JOHN FITZGERALD. Reply to Bob Carr

Writing on this blog on 13 May, Bob Carr took me to task for not saying and not writing a good many things, particularly about Chinese Australians. This debating technique is new to me. As a rule, debaters rebut what people do say, not what they don’t. So let me say this.

Over the years I have written a good deal about Chinese government and party interference operations and the challenges these present for Australia’s values, institutional integrity and sovereignty. I welcome and encourage criticism of anything I have actually said or written on the matter. Criticism of things not said belongs in an alternative universe.

Much of my information comes from Chinese-Australians who share my concerns. But among the many things I have said (and the infinitely more I haven’t) I cannot recall anything that would suggest I see myself as spokesperson for the Chinese-Australian community, a diverse and articulate community that is more than capable of speaking for itself. If speaking on behalf of Chinese Australians is a job for an old white man then the position appears already to be filled.

I don’t speak for Clive Hamilton either as he is perfectly capable of representing himself.

But speaking as a citizen of this country I have long been concerned that our political class – left and right, Labor and Liberal – has let Australians down by failing to acknowledge the problem of Chinese communist party and government interference in Australian public life.

This is only partly about United Front operations among Chinese Australians and other Chinese communities overseas. Far more important are the university compromises, political party donations, media buy outs, and recruitment of business and political elites to do Beijing’s bidding, on which I have written at length.

Rather than acknowledge or address these problems, Carr diverts attention to allegations of racism and then follows up by querying things never said and why I never said them. His solution to the problem that he manufactures, as he pointed in the China Daily article that prompted my initial response, is to rally Chinese Australians to come together and unite against racism, only this time without Chinese consular or embassy involvement.

His tacit acknowledgement that Chinese party officials have compromised a number of Australian community organisations (along with distinguished political colleagues) is a welcome if belated concession.

His call for unity has a familiar ring to it all the same. As an ardent fan of General Secretary Xi Jinping – Carr told Shenzhen TV that he is impressed by Xi’s leadership for the world – Bob Carr would be familiar with the Chairman’s take on the need for unity among Chinese overseas to help realise China’s global ambitions. Interested readers can explore what this means for themselves by wading through Xi’s published works.

This is not presumably the unity Carr has in mind. Still, the kind of unity he advocates offers little improvement on Xi Jinping’s vision if it urges Chinese Australians to speak with one voice to an agenda someone else has set for them.

If Chinese Australians want to unite to counter racism, they can and will do so of their own accord. Then again, they may choose to unite against calls by the likes of Xi Jinping and Bob Carr, both of whom routinely publish their recommendations in the party’s premier propaganda channels in China, to unite for purposes that have little to do with Australia.

It is no thanks to Carr that our political class has woken up to the threat posed by China’s interference in Australia. Credit is due rather to the investigative reports of journalists like John Garnaut and academics such as Clive Hamilton. Playing the race card against serious commentators, Carr renders himself irrelevant to meaningful discussion of national issues.

Australia’s institutions will continue to show how robust they are as more Australians speak out when they see editorial independence, academic freedom, social cohesion or parliamentary sovereignty compromised through pressure from a foreign country. Historically, we have been quick enough to do this where the U.S. is concerned: witness the fierce anti-Americanism of the seventies when I, along with many others, felt Washington was intervening in our domestic affairs.

It’s the same with China. If Beijing does not stop pushing, Australians cannot really afford to stop pushing back. That’s just who we are.

John Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor at Swinburne University of Technology

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6 Responses to JOHN FITZGERALD. Reply to Bob Carr

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    You know – in all the discussions I read on this subject, no-one acknowledges what is surely a critical – a fundamental – difference between China and Australia in both political culture and in constitutional governance.

    China’s President is China’s life-long dictator.

    By all means be critical – please risk being aggressive or apologetic – but I (for one) am completely unable to see China’s actions outside of the massivity of this bottom line.

    I dislike Trump as much as anyone else. Yet I fully understand why he has banned Huawei from involvement with the U. S. 5G system. As I can Australia’s like-minded decision.

    As for Bob Carr – the guy wouldn’t recognise a Constitution if he fell over one. Does anyone recall how strident his angry opposition was to ‘mere lawyers’ challenging his Executive power as Premier?

  2. Mark Freeman says:

    Some good points John but methinks you doth rather weaken your case and standing by protesting too much. You’re not being accused of lying by omission but perhaps conveniently ignoring some matters. These are established legitimate forms of criticism.

    None of the major powers is particularly trustworthy but at least China hasn’t invaded anyone way out of their zone, imposed unwarranted trade sanctions or abrogated its own hard won treaties lately. Some perspective please.

  3. Marcello Milani says:

    I have many Tibetan friends here in Australia. They tell me that many of their events, especially visits here by the Dalai Lama are opposed and protested by people who are here as international students. The direction for these actions seem to come from China.

    I’m not suggesting that this proves Chinese interference in our own political process, but it does show that the reach of the Chinese government may extend to the behaviour of its citizens in this country. Make of that what you will.

    However, it might be a good idea to start with the assumption that Chinese-Australians are here because they prefer here to China. And let’s not forget that the Chinese have been here almost as long as most European free settlers. The Kelly Gang had connections with the Chinese community in Victoria back in the day. Chinese settlers in Australia have a tradition almost as long as our own in this country.

    Both of which pale into insignificance beside the tradition of our First Nations people.

  4. Kien Choong says:

    It’s great to read the exchanges between J Fitzgerald and B Carr. Democracy works best through public discussion and good reasoning. But we ought to engage in “discussion” vs “debate”; as “debate” seems to be about winning arguments, not about good reasoning per se.

    I haven’t read C Hamilton’s book, but I wonder what the reference to “Chinese influence” actually entails. I personally don’t see any evidence of China trying to influence Australian politics in the way that the US tries to change governments (e.g. in Iran, Cuba, Venezuela etc). I am unaware of any evidence of China trying to influence electoral outcomes in Australia.

    China undoubtedly tries to persuade Australian public opinion on matters like supporting China’s position on the South China Seas, and on the Belt & Road Initiative. Is that the type of “Chinese influence” that C Hamilton or J Fitzgerald have in mind? I do not see why it is illegitimate for China to try to persuade Australian public opinion on these matters. After all, Western countries similarly try to influence Chinese public opinion on matters such as human rights, climate change, etc. In fact, isn’t that what democracy is all about, especially at the global level?

    That said, all such influence ought to be made transparently. One issue which we need to address is that many people, including members of the Chinese community in Australia, may well have views that are sympathetic to China’s position on (say) the South China Sea. These views may be due to “Chinese influence”, but does that mean that thereby undermine the agency of these individuals? Is there scope for members of the Chinese community to express views sympathetic to China without being viewed as agents of the Chinese state? I would be interested in J Fitzgerald’s take on this issue.

    • John Fitzgerald says:

      John Fitzgerald reply to Kien Choong

      Important points and questions you raise.

      China has expended ten billion dollars in recent years to frame what governments and people of other countries see, hear, say and write about it in every corner of the globe. The aim is to foster a positive global narrative about China and curate local conversations around issues of particular concern so as to shape other governments’ policies and programs to favour China’s commercial interests and long-term strategic goals.

      Where this is open and transparent it is perfectly legitimate. All countries engage in public diplomacy, some more effectively than others.

      Most are also alert to the risks of their legitimate foreign influence operations going wrong, including risk of public push-back, which is also perfectly legitimate. Influence operations are part and parcel of public diplomacy and public push back is a standard measure of failed diplomacy.

      Where public diplomacy steps over the line into threats, intimidation or inducements that challenge fundamental civic rights or freedoms in other countries, foreign government interference attracts public censure in addition to legislative and legal remedies.

      The People’s Government engages in both influence and interference operations in Australia. At the legitimate end it provides journalists with free guided trips to China and supplies schools with party-approved textbooks and the like. At the improper end it censors Chinese-Australian community media, calls on university executives to cancel events it finds offensive (with implied threats to student enrollment and research collaboration) and it intimidates religious believers, among other things.

      To the best of my knowledge, Australian governments neither denounce foreign influence activities on Australian soil nor censure free and open public discussion about them, whatever the country involved.

      Australian governments do however legislate against foreign interference, and they empower appropriate agencies to monitor interference activities and, where necessary, to enforce the law.

      Members of Chinese-Australian communities are entitled to express their views for or against Chinese government claims or conduct, as all Australians are, and to do so without fear of being tainted ‘agents’ of a foreign government. The focus of government efforts is on actual agents, not imagined ones, and in my judgement they are generally not Chinese Australians.

      PM Turnbull was clear on this distinction in introducing the legislation that attracted so much criticism. He said:
      ‘We are focused on the activities of foreign states and their agents in Australia and not the loyalties of Australians who happen to be from a foreign country. There is no place for racism or xenophobia in our country. Our diaspora communities are part of the solution, not the problem. To think otherwise would be not only wrong and divisive but also folly—in a nation where most of us come from migrant families and one in four of us was born overseas. Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, Speech introducing the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interferences) Bill 2017, 7 December 2017 //www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/speech-introducing-the-national-security-legislation-amendment-espionage-an

      • Kien Choong says:

        Thank you, to Professor Fitzgerald, for taking time to read my comments and to reply. Democracy works best through public discussion and good reasoning.

        I expect that as China’s development progresses, the level of public discussion and good reasoning in China will continue to increase; acknowledging however that progress is not always linear.

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