The Australian Financial Review is running an ‘agents of influence’ series, in line with the media’s shift from a focus on Chinese investment to a broader discussion of China’s influence in Australia. One article has cast a shadow over the million-plus ethnic Chinese in Australia as potential members of Beijing’s intelligence ‘vacuum cleaner’. Apart from this model of Chinese intelligence collection having significant problems, this kind of reporting raises issues about how the media shapes public perception of links between the Chinese diaspora and the Chinese state.  

The diaspora has certainly played a role in China’s emergence as an economic and technological powerhouse; not through spying and political activism, but through trade, investment and legal knowledge transfer. This has stemmed not from patriotism but from self-interest, which has also led Western corporations and consumers to fuel China’s rise. Likewise, the scale of Chinese money and power now emanating around the world creates challenges for the diaspora, as it does for everyone else. A series of botched espionage prosecutions in the US highlights why it's a mistake to assume ethnic Chinese are more disposed to help Beijing than anyone else, or to treat interactions with China by ethnic Chinese in Western countries as inherently suspicious.  

Unfortunately, public discourse in Australia shows signs of heading in this direction. The AFR’s vacuum cleaner article was titled ‘Citizen Spies’, and filled with such ominous insights as ‘thousands [of Chinese] already live in Australia’ and are ‘free to go anywhere an Australian is’, punctuated by photos of Sydney’s Chinatown and students at ANU. Another AFR piece described businessman Huang Xiangmo, now notorious for paying Labor Senator Sam Dastyari’s legal bills, as ‘the reigning emperor of the Chinese community in Australia’. On what basis is this characterisation made? The website of Huang’s ‘Australia Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China’ does not list any of the Chinese-Australian groups it claims to represent, let alone their membership. 

If some Australians of Chinese background or Chinese citizens in this country express support for Beijing’s policies, or legally give money to politicians, that is their right under our constitutional system. Whether it’s a security problem due to links between such persons and the Chinese state is a matter for security agencies and government. It should not reflect on the wider ethnic Chinese population, who face enough problems already with invisible discrimination.

There is quantitative evidence that Asian-Australians suffer tangibly from negative stereotyping. This gives cause to doubt whether, in a climate of febrile reporting about Beijing’s fifth column in Australia, the public will distinguish among Chinese of different views, or even between Chinese-Australians and citizens of China. One recent exposé was titled ‘Australia’s Chinese community: inscrutable ties to another China’. While the article notes a range of attitudes towards China within the community, the title is what will likely stick in readers’ minds, with its implication that any Chinese-Australian could have divided loyalties (not to mention the unfortunate word associations of ‘inscrutable’). Another article was titled ‘Rebel Chinese movement promotes “Australian values”’, as if the group being profiled is a dissident movement within a Chinese-Australian community under Beijing’s thumb; this despite its leader being quoted as saying the community ‘is divided by their political opinions’. 

There are serious questions about Beijing’s influence in Australia, and China’s party-state makes no secret about its intent to mobilise overseas Chinese support. But tarring all ethnic Chinese as potential foreign agents (and to be clear, the public discourse is not there yet) is neither fair to individuals, nor good for Australia as a society. Even if popular suspicion is confined to citizens of China, this could have adverse consequences for our national development. 

It is not just a matter of Chinese visitors propping up our $20 billion education export industry or our $47 billion tourism industry. Chinese financial and human capital may be the key to Australia’s success in the future world economy, in which mineral and food exports are unlikely to suffice. Academia, business and government are all advocating a pivot to an innovative transnational economy based on free movement of people, ideas and money. On current trends, China will be the regional hub of this activity. Australia for its part is far from an innovation powerhouse; without tapping into the transnational capital and talent pool, and the region’s fast growing markets, we will be unable to compete

Our primary source of markets, capital and talent is likely to be China. We cannot rely on other countries and arrangements to substitute: prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership look shakier by the day; Japan and the US seem destined for secular stagnation; India is still struggling with structural problems; and Europe’s choices seem to be paralysis with the Euro or declining competitiveness without it. As for the post-Brexit UK, a report on prioritising new trade deals has put Australia halfway down a list of 25 countries (China is at the top), although Prime Minister Theresa May seems to have a different view.  

Australia should be engaging its Chinese diaspora, both citizens and PRC nationals, as a resource to build our place in the transnational services economy. The potential is outlined by a newly published study, which highlights how cross-border movement and exchanges stimulate productivity and innovation. The point should be obvious simply by looking at Silicon Valley, where more than one third of the workforce is foreign-born; in Australia today, a quarter of postgraduate researchers in STEM fields are Chinese nationals. Small wonder that Australia’s chief scientist supports leveraging diasporas as essential, if we are to become the ‘innovation hub of the southern hemisphere’. 

Spurning this resource due to fears of Beijing’s tentacles is a luxury we can ill afford. Australia is not the US; we are a small economy that does not produce enough homegrown workers to compete in new industries, and is struggling to build innovative business cultures. Chinese state-owned enterprises will likely continue to pursue our land and infrastructure despite the occasional knockback. But it’s far from certain that innovative Chinese firms will invest, or Chinese professionals will be willing to stay, in a country where they feel treated as potential spies, or where sovereign risk is perceived to be high.  

We need to reconcile national security with economic imperative (after all, the money for spooks and guns has to come from somewhere) and having a responsible debate about minorities and rising powers is a necessary part. It can’t yet be said that Australia’s public discourse blurs the boundaries between legitimate security concerns and typecasting of ethnic Chinese. But any trend in this direction needs to be called out. 

Photo: Getty Images/Stringer/Mark Nolan