Behind the 'China Panic' in Australia

August 12, 2021

China Panic: Australia's Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering
By David Brophy
Latrobe University Press/Black Inc

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the supposed Chinese threat to Australia. Clive Hamilton talks of a "silent invasion". High-ranking government officials talk in similar terms.

Former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) head Duncan Lewis said in September 2019 that China posed an "existential threat" to the Australian state. In September last year, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade claimed that "the institutions we take for granted — our parliament, our democracy, our legal system, our freedom of speech and association — they are really at stake now".

David Brophy's book, China Panic: Australia's Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering, criticises the promotion of "panic" by influential people in Australia. He says that the fear campaign endangers democratic rights and contributes to the "ongoing erosion of democracy and transparency we see in Australian governance". [p. 226]

Brophy argues that this fear campaign is promoted by those who want to align Australia more closely with the United States in its conflict with China.  He says there has been "a deliberate decision to wrench Australia away from deep, longstanding engagement with China, and to assume an active role in a campaign to preserve American dominance in the region". [p. 2]

Australia's economic growth has been driven by China for two decades. But the growing US-China rivalry has led to divisions within Australia's elite.

Some want to continue the policy of "engagement" with China, while others want to line up with the US against China, and encourage the US to confront China more strongly. They fear that as China's economic, diplomatic and military power in Asia grows, there will be "a relative American decline in the region". [p. 3] They try to counter this threat by assuring the US of Australian support.

The anti-China faction has become dominant in Australian politics.

The results include increased funding for security agencies, new security laws, police raids on Chinese journalists, a raid on a New South Wales MP considered sympathetic to China, the ban on Huawei's participation in the National Broadband Network (NBN), and decisions to ban Chinese investment in a range of enterprises (including ones with no "security" pretext, such as a dairy company).

The anti-China campaign has also led to increased racism against Chinese Australians.

China has responded by producing a list of 14 complaints against Australia, and imposing bans on some imports from Australia.

Labor supports the anti-China campaign. Labor leader Anthony Albanese has said that US power is "an indispensable pillar of Australian foreign policy". [p. 16]. The Greens are divided.

Brophy is critical of China's repressive regime, including its repression of the Uyghurs and of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. But he says: "I don't believe we advance the cause of human freedom in China by lining up with its enemies here in Australia, or by driving away ordinary Chinese Australians with Sinophobia". [p. 18]

The US and China

During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, China suffered a series of invasions. For example, during the Opium Wars, Britain forced the Chinese government to allow the importation of opium from British-ruled India, and also took control of Hong Kong.

The Chinese Communist Party, which came to power in 1949, promised to put an end to the "century of humiliation".

The US refused to recognise the new government and tried to isolate it, hoping it could be overthrown. Nevertheless, Communist Party rule brought improvements in health, education and life expectancy (though with a severe interruption during 1958‒61, the period of the so-called Great Leap Forward, when Mao's impatience to rapidly industrialise resulted in mistakes that caused famine).

In the early 1970s, the US began to change its policy, agreeing to hold talks with China. The US recognised the Peoples Republic in 1979.

China also changed. After 1978 it began opening up to foreign investment.

China was attractive to foreign capital: "With rural-urban migration controls that kept labour costs down, and its absence of trade union militancy and environmental regulation, China was an ideal place to relocate Western factories". [p. 33]

But China also wanted to develop its own enterprises. It therefore acquired "knowhow and intellectual property" in exchange for the low-cost workforce it offered to foreign companies. [p. 33]

This policy produced rapid economic growth in China, and enabled some Chinese companies such as Huawei to compete with Western companies on the world market. This has alarmed many Western policymakers, and led to the growing hostility between the US and China.

China's economic development has been impressive, but there are "huge levels of inequality in China". [p. 41] There are "more billionaires in China today than anywhere else in the world", while most people remain poor by Australian standards.

The Chinese state has carried out repression against dissidents and the lawyers who defend them. It has arrested Marxist students who helped factory workers to organise and fight for their rights. It represses ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.

But Brophy warns against holding up the West as a model of democracy: "The increasingly shambolic functioning of Western polities, with their own obvious corruption and spheres of impunity, points to the need for a revival of democratic principles at a global level". [p. 45]

Western powers single out China for criticism on human rights grounds, while ignoring similar practices by their allies. For example, the US criticises China's human rights violations against Muslims in Xinjiang, while making little or no criticism of India's repression of Muslims in Kashmir.

The rise of China has led to a "tech war" between the US and China as "the United States is attempting to check the growth of Chinese corporations expanding into fields that until recently have been dominated by the West". [p. 60] Companies such as Huawei and ZTE have gained markets in areas traditionally dominated by the US, such as Latin America, but are also making inroads in more developed economies.

The US has tried to limit the growth of Chinese tech companies through a range of measures, including bans on the supply of software and hardware to them by US companies, and preventing their participation in certain domestic US networks. Australia followed suit by banning Huawei from its NBN rollout.

The pretext for such bans is "security". Brophy comments: "All governments spy, and many have laws requiring their tech companies to help them". [p. 61] This is true of China. But Edward Snowden has exposed the extent of US spying on other countries (including China), with the cooperation of US tech companies. Australia too has a law requiring companies to assist the government in intercepting information.

There is also military competition between the US and China. The US has about 800 overseas military "facilities" (bases), including many in the Pacific. China sees these as a threat. In Brophy's opinion, this is the main motive for China's island-building in the South China Sea: "... Beijing's principal objective is to deter the presence of Washington, which still insists that its ability to take action along China's coastline is a non-negotiable national security imperative".  [p. 56]

China's claim to most of the South China Sea has resulted in conflicts with its neighbours over fishing and oil drilling rights. The Australian government has condemned China for refusing to accept the ruling of a United Nations tribunal. But this is hypocritical given that Australia refused to accept arbitration over its maritime border dispute with East Timor.

Australia, the US and China

In the past, Australia looked to Britain as its protector, and sent troops to fight in Britain's wars. This included sending troops to China in 1900 as part of a British Empire force to help suppress the Boxer Rebellion. In return, Australia hoped that Britain would defend Australian interests in the Pacific.

Later, Australia looked to the US for support and participated in its wars. But today there is a debate in elite circles over whether the US is still a reliable ally.

Some, such as defence analyst Hugh White, say that Australia should accommodate the new reality of China's rise. But others want to encourage US efforts to maintain its dominance in Asia.

The US has seven "joint facilities" in Australia, including Pine Gap and North West Cape. These bases provide "signals intelligence and satellite data for a range of offensive activities ... Pine Gap supports America's extrajudicial drone strikes". [p. 77]

Brophy says that this situation represents a "serious compromise of Australian sovereignty" since it can involve us in a war without the knowledge or consent of the Australian people, or even the Australian government. "For example, in the event of a conflict with China, America's fleet of nuclear submarines will receive targeting and firing instructions from the North West Cape". [p. 77]

In return for supporting the US in its conflict with China, Australia expects US support in maintaining its own "mini-empire" in the Pacific. [p. 85] Australia has tried to dominate the small island states of the Pacific economically and politically, and has at times intervened in them militarily. Recently China has begun to offer an alternative source of investment funds. Australia has pressured these countries to reject Chinese overtures.

Foreign interference laws

Since 2017, ASIO has been issuing warnings about "foreign interference" in Australia. The government responded with a set of laws supposedly protecting Australia's sovereignty.

China, like all great powers, tries to influence the actions of other countries. For example, it has banned some Australian exports to show displeasure at some Australian actions it regards as hostile.

But Brophy argues that Australia is vulnerable to such pressures because its economy has been restructured to be heavily dependent on resource exports to China. "It wasn't Beijing that decided to let the Australian economy rest on a handful of high-performing export sectors".  [p. 101] A key problem is "the enormous influence that the resource sector wields in Australian politics".

But the new laws are aimed at a different kind of influence which China is alleged to exert: what the attorney-general's office described as "covert, deceptive and coercive activities intended to affect an Australian political or governmental process that are directed, subsidised or undertaken by (or on behalf of) foreign actors to advance their interests or objectives". [p. 110]

One effect of the new laws is that people who advocate a change in Australia's policy towards China have been accused of being Chinese agents. This particularly applies to Chinese-Australians who belong to community organisations considered pro-Beijing. But they are not the only ones affected. NSW MP Shaoquett Moselmane's house was raided by police.

The laws are applied in a discriminatory manner. Many groups in Australia have links with foreign governments but are not raided. An example is the Zionist Federation of Australia, with its links to Israel.

Brophy describes the new laws as "draconian and dangerous", [p. 119] threatening freedom of speech and association.


In 2019, before the pandemic, there were more than 150,000 Chinese students at Australian universities.  They were a big source of export revenue for Australia and funding for the institutions.

The pandemic has cut this revenue source and — given the lack of government assistance to universities — resulted in widespread staff cuts.

Critics say that the universities had become too dependent on China. But the real problem, according to Brophy, was the long-term decline in public funding of universities.

Some people claim that because of financial dependence universities have become politically subservient to China. This supposedly results in the suppression of free discussion of China.

One critic claimed that "academics don't even have freedom to even talk about Uyghurs or Tibet on Australian soil". [p. 125]. Brophy refutes this by reporting on his own experiences in discussing issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang on campus, including with students from China. These students have diverse views, and while there was some hostility there was also respectful debate.

Brophy believes that such discussions are very important in enabling students who are Chinese citizens to hear different viewpoints: "Without more sympathy for their cause among ordinary Chinese, it's hard to see a better future for the Hong Kongers or the Uyghurs". [p. 139]

Right-wing commentators have talked of "war" on campus. Brophy writes: "The language of war that now envelops campuses has, in my opinion, laid the basis for domestic government interventions that present more of a risk to universities' autonomy and independence than anything China is doing". [p. 122]

Xinjiang and Hong Kong

Brophy reports on his observations of repression in Xinjiang during his most recent visit in 2017: "new police stations at every major intersection, ubiquitous checkpoints on all main streets, public buildings ringed with razor wire, and flags and surveillance cameras everywhere ... It felt like a military occupation". [p. 145–6]

The Chinese government justifies repression in Xinjiang using the language of "anti-terrorism" adopted from the West.

Brophy also expresses support for the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong.

But he argues against linking human rights issues in China to the US-China rivalry. He says it is necessary to "decouple the pursuit of human freedom from the politics of interstate rivalries". [p. 150]

Brophy notes that: "China is well aware that the West's interest in human rights is selective". [p. 148]  He points out that US politicians who claimed to support the protests in Hong Kong were "quick to mimic Beijing in their denunciations of Black Lives Matter activists as 'rioters'". [p. 192]

Hence it is "crucial that we can make a convincing case to ordinary Chinese that outrage towards the situation in Xinjiang reflects a commitment to anti-racism and justice for all". [p. 165]


The China panic has generated increased racism towards Chinese-Australians. There has been an increase in violence and abuse.

Chinese-Australians are often treated with suspicion, particularly if they have any links with China. This includes business people who have commercial dealings with China, or people with relatives in China. They may be confronted with demands to condemn the Chinese Communist Party.

Brophy argues that "anti-racism has to be combined with a critique of Australian foreign policies and the country's orientation to the world". [p. 217]

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