China Scholars Issue Open Letter to Protest Australia's Draft Spy Bill Amendment

China Scholars Issue Open Letter to Protest Australia's Draft Spy Bill Amendment
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

The draft bill criminalizes receiving information deemed harmful to the national interest and radicalizes debate on China.

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On Monday March 19, a group of 30 scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora submitted the following statement as a late submission to the parliamentary review of new national security legislation. It is published here as an open letter.

As scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora, we write to express our concern regarding the proposed revision of Australia’s national security laws. We do so on two grounds; first, the new laws* would imperil scholarly contributions to public debate on matters of importance to our nation; and second, the debate surrounding ‘Chinese influence’ has created an atmosphere ill-suited to the judicious balancing of national security interests with the protection of civil liberties.

We wish to express our disagreement with some of the key claims that have been raised in the course of this discussion of Chinese influence in Australia.

The threat to intellectual freedom

A healthy media environment relies on the participation of scholars to contribute their expertise, particularly in fields such as ours which cultivate specific regional knowledge. We view our contributions as part of our role as scholars and educators. Scholars in our field frequently receive requests to discuss issues that touch on questions of national security, and we anticipate such requests only becoming more frequent as discussion surrounding the People’s Republic of China encounters issues of political interference, espionage, and the possibility of regional conflict.

We are alarmed that the new legislation would criminalise the simple act of receiving information deemed harmful to the national interest, let alone discussing it in public. While exemptions have been proposed for journalists, this does nothing to assuage our concern that the freedom of scholars to fulfil their public function will be threatened by these laws.

The debate on Chinese influence

An important element of the background to this legislation is the debate on Chinese influence in Australia.

We are well aware that China’s rise has many implications for Australia, and confronts us with difficult questions. To best meet this challenge, journalists, scholars, and politicians should strive to provide the Australian public with an accurate picture of the shifting global situation and Australia’s position within it, and engage as wide a range of viewpoints as possible, Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

Unfortunately, we believe prevailing trends in the public discussion of China have not met these expectations.

We strongly reject any claim that the community of Australian experts on China, to which we belong, has been intimidated or bought off by pro-PRC interests. We situate ourselves in a strong Australian tradition of critical engagement with the Chinese political system, and it is precisely our expertise on China that leads us to be sceptical of key claims of this discourse.

We see no evidence, for example, that China is intent on exporting its political system to Australia, or that its actions aim at compromising our sovereignty. We believe the parliament would be wrong to be guided by such assumptions in its debate on these laws.

Where criticism of China’s actions is substantiated by clear evidence, there should be no hesitation in applying scrutiny and appropriate penalties. Too often, though, the media narrative in Australia singles out the activities of individuals and organisations thought to be linked to the Chinese state and isolates them from a context of comparable activity, engaged in by a range of parties (among them our allies).

In doing so it puts a sensational spin on facts and events. Instead of a narrative of an Australian society in which the presence of China is being felt to a greater degree in series of disparate fields, we are witnessing the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy.

In the eyes of some, the objective of this conspiracy is no less than to reduce Australia to the status of a “tribute state” or “vassal”. The discourse is couched in such a way as to encourage suspicion and stigmatisation of Chinese Australians in general.

The alarmist tone of this discourse impinges directly on our ability to deal with questions involving China in the calm and reasoned way they require. Already it is dissuading Chinese Australians from contributing to public debate for fear of being associated with such a conspiracy.

Chinese in Australia, whether citizens of our country or not, expect and deserve the same freedoms as anyone else in our democratic system: to express opinions on any question, and to support or criticise any policy. Whether a scholar at an Australian university, or a student from the PRC, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, all should be able to express their point of view without it being dismissed by accusations that they speak on behalf of hostile foreign interests.

To the extent that the Chinese Communist Party seeks to infringe on these rights to freedom of expression, appropriate steps may be required. But any such foreign influence, where it might exist, is not the only, or even the primary, reason for the shortage of Chinese voices in Australian public life. To depict the issue in these terms is to ignore Australian society’s own failure to render its mainstream more accessible to diverse viewpoints, a flaw long evident before the current scare surrounding the PRC.

We should be vigilant that public discourse in Australia does not create undue pressure on one particular section of our society to demonstrate its loyalty to Australia at the expense of its freedom to criticise Australian policies and actions.

The complex political landscape of Chinese Australia is not reducible to a simplistic ‘pro-‘ or ‘anti-Beijing’ binary. Yet, if the debate continues to be conducted in these terms, with commentators speculating as to the supposedly divided loyalties of Chinese Australians, or contemplating punitive measures to restrict the rights of those identified as ‘pro-Beijing’, we run the risk of creating just such a polarisation.

We have in Australia’s mature multicultural society the capacity to conduct this important debate with much greater rigour, balance, and honesty than we have so far. We call on all those involved in the debate to work towards this end.

Such an informed debate should form part of the much wider public consultation that we believe is necessary surrounding these laws, and we ask that the draft legislation be withdrawn until such time as that consultation can occur.

Authors’ notes: Policy Forum has offered us the opportunity to update the list of signatories again in future, so any colleagues still interested in adding their name should contact David Brophy. We welcome endorsements from scholars of China and the Chinese diaspora working in Australia, as well as Australian scholars in these fields working abroad.

* The statement’s comments on intellectual freedom relate to the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill 2017. This draft bill criminalises the handling of information deemed likely to harm Australia’s interests (variously defined in Division 121.1), or to prejudice national security, which is defined to include Australia’s “political, military or economic relations with another country or other countries” (90.4[e]). While journalists have received certain protections in the proposed government amendments, the Law Council of Australia remains concerned that “a person who supplied information to a journalist would have no defence but the person who reported it in the news media would have a defence.” Since the statement’s discussion of the conduct of Australia’s debate on China is relevant to the entire package of legislation, it was also submitted to a second review, of the Foreign Influence Transparency Bill 2017.

Signatories to the submission:

David Brophy, Senior Lecturer, History, University of Sydney

Stephen Fitzgerald AO, First Ambassador of Australia to the People’s Republic of China

Wanning Sun FAHA, Professor, Media and Communication, UTS

Sophie Loy-Wilson, Lecturer, History, University of Sydney

Fran Martin, Reader in Cultural Studies, University of Melbourne

Louise Edwards FAHA, Scientia Professor, UNSW

Luigi Tomba, Professor and Director, China Studies Centre, University of Sydney

David Goodman FASSA, Emeritus Professor, Sydney University, Vice President Academic Affairs, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou

Jocelyn Chey AM, Professor, Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University

Gao Jia, Associate Professor, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

Haiqing Yu, Associate Professor, Media and Communication, RMIT University

Michael Clarke, Associate Professor, National Security College, ANU

Andres Rodriguez, Senior Lecturer, History, University of Sydney

Ien Ang FAHA, Distinguished Professor, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Jian Xu, Lecturer in Communication, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University

Yingjie Guo FAHA, Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Sydney

Geremie Barmé FAHA, Founding Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU

Chengxin Pan, Associate Professor of International Relations, Deakin University.

Yeow-Tong Chia, Senior Lecturer, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney.

Michael Fabinyi, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney.

Michael Keane, Professor, Media and Communication, Curtin University, Western Australia

Xianlin Song, Associate Professor, Asian Studies, The University of Western Australia

Adrian Vickers FAHA, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, University of Sydney

Greg McCarthy, Professor, Political Science and International Relations, University of Western Australia

Emilian Kavalski, Associate Professor of Global Studies, Australian Catholic University

Colin Mackerras FAHA AO, Emeritus Professor, Griffith University

Mobo Gao, Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Adelaide

Kam Louie FAHA, Honorary Professor, UNSW

Kate Bagnall, ARC DECRA Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

Qian Gong, Lecturer in Chinese, Curtin University, Western Australia

Subsequent signatories (as of Monday March 26):

Kai He, Professor, International Relations, Griffith University

Gloria Davies, Professor, Chinese Studies, Monash University

Lewis Mayo, Senior Lecturer, Chinese Studies, University of Melbourne

James Curran, Professor, History, University of Sydney

Olivier Krischer, Deputy Director, China Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Denis Byrne, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, University of WS

Terry Woronov, Senior Lecturer, Anthropology, University of Sydney

Michael Williams, Adjunct Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

Jingqing Yang, Associate Professor, China Studies, UTS

Elaine Jeffreys, Professor, University of Technology Sydney

Lai-ha Chan, Senior Lecturer, University of Technology, Sydney

Sally Sargeson, Associate Professor, Chinese Studies, Australian National University

Tamara Jacka, Professor, Chinese Studies, Australian National University

Nadia Rhook, Lecturer, History, University of Western Australia

Jonathan Benney, Lecturer, Chinese Studies, Monash University

Jane Golley, Professor and Director, Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU

Richard Rigby, Professor and Director, China Institute, ANU

Ryan Manuel, AsiaGlobal Fellow, Hong Kong University

Paul Farrelly, Research Officer, Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU

Andrew Chubb, Postdoctoral Fellow, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton

James Reilly, Associate Professor, Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

Minerva Inwald, Teaching Fellow, History, University of Sydney

Amy King, Senior Lecturer, ANU, and Westpac Bicentennial Foundation Research Fellow

Claire Roberts FAHA, Associate Professor of Art History, The University of Melbourne

Nicholas Jose, Professor of English and Creative Writing, The University of Adelaide

Colin Hawes, Associate Professor & Director of Courses, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

Stephen Whiteman, Senior Lecturer in Asian Art, Art History, University of Sydney

Helen Dunstan FAHA, Emeritus Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Sydney

Ruth Gamble, David Myers Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Kanishka Jayasuriya, Professor, Politics and International Studies, Murdoch University

Christen Cornell, Researcher and Honorary Associate, Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney

Ying Jiang, Senior Lecturer, Media, University of Adelaide

Shahar Hameiri, Associate Professor, International Politics, University of Queensland

Tom Cliff, Research Fellow, Australian National University

John Makeham FAHA, Professor and Director, China Studies Research Centre, La Trobe University

Natalie Koehle, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion. The letter is published unedited by The News Lens.

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