At a crowded café in Sydney’s bustling Chinatown district sit three men who each say they are feeling the repercussions of China’s alleged attempts to influence Australian politics.
The trio, all Australian citizens with Chinese ancestry, tell SBS the scandal has already impacted their daily lives – despite only being days old.
Scott Yung, founder and president of the Liberal Party Chinese Youth Council, says suspicions against politicians of Chinese ancestry have already hit close to home.
“Around the dinner table, my cousin to my absolute surprise, asked me ‘Scott, don’t some people think in the community that you might be a Chinese spy?’ and I was absolutely shocked by that,” he said.
I was quite hurt.
Mr Yung unsuccessfully ran in the 2019 NSW state election for the Liberal Party.
One of his friends, Jeffery Wang, has been a member of the Liberals since the early 2000s.
Mr Wang believes perceptions over Beijing’s reach and power are creating new stigmas against Chinese Australians.
“It does bother me a little bit in that I feel like sometimes we, Chinese Australians, are sometimes lumped in with the Chinese government for whatever reason,” Mr Wang told SBS News.
“In reality, most Chinese Australians would have very little affinity to the Chinese government. Sometimes they feel like they’re being sort of asked to account of actions of people they don’t know anything about.
Mounting claims against China – which it vehemently denies – have culminated in an ASIO and AFP investigation, adding to already fragile tensions between Canberra and Beijing.
Warren Wang, who moved to Sydney from mainland China in 2012 and recently became an Australian citizen, believes the Chinese Communist Party is trying to wield influence in Australia.
But he says the issue cannot be conflated with cultural discrimination.
“The CCP and the Chinese Australians, we should differ these two groups. There are some agents working for the government, working for CCP, but most Australian Chinese people, they are not,” he told SBS News.
“The real concern is that the CCP can be a threat but people are regarding Chinese people as a threat. Which is not correct.”
Last week former Prime Minister Paul Keating was scathing – as he warned against anti-China rhetoric.
“My concern is that what passes for the foreign policy of Australia lacks any sense of strategic realism and that the whispered word of ‘communism’ of old is now being replaced by the word ‘China’,” he told The Australian Strategic Forum.
Calls for caution and understanding
While describing the spy allegations as “deeply disturbing and troubling”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged Australians against jumping to any conclusions.
And amid the continuing political rhetoric as intelligence agencies carry out their investigation, some Chinese Australians are asking for understanding – fearing the scandal could have a long-lasting impact on social cohesion.
“Chinese Australians are loyal Australians. They contributed a lot to our country, like all other Australians,” Mr Yung said.
“It’s important to separate those three categories: Chinese Australians, Chinese culture, and dealing with China, the administration themselves.”
“I don’t believe identity politics is helpful because, quite frankly, we are all individuals. We have very, very different values, ideologies and attitudes,” adds Jeffrey Wang, who is advocating for a concept he describes as “cultural competency”.
“It’s not just the linguistics, but also the cultural context that’s important when you’re communicating,” he explains.
“It’s not just a case of getting the right words but the right cultural context as well.”