Such arguments are part of a broader global backlash against anti-racism. French President Emanuel Macron recently identified "certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States" as an existential threat to France. In October 2020, Conservative minister Kemi Badenoch attacked critical race theory in the UK's House of Commons. And in January this year, Mike Pompeo used his last day as US Secretary of State to portray "woke-ism" and "political correctness" as authoritarian ideologies.
But it's not just conservative politicians who are attacking social justice theories and practices. There is also significant support for "anti-wokeness" from allegedly progressive intellectuals in the US, Europe, and Australia. Presenting themselves as protectors of free speech, rather than critics of social justice, these scholars insist on joining public debate to provide "balance".
There is no place for such voices in Australia's China debate. It's crucial that we are able to negotiate the complexities of our relationships with various groups, players and commentators, while recognising the serious and pervasive realities of systemic racism. Whipping up fear of a silent invasion or centring white saviour attitudes, which fail to see the damaging impact their actions are having on our shores, will do nothing to advance or protect anyone's human rights.
It shouldn't be too much to expect that commentary on China-Australia relations be underpinned by a consistent anti-racist stance, especially on the left. Anything less than this is inciting further harm to communities living in this country.
The China debate is not going away any time soon - and is escalating. Human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong are not going to vanish, and our tensions with China will likely continue. As we collectively navigate this situation, media outlets should be participating in this debate and helping to foster rigorous and informed conversation. Anyone providing a platform to critics of anti-racism is not working in the public interest. They are simply pandering to a conservative backlash against social justice and exposing Asian-Australians to harm.
- Dr Gerald Roche is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at La Trobe University's Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy. Jenny Leong is the Greens member for Newtown and multiculturalism spokesperson in the NSW Parliament.