A furor involving the country’s first Chinese-born member of Parliament highlights the country’s struggle over where to draw the line on links to Beijing.
SYDNEY, Australia — It was an extraordinary question for a member of Australia’s Parliament to be asked on live television: Are you a spokeswoman for the Chinese Communist Party?
“The simple answer,” the lawmaker, Gladys Liu, responded, “is no.”
But little else was simple about the interview that Ms. Liu — Australia’s first Chinese-born member of Parliament — gave last week to respond to reports of her not-long-ago membership in groups linked to the Communist Party.
Her fumbled answers, and the outcry that followed, have exposed the country’s struggle to integrate a growing community of immigrants from China who have tended to be overlooked by the political system except as a source of cash.
Two forces are now colliding: Australia’s ethnic Chinese community is increasing in size and power just as the country is becoming more skeptical of its economic dependence on China and raising alarms about Chinese influence in Australian institutions.
Countries around the world are grappling with how to handle China’s sweeping ambitions, but the challenges are especially pronounced in Australia.
“The Gladys Liu controversy is a warning that Australia, like many nations, needs more maturity in its China debate,” said Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.
“The real fault lies in the long complacency of Australia’s political class,” he said, adding that as the country’s “major political parties saw nothing wrong with treating Chinese communities as cash cows,” the Chinese Communist Party’s “pervasive intelligence and interference apparatus saw Australia as a place of great opportunity.”
The tensions are particularly acute in Australia, where there are more than one million people of Chinese descent. Chinese have been coming to Australia for two centuries, but significant numbers of ethnic Chinese migrants began arriving after the end of the White Australia Policy in the early 1970s. While most were once migrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the number of immigrants from mainland China has been soaring for more than a decade.
In a reflection of the sheer heft and reach of China, many Chinese-Australians straddle two worlds, with financial success sometimes dependent on ties to the mainland. Given this reality, and the nationalist pressure Beijing exerts on what it calls “overseas Chinese,” a question is increasingly being imposed on the country’s Chinese immigrants: Can you prove your loyalty to this country? Or, put another way: How close to China is too close?
That was the backdrop to the interview that Ms. Liu, who rose in politics on the strength of her fund-raising and networking in the Chinese community, gave on Sky News to Andrew Bolt, a conservative commentator.
It was seen almost universally as disastrous. Ms. Liu said she could not recall her long membership in local Chinese organizations connected to the Communist Party’s foreign influence efforts. She had difficulty articulating a position on Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, or even on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, where she was born. Critics said she appeared to weigh her words so as not to offend Beijing.
Her political opponents called on her to declare her allegiance to Australia, where she has lived since the 1980s, and asked intelligence agencies to look closer at any links she might have to the Chinese government. The leader of her conservative party, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, branded these demands racist — a claim echoed by the Chinese government.
Public opinion is also divided. Some Australians worry that the country is casting suspicion on an entire ethnic group and demonizing a first-term lawmaker whose association with Chinese organizations may have had less to do with ideology than with the potential for wealth and power. Others believe that Ms. Liu’s case raises legitimate worries over sovereignty and national security.
Many experts say these are the kinds of questions Australia has spent far too long avoiding as China’s hunger for natural resources and university degrees helped fuel a generation of uninterrupted Australian economic growth.
“It’s only in the last two years that Australia has spoken about the downside of China’s rise. The last 15 years we spoke only of the upside,” said John Lee, a onetime adviser to the former foreign minister Julie Bishop, who is now at the United States Studies Center in Sydney.
Last year, Australia passed laws against foreign interference that require anyone lobbying on behalf of another country to enroll in a national register. Two years ago, Sam Dastyari, a politician in the left-leaning Labor Party, quit the Senate amid allegations that a Chinese billionaire paid his legal bills, and that he pushed his party to change its position on the disputed waters of the South China Sea to match China’s posture.
The Australian federal government has also taken some steps to distance itself from Beijing, like declining to sign on to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, turning away Chinese bids to build national electricity or gas pipeline grids, and banning Chinese tech giants from installing 5G wireless networks.
But after years of vocal China boosterism, Australia’s leaders have said little to the public about why they have taken these steps. They have instead issued vague statements, for instance accusing “sophisticated state actors” of carrying out intrusions like the cyberattack on Parliament this year.
On Monday, Reuters reported that the country’s intelligence agencies had concluded that China was behind that attack, but that government officials had recommended keeping the finding secret to avoid hurting trade ties.
The government’s ambivalence and lack of transparency has discouraged open public debate, experts say, leading to oversimplified arguments and conspiratorial rumors.
“I think the intelligence agencies should release more information about what they know, because unless they do that, it’s up to the imagination of the population what the Chinese do and don’t do,” Mr. Lee said. “Having been in government, I know what the Chinese do, but I think it should be released so the public can be critical and not overreact.”
But until that happens, Mr. Lee said, the debate about China will continue to falter, and the impact on Chinese-Australians, especially those with political aspirations, will only grow.
“It could go the way we fear, which is Chinese-Australians feel that everything they do is under suspicion, purely because they hang around Chinese groups or are part of Chinese organizations,” he said.
Clive Hamilton, whose book on Chinese Communist Party interference in Australia was published after three other publishers pulled out over fears of angering Beijing, said that work over decades by the party to infiltrate Chinese organizations in Australia had now “poisoned the well” for future politicians of Chinese origin.
“Almost all Chinese organizations and Chinese media are now dominated by people sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “That means that the candidates of Chinese ethnicity who are put forward in the political process and work their way up through the system are likely to be those trusted by Beijing.”