China’s patriots among us: Beijing pulls new lever of influence in Australia

As Malcolm Turnbull prepares to embark on his first official visit to China as prime minister, some 60 Chinese community leaders in Australia gathered in Sydney urging him to watch his words when discussing the South China Sea in Beijing.

Unfurling a large red banner declaring the need to “Firmly Safeguard the Sovereign Rights of China in the South China Sea”, the forum was organised by the overseas Chinese patriotic association Australian Action Committee for Peace and Justice.

The Chinese New Year Lantern Festival in Darling Harbour.The Chinese New Year Lantern Festival in Darling Harbour. Photo: ACETCA


“Australia’s political elite should have a clear understanding,” the committee’s chair Lin Bin said at the Saturday meeting. “[They] ought to talk and act carefully on the sensitive issue on the South China Sea, and not make ‘irrational’ or incorrect signals to the international community.”

The rhetoric of freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, international arbitration, changing the status quo and “militarisation” of the South China Sea, it said, were all mere buzzwords utilised by the United States as part of its strategic pivot back to the Asia-Pacific – “naked hegemonic behaviour” aimed at containing China’s rise.

What were previously fringe nationalistic and patriotic Chinese associations in Australia are now emboldened in the search for greater domestic political influence with the implicit backing of a rising China and its increasingly assertive foreign policy.

The Lantern Festival was funded by the Chinese government.The Lantern Festival was funded by the Chinese government. Photo: ACETCA

The action committee has close ties with the local Chinese embassy and consulates, as well as the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, an organisation under the umbrella of China’s United Front which rails against independence movements in Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. The council is chaired by Huang Xiangmo, a prolific donor to both major Australian political parties, as well as the founding donor of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney.

“I can see in Australia, in the United States, even Europe, very strong lobby groups who work very closely with the Chinese government,” said Feng Chongyi, an associate professor of Chinese Studies at UTS. Dr Feng is not attached to ACRI.

In Australia, patriotic associations coordinated protests outside Japanese diplomatic missions at the height of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Chinese New Year Lantern Festival in Sydney.Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Chinese New Year Lantern Festival in Sydney. Photo: ACETCA

They rallied crowds to counter pro-Tibet and Falun Gong protesters at the Australian legs of the Beijing Olympics torch relay and most recently, outside Parliament House as Xi Jinping delivered a speech to both houses during his 2014 visit.

Dr Feng said some leaders of patriotic associations were businesspeople keen to ingratiate themselves with mainland officials – behaviour that would never hurt someone with business interests straddling Australia and China.

“They would use the term national interest but it’s really their own corporate interests that they can bind together with the [soft power ambitions] of Chinese authorities,” he said.

A meeting in Sydney of the Chinese patriotic association Australian Action Committee for Peace and Justice. The banner ...A meeting in Sydney of the Chinese patriotic association Australian Action Committee for Peace and Justice. The banner asserts China’s claim to the South China Sea. Photo: Sydney Today


There are signs the nationalistic rhetoric is targeting a wider mainstream – and younger – audience in the Chinese community. One of the first and most widely spread reports of Saturday’s Action Committee meeting was carried by the Chinese-language WeChat news outlet Australia Today and affiliate Sydney Today.

The news outlets consistently reach a large, young audience via the ubiquitous Chinese social media application with its blend of news and light entertainment tailored for young Chinese students and professionals living in Australia.

All WeChat news outlets, or “official accounts” are registered in China and by extension are subject to monitoring from mainland censors, and while many articles are translated from mainstream Australian media outlets, reports critical of the Chinese government are invariably avoided.

Malcolm Turnbull spoke at the opening of the Lantern Festival.Malcolm Turnbull spoke at the opening of the Lantern Festival. Photo: ACETCA

The lengthening arm of Chinese soft power in Australia also extends to cultural events.

Fairfax Media has learned that Sydney-based media group Nanhai Media received tens of million of yuan in direct funding from the State Council’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to help put on the colourful Chinese New Year lantern display at Tumbalong Park in Sydney in February.

Bo Zhiyue, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at the Victoria University of Wellington, says the size of the contribution was unheard of. “They probably can go back and say now we have won over the hearts and minds of the Chinese community in Sydney,” he said.

Opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten has also attended the Lantern Festival.Opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten has also attended the Lantern Festival. Photo: ACETCA

While the Communist Party has long sought to cultivate “loyalty” among overseas Chinese communities, the influx of recent mainland migrants and residents means for the first time it has a potential critical mass to lobby for its strategic interests, including on the South China Sea and greater acceptance of state-owned investment in Australian assets.

But the shifting demographics have also created a schism in Australia’s Chinese communities. Many naturalised Chinese-Australians who migrated in the 1980s and 90s did so with the spectre of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 fresh in their memories, and continue to harbour critical views of China’s Communist leadership. It jars with more recent mainland migrants, many who have been enriched by China’s economic miracle of the past two decades, and university students bankrolled by their parents buying up inner-city apartments.

“If you follow those analyses that some of those overseas Chinese students come from very rich backgrounds – Communist Party officials and businesspeople – they are naturally linked between them and the regime back home,” Dr Feng says. “And of course they feel they are not treated very well overseas by those ‘hostile forces’ or the foreigners; that increases their criticism of the West and also the western media.”


Mr Huang denied the ACPPRC had any connection with the action committee and that “inference that the two groups share common purposes and views is misinformed”.

“The further suggestion that businesspeople involved in these types of community groups are motivated only by corporate self-interest is also rather offensive,” Mr Huang said.



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