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Racism flares as China relationship erodes

“There is an increase in racism against Australians of Asian and Chinese descent, based on a number of incidents I’ve learnt about,” he says.

Hua lost at the election to Labor’s Clare O’Neil but was elected last year to Kingston Council. He says negative news stories about China are leading some people to target Australians of Asian descent. “The anger towards China is unfairly being pushed onto our local community,” he says.

Medical workers move a person who died from COVID-19 at a hospital in Wuhan in February last year.

Medical workers move a person who died from COVID-19 at a hospital in Wuhan in February last year.Credit:AP

Will this get worse? There is no doubt the pandemic has quickened the deterioration in Australia’s relations with China and its president-for-life, Xi Jinping. Like any one-party regime, the Chinese Communist Party has responded to the crisis by closing down scrutiny and confecting outrage against critics.

First, the Xi regime took offence at Australia’s support for an inquiry into how the virus spread from Wuhan. Then it imposed trade restrictions on Australian goods. Then it provoked Australia with a tweet showing a soldier killing a child.

Those who trade with China believe its coal miners are more powerful than steelmakers.

Those who trade with China believe its coal miners are more powerful than steelmakers.Credit:Anna Warr

It would be easy to dismiss concerns about Australian racism when Xi’s army forces an estimated 1 million Uighurs into “re-education” camps, just as Mao Zedong ordered the army into Tibet.

But it would be wrong. Racism is abhorrent wherever it occurs. And an increase in racism can only damage Australia when it tries to manage a long period of tension with Xi and his regime.

How long? Business chiefs expect the freeze to last for years. Xi will not be swayed by Chinese households that have to pay more because Australian beef is stopped at the border.

On coal, for instance, there is even an incentive to keep punishing Australia. Those who trade with China believe its coal miners wield more power than its steelmakers, so there is louder noise to turn away ships carrying Australian coal.

This means the pain for Australia will only increase. Workers have already felt the impact in timber, seafood and wine. The damage in coal could be several thousand jobs.

Eventually, in iron ore, China will develop mines in east Africa like Simandou in Guinea. Getting the ore to a seaport will be expensive, but China will invest billions of dollars to drive down the price of Australian ore. This is not a Chinese threat: it is what BHP and others expect.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during his address to the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra on Monday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during his address to the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra on Monday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The way to save jobs is easy: give Xi what he wants. Stop criticising human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Stop calling for international law in the South China Sea. Stop banning Huawei. Stop rejecting China Inc takeovers of Australian companies.

None of this will happen, at least in the near term. Scott Morrison wants a dialogue with Xi without concessions. Labor leader Anthony Albanese supports the government on each of these policies, although not the tone of its rhetoric.

A Chinese base under construction on Mabini (Johnson) Reef, one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

A Chinese base under construction on Mabini (Johnson) Reef, one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

A key point in the Prime Minister’s speech to the National Press Club on Monday was that China, not Australia, had changed the relationship. In other words, it is up to Xi to resume the friendship. Morrison highlighted the change in China’s outlook since 2014 – a high point in relations when Tony Abbott and Xi signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

The best image of that change is not the Chinese propaganda of a boxing kangaroo and a huggable panda. It’s the satellite image of an atoll being turned into a military base.

The racism can easily get worse when ties with China will be strained for years. The president of the Chinese Australian Forum, Jason Yat-sen Li, a former Labor candidate for Federal Parliament, says he has heard of politicians who have avoided Chinese community events.

The problems are anecdotal but they also include Australians of Chinese descent being passed over for promotion, or not getting a security clearance, or not being included in a discussion or decision.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan.Credit:Eddie Jim

“We stand up to China because we want to defend Australian democracy, but if we start to distrust Chinese Australians, that goes against everything we are trying to do,” says Li. “The biggest stresses on a democracy often come from within, not without.”

Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan, a former lawyer and head of the Chinese Community Council, says there is a heightened sense that people of Asian descent are being targeted due to the pandemic. He says the data is not solid enough to make definitive judgements.

But there was a clear warning in the latest Scanlon Foundation report on social cohesion, issued on Thursday. It found 59 per cent of Chinese Australians said there was a “very big” or “fairly big” problem with racism during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Scanlon Foundation report is a large, respected annual survey led by Monash University professor Andrew Markus, and its central finding this year is that social cohesion has improved during the pandemic.

So Australia is in a strong position. The overwhelming majority – 84 per cent this year, up from the last few surveys – believe multiculturalism has been good for Australia.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch Credit:

But the report also punctures the illusion of a community free of bigotry. It finds, in line with previous years, that 42 per cent of people admit feeling negative towards Lebanese, 47 per cent towards Chinese, and 49 per cent towards Sudanese. This is depressing but real.

Some Labor MPs suspect Morrison has given licence to racism with his language on China. He certainly responded with force to the tweet of the soldier and the child.

But Morrison, like Albanese, has gone out of his way to praise Chinese Australians for their help during the pandemic. He did this from the first weeks of the crisis. He did it again on Tuesday when he asked Liberal and Nationals MPs to mark the lunar new year with Australians of Chinese or Asian heritage.

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It was a smart move. Morrison was telling some MPs to do what they were planning to do anyway, but the message might help deal with a problem that will be with us for a long time.

Asked about China in an interview on Tuesday night, Morrison said Australia needed “vigilance” in dealing with authoritarian regimes.

Australia will need vigilance against racism, too.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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