For anti-racism and international solidarity: a response to Clive Hamilton on China

Anti-China racism. Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission

Clive Hamilton is again posing as a lonely truth-teller on the left, railing against cowards and apologists. His hit-piece fingers Gerald Roche and me as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dupes who “side with the persecutors” and use “race-reductionism” to brand critics of Beijing as racist.

Characteristically, his case is light on evidence. In fact, he hasn’t cited a single thing that I have written.

I will happily set my record as a critic of Beijing’s policies alongside Hamilton’s. As a historian of Xinjiang, I write and talk on the crisis there regularly, and my forthcoming book engages much more seriously with the repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong than either of his two works.

Hamilton might not be a racist bigot, but I have always held that his exaggerated “silent invasion” narrative was likely to generate suspicion and racist hostility towards Chinese Australians. His paranoia, let us remember, extends as far as ethnically Chinese janitors at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

A rise in anti-Chinese racism has now come to pass, and Hamilton wants to duck any accountability for his role. As he sees it, this has been “triggered largely by COVID-19”.

That will be news to Asian Australians who face relentless accusations of spying for Beijing when they enter public life. But even to say that racism has been “triggered” by COVID-19 is evasive. Can this “triggering” really be so easily divorced from the hunt for CCP “links” that Hamilton has long engaged in, or dubious theories like the Wuhan “lab-leak” that he has indulged on Sky News?

When a man stood outside the People’s Republic of China consulate in Sydney, cracking a whip and yelling “You fucking knew about it, it’s your plan” at those lining up, was this to do with COVID-19, or a view of Chinese people as all in some way tied to the CCP? Clearly, it was a toxic mix of both.

Maintaining his denials, Hamilton makes a predictable move to absolve himself of any taint of racism: there are Chinese Australians who share his views.

He is right about this. He is quite wrong, though, when he claims that I “obliterate the wide political, economic, cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences within the diasporic community in Australia”.

Among critics of the CCP in the Chinese diaspora, there are a diversity of views: there are leftists, there are liberals and then there are those who have taken a sharp rightward turn in the age of Donald Trump.

It is Hamilton who is obliterating difference here, by presenting one particular circle of dissidents — those who support him — as the sole authentic voice of opposition to the CCP. 

Hamilton claims I am “silent” on these particular Chinese Australians. On the contrary, I discussed them in my review of Silent Invasion. There, I said that Hamilton’s allies in the Australian Values Alliance (AVA) espouse “a love-it-or-leave-it brand of Australian patriotism, which, predictably enough, leads in the direction of apologies for Australian racism”. I stand by that.

A staunch supporter of Trump, AVA President Feng Chongyi recently held a conference in Canberra where he hailed Trump's sabre-rattling secretary of state Mike Pompeo as pointing the way forward on China.

Hamilton spoke alongside Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, notorious for his McCarthyist grilling of Chinese Australians (which the AVA praised), as well as Liberal National Party MP George Christensen, possibly the most bigoted parliamentarian in the country.

Railing against “ideological purity,” Hamilton feigns ignorance of any choices for the left here, urging us to simply join him on his hawkish bandwagon.

But while support for United States militarism from a section of the Chinese diaspora might be understandable, it is not something that progressives can invoke as an alibi for their own rightward lurch.

From the very beginning, Hamilton’s stance on China has led him to make common cause with the hard right. Witness, for example, his chummy 2018 conversation on the “loyalties of Chinese Australians with right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt, a man who counts the number of Chinese-born people in Australia to warn that “immigration is becoming colonisation”.

Hamilton’s own rhetoric, sad to say, has not been much different. When a business association in Fujian Province held an information session on study and migration opportunities in the Northern Territory, he rang the alarm bell: “Beijing is encouraging migration to northern Australia to populate it with people who’ll promote [the] CCP’s strategic power program of One Belt, One Road.”

Was this flight of old-school yellow peril “triggered” by COVID-19?

In responding to China, Hamilton exhibits a familiar modus operandi: identify a problem; push for punitive solutions that empower the Australian state; and throw principles to the wind in seeking allies.

Think back to his campaign against pornography, in which he advocated internet censorship and collaborated with the Australian Christian Lobby and anti-abortion activists. His proposal to filter the web reflected the same authoritarian mindset that we see today in his call, for example, to deny residency to any Chinese student who is identified as actively pro-Beijing.

It’s not Roche and I, but Hamilton who is abandoning “basic principles that progressives have always defended”. The course he is advocating will not do anything to defend democratic rights in Australia, nor will it help anyone in China. We are hardly going to be in a position to oppose Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minorities as a subversive fifth column if we are doing the same thing to Chinese Australians.

What we need is an internationalist alternative that combines solidarity with victims of repression in China with opposition to racism and warmongering at home.

I am sure Hamilton will scoff at that. The rest of us should just get on with it.

[David Brophy is senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney.]

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