NOOSA – In February, author Hervey Forsythe wrote in PNG Attitude of how an Australian government-supported think tank, the Lowy Institute, had been accused of racism and ‘infantilising’ Pacific islanders.
In ‘Lowy feels heat over ‘tone deaf comments’, Forsythe told how the Institute faced a barrage of criticism following an extraordinary article in its magazine, The Interpreter.
This had referred to the departure of five Micronesian nations from the Pacific Islands Forum as a “toddler’s tantrum” adding that Pacific island nations had “some growing up to do”.
There was an immediate and shocked reaction from Pacific Islands' nations and also from Papua New Guinea.
The eminent Papua New Guinean commentator Martyn Namorong said the article was “typical Australian snobbery”. The Institute was tone-deaf and getting worse, he said.
“I’m glad the Lowy Institute ran this article because it explains how Australians think about us. They basically think of us as riff raff.”
Not quite the friendly collaborationist identity Lowy likes to project. More the contemptuous post-colonial, er, snob.
Leading PNG businessman Corney Korokan Alone's reaction was to point out that colonial-era sentiments about the Pacific were alive and well in Australia.
“We as people, and the land, have been viewed as the exploitation paradise for plunder and wholesale extraction,” he said. “Believe them when they tell you [the truth].”
And University of Papua New Guinea academic Maholopa Laveil, asked, “Where's the objectivity and sensitivity of a foreign policy think tank?”
The one voice to jump to Lowy’s defence, but only briefly, was The Australian’s foreign affairs correspondent, Ben Packham, who tweeted – and later deleted – a suggestion that the Lowy Institute had been subject to a pile-on by a ‘woke’ Pacific.
It was a rare lapse from the usually astute Packham, who has lived in the region and retains a fine grasp of PNG and Pacific sensibilities.
The two Lowy Institute employees who had fuelled the ruckus, Dan Flitton and Jonathan Pryke, later apologised.
But now the Institute seems to have again run into racially troubled waters with a survey report released earlier this month, ‘Lines blurred: Chinese community organisations in Australia’, that carries a number of inferences that some or many Chinese-Australians carry with them divided loyalties between China and Australia.
And when a hazy report drawn from an inadequate survey offers suggestions, imputations and inferences that point to but never wholly articulate a lack of appropriate patriotism among some or many or who knows, maybe few, Chinese Australians, well maybe you can see the problems.
The first is the dog whistle itself, the second is its subversive contention that Chinese Australians may be a threat, the third is some notion that Chinese Australians, in exercising their democratic rights to have whatever political opinions they like, are somehow suss.
And the fourth problem is the impact of all of this on Chinese Australians themselves.
The report asserts that “the dramatic shift in the bilateral relationship between China and Australia in recent years” could make Chinese-Australians “more receptive to messages critical of Australia” and “more receptive to overtures by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]”.
It presents a shallow, stereotypical and culturally ignorant view of Chinese Australians.
In a spirited response, tellingly titled ‘Caged Community’, lawyer Kingsley Liu, national president of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, fires back saying the Lowy Institute report “sets newer migrants against established Chinese Australians”.
And that's only for starters.
Liu writes that Chinese Australians, although a highly diversified and stratified community, “are more than ever united, but not as a communist front as hinted throughout the report.
“We are united against the continuing rollout of government policy.”
Liu relates how Australian government policies, from the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act to the 2018 Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme and 2020 introduction of English proficiency immigrant tests, have framed the Australian Chinese population, and especially its more recent arrivals, as possibly subversive, although that's my word not Liu's.
Liu also doesn’t use the word ‘demonise’, but I will.
“The issues raised in the [Lowy] report are confusing," Liu writes. "The geographical hints of the motherland are dropped across the document as if the dagger of proximity is worth dangling over the loyalty test.
“We are petrified of the question that hangs in the air like celestial dust ... also known as the public squirm test for Chinese Australians: ‘Will you condemn the CCP?’
“Because, if you don’t you condemn the CCP, you must support it — guilt by association, or guilt by lack of dissociation, are now interchangeable.
“Community groups who’ve been fighting marginalisation and institutional bias for decades might ask if this [Lowy] project serves no other purpose than gaslighting and sledging the Chinese Australian community,” he writes.
“We view this latest Lowy report as a dark fuzzy wet patch that justifies the shadows of foreign interference laws, demeans aspects of our already marginalised civic contributions and leadership, further paints the ‘old divide and rule’ between the newer migrants and more established sector, and prolongs the mission of our founding fathers, the apartheid powers in section 51 in the Australian Constitution.”
Liu questions the worth of the Lowy survey of 30 questions which targeted significant leaders who “tended to endorse the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme”.
Why wouldn’t they tend to endorse it when questioned by operatives from the Lowy Institute, with its known close connections to the Australian government?
“I suspect analytical bias,” Liu writes, and so do I. It was hardly a comprehensive and cross-sectional study by Lowy, and its reliability, validity, good sampling and cultural appropriateness can all be challenged
Liu writes that the report “paints the arch-enemy influence model forever linked to mainland Chinese organisations” and it conjures in Chinese Australians the perception that white Australians harbour dark suspicions that “secret Chinese Community Party (CCP) business [is] all conducted under our noses in our Chinatowns.”
He questions why the report seems to believe it’s the racism on the street that is Chinese Australians’ biggest problem, when the issue is in reality much deeper and more invidious and sinister.
Much worse is the miasma of suspicion where “simple questions from mainstream Australia [have] us ducking around with answers.”
Defensive answers from people who believe they’re not trusted and who are seeking desperately to be accepted.
Answers like, “I only love my culture and history; I have not been able to look like an Aussie yet; please allow me to prove a few more generations and with more intermarrying.”
These are the important insights Kingsley Liu surfaces in his response to the Lowy Institute’s report.
When they are stacked against the Pacific slurs of February, and heaven knows what else, Liu suggests there’s more, I think it’s about time this think tank gave some real thought to its own cultural understandings and biases.
“It’s no wonder that we seek redress,” wrote Liu. And who could disagree with him.
Chinese Australians are becoming collateral damage....
Extract from: Parliament of Australia, Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, An inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy, Chapter 4, ‘The Australian people: Citizenship, culture and religion, social cohesion’. February 2021