China’s increasing attacks on Australia as a “racist” country are part of a calculated effort to “ignite simmering domestic tensions” and deflect from its own human rights abuses, a leading defence policy expert says.
Michael Shoebridge, director of defence, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the Chinese Communist Party’s cynical accusations of racism – frequently levelled against the United States last year – are “even more useful as a technique when countries have sizeable numbers of citizens with a degree of Chinese ethnic heritage, as Australia does”.
“But it works equally well when there are important debates like that around Black Lives Matter,” Mr Shoebridge told news.com.au.
“Claims of racism against almost any developed country – and almost any country – are helpful here, because they ignite simmering domestic tensions and debates and can spark off exactly the kind of distracting discussion that reduces the focus on the Chinese government’s actions.”
He added, “And I’m sure that the Chinese government calculates that accusing countries like Australia or the US – even New Zealand and Canada – of racism has the potential to resonate well with anti-colonial sentiment in other parts of the world.”
This week, China seized on a survey from the Lowy Institute think tank that suggested Chinese-Australians had experienced a rise in racist incidents over the past year.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the Chinese government was “deeply concerned” about the findings, calling on Australians to “own up” to racism and become “better citizens”.
“We hope that the Australian side will own up to the problem, make their people better citizens, solve the problems of racism and discrimination at home and safeguard the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens in Australia,” he said.
Natasha Kassam, director of the public opinion and foreign policy program at the Lowy Institute, stressed that the ‘Being Chinese in Australia’ survey highlighted a “broad diversity of views and experiences for people of Chinese heritage in Australia”.
“While there is very clear and worrying evidence of discrimination, this is not the entire story,” she said.
“The majority of Chinese-Australians say they feel accepted as a part of Australian society and Australia is a good place to live. They also express mixed views towards China and the Chinese government, including with regards to human rights, economic reliance and foreign influence.”
Mr Wang’s comments came as the Chinese Communist Party ramped up its attacks on Australia as a “racist” country, amid worsening relations and ongoing trade sanctions targeting key exports including beef, wine and barley.
As Beijing now sets its sights on Australia’s crucial education export sector, China has told students to make a “full risk assessment” about going to Australia following reports of racism and anti-Chinese attacks – comments slammed as “disinformation” by Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge.
Last week, the state-run Global Times accused Australia of being a “gangster” state and part of an “axis of white supremacy”, due to its Five Eyes alliance with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
China’s new-found embrace of racial justice issues – in the West, at least – is no accident.
As The Washington Post noted in September, the most vocal support for Black Lives Matter from Asia “came from the representatives of Beijing”.
In April last year, as protests raged over the death of George Floyd, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters that “racism against ethnic minorities in the US is a chronic disease of American society”.
“State-run media outlets such as the Global Times and the China Daily published hundreds of articles related to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest,” The Washington Post’s Chang Che noted.
“Lijian Zhao, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, described the United States’ race problem as a ‘social ill’ and argued that ‘Black Lives Matter and their human rights should be protected’. Another spokesperson, Hua Chunying, affirmed a now common refrain of the movement by tweeting, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Some attempts to link Black Lives Matter financially with China have not panned out, however.
A report last year from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank initially linked a venture launched by a Black Lives Matter founder with a “pro-Communist” Chinese community organisation, but this had to be corrected after it was revealed it had confused two groups with the same name.
But given the movement’s ideological underpinnings – its co-founder Patrisse Cullors said in 2015 she and her fellow organisers were “trained Marxists” – the Chinese Communist Party’s embrace of the language of the Western left should come as no surprise.
The cynicism of China’s statements – which has a poor track record when it comes to racial discrimination against Africans, and is currently engaged in what is widely viewed by the international community as genocide against the Uighur ethnic minority – is lost on few observers.
“China’s critique does not stem from a genuine concern for universal human rights and the wellbeing of African-Americans,” Johns Hopkins University political economy Professor Ho-fung Hung wrote in an article for Foreign Policy last June.
“The Chinese people have not been given any opportunity to protest in solidarity with Americans – or against the abuses of black residents in China itself. Anti-black racism remains rampant on the Chinese internet, untouched by censors who seek to crush opinions the government dislikes.”
Prof Hung said China’s motivation was “simply to tell the United States, and everybody else, to stop criticising China over its own human rights abuses”.
“Underneath Beijing’s commentary on the US unrest is a deeply cynical voice that asks, ‘If the US authorities can do it, why shouldn’t we?’” he wrote.
And China’s propaganda can sometimes get lost in translation.
As Jo Kim from The Diplomat pointed out in June, Ms Hua “likely by mistake” wrote in one tweet “all lives matter”, which is a “slogan commonly used to undermine the BLM movement”.
According to Mr Shoebridge, the crudeness of the propaganda is irrelevant – and often, “confusing issues” is the point.
“Confusing discussion of issues that would otherwise pose problems for the Party in its domestic control of China or in advancing its interests internationally is an effective technique Chinese officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese state media employ routinely,” he said.
“We have seen this with the pandemic – where Chinese officials and state media have raised all kinds of ridiculous and falsified possibilities for the origin of the virus – from some kind of US conspiracy to originating on frozen meat – maybe Norwegian smoked salmon.”
The goal is to “confuse and blur public understanding and so reduce the damage to the Chinese government from the fact that the pandemic began in China”.
“I’m not sure Chinese officials believe in these spurious stories, but they see their value in obscuring and confusing issues,” he said.
Mr Shoebridge adds that another primary approach the Chinese government has for denying its actions is to “turn the discussion away from China and back onto the source of any critical analysis”.
“The idea here is that its much better to get critics talking about themselves and their problems than it is to engage in a discussion of the actions of the Chinese state and ruling Party. ‘Don’t talk about me. Let’s talk about you,’” he said.
Further, Beijing sees value in conflating any criticism of its actions with racism against all Chinese people.
“The CCP is very focused on having the 1.4 billion citizens of China identify with the Party and for them to see any criticism of the Party as criticism of themselves,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“This helps the CCP create the impression that it is the essential ruler of China. It also means that when external voices criticise the CCP for its actions in ruling and controlling China or exerting power externally, the CCP likes to label this as racist – when the criticism is actually of a ruling political organisation called the CCP.”
The Chinese government clearly “does not see its own criticism of foreign governments as racism against the citizens of those countries, yet it tries to convince us that well grounded criticism or opposition to CCP actions is racist”.
“The CCP has no legitimacy in calling out racism, but that doesn’t mean it feels any shame in doing so,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Its cultural genocide and mass scale human rights abuses in Xinjiang are based heavily on the fact that Uighur and Turkic Muslim people need to be assimilated to Han-style nationalism as promoted by the CCP.”
But unlike the United States, where simmering racial divisions last year erupted into months of protests, rioting and billions of dollars of destruction, Australia may not prove as fertile ground for China’s needling.
“The CCP using Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, pro-Beijing advocates and state media mouthpieces to accuse Australians of racism may find receptive voices in Australia, however, my view is that our lively domestic debate is strong without stoking by the Chinese government’s propaganda department and the online trolls and bots that it uses,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“And there is a healthy scepticism in much of the Australian population about the Chinese government’s reasons for making such claims, along with a strong understanding of the mass scale of abuse that the Chinese government is inflicting on its own citizens – in Xinjiang and Hong Kong right now.”