Chinese come of age in Oz politics

| Daniel De Carteret and Esther Chan 16 May 2019

Politicians courting Australia's 1.2 million ethnic-Chinese citizens ahead of Saturday's election are struggling to navigate a strikingly diverse community and fraught geopolitics.

The click-clack of mahjong tiles barely registers amid the din of chatter at the Box Hill senior citizens club in suburban Melbourne.

This band of elderly Australians gathered around the game tables are prime targets for politicians, who need to win every vote they can at the nail-biter May 18 election.

Chinese-Australians make up almost 6 percent of the population, almost as many as Italian- and Greek-Australians combined.

In the tightly contested Melbourne electorate of Chisholm, one in five households speak either Putonghua or Cantonese.

Responding to these changing demographics, the ruling Liberal party and their Labor challengers have run Chinese-Australian candidates. They have also turned to Chinese platforms like WeChat to get their message across.

At the next parliament, Chisholm is all but certain to be represented by either Hong Kong-born Liberal Gladys Liu or Taiwan-born Labor candidate Jennifer Yang.

Some in the community arrived as students from China in the 1980s and feel an allegiance to the opposition Labor party, whose then prime minister promised they could remain in the country after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Other ethnic Chinese arrived as refugees from the war in Vietnam, or from Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and want fairer treatment of asylum-seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru.

Many more affluent migrants who came in the past decade fear opposition plans to curb tax cuts for property investors.

Some of the younger "ABCs," or Australian-born Chinese, see no contradiction between progressive environmental politics and conservative economic management.

"Chinese-Australians are like every other voter - interested in politics, interested to have their say - but with a slight Chinese cultural lens on some matters," commentator Lo Jieh-yung said.

But there is one common thread in the community: foreign relations matter. Turbulence in the relationship between Beijing and Canberra can be felt in households across Australia.

A recent series of scandals over growing Chinese political interference has had a chilling effect in the Chinese-Australian community.

The decision to limit telecoms giant Huawei's role in developing Australia's 5G network has brought furious condemnation and coincided with some Australian coal exports to China being blocked at ports of entry.

Amid simmering tensions, a Chinese billionaire who showered millions to both major parties was banned from the country by Canberra on suspicions he was part of a Communist Party influence campaign.

Many Australian-Chinese feel like "collateral damage" amid the escalating rhetoric, Lo said.

"They are concerned about how they are being portrayed, in terms of their reputation and their branding, but also the trust and confidence that their fellow Australians have in them," he added.

The first Chinese migrants arrived in Australia in the early 1800s amid a gold rush, and the community has since faced a long history of discrimination.

The race-based "White Australia" policy, which favored European arrivals, was not fully dismantled until the 1970s.

Labor candidate for Chisholm Jennifer Yang said elected leaders need to be careful with their language.

"Once the community is divided it is very, very hard to heal," she said. "I don't want to see Australia going down that path again."

Perhaps inevitably, both parties have found negative campaigning an easier way of connecting with Chinese-Australian voters.

Putonghua-speaking former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd has taken to WeChat to remind voters of the government's ties to Pauline Hanson's One Nation and her fellow populist Clive Palmer, who has railed against Chinese influence.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fired back with WeChat posts recalling comments from a former state Labor leader who said Asians with PhDs were taking the jobs of young Australians.

But for the senior citizens in Box Hill, a visit by solicitous politicians is an opportunity to tackle the really pressing issues - like the price of parking.

"They charge hourly now, and if you come here for several hours to play mahjong, it is a fortune to pay," 66-year-old Kitty Ng said.


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