Thu, May 16, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Australian politicians learn how to court Chinese vote

‘COLLATERAL DAMAGE’:Many people are concerned that their reputations and trust among fellow Australians are to be damaged amid rising tensions with Beijing


A group of elderly Chinese-Australians take a break from playing mahjong to listen to Labor Party candidate Jennifer Yang, center, on Wednesday last week in Melbourne, Australia.

Photo: AFP

Politicians courting Australia’s 1.2 million ethnic Chinese citizens ahead of Saturday’s election are struggling to navigate a strikingly diverse community and fraught geopolitics.

The click-clack of mahjong tiles barely registers amid the din of chatter at the Box Hill senior citizens club in suburban Melbourne, where the elderly Australians are prime targets for politicians.

Chinese-Australians make up almost 6 percent of the population, almost as many as Italian and Greek-Australians combined.

In the tightly contested Melbourne electorate of Chisholm, one in five households speak either Mandarin or Cantonese.

Responding to these changing demographics, the ruling Liberal Party and their Labor challengers have run Chinese-Australian candidates. They have also turned to Chinese platforms such as WeChat to get their message across.

Chisholm is all but certain to be represented by either Hong Kong-born Liberal Gladys Liu or the Taiwan-born Labor candidate Jennifer Yang.

“Their policies consider Chinese immigrants as one group and do not distinguish between those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, et cetera,” 78-year-old William Lam said.

He approves of the equal treatment, but any sense of a single community can also mask vastly different life experiences and political preferences among the ethnic Chinese diaspora.

Some in the community arrived as students from China in the 1980s and feel an allegiance to Labor, whose then-prime minister promised they could remain in the country after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Other ethnic Chinese arrived as refugees from the war in Vietnam or from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, and want fairer treatment of asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island and Nauru.

Many more affluent migrants who came in the past decade fear opposition plans to curb tax cuts for property investors could hurt the inheritance they leave their children.

Some of the younger Australian-born Chinese see no contradiction between progressive environmental politics and conservative economic management.

“Chinese-Australian voters are like every other Australian voter — interested in politics, interested to have their say — but with a slight Chinese cultural lens on some of these matters,” Chinese-Australian commentator Lo Jieh-yung said.

However, there is one common thread in the community: foreign relations matter. Turbulence in the relationship between Beijing and Canberra can be felt in households across Australia.

A series of scandals over growing Chinese political interference has had a chilling effect in the community.

Many Australian-Chinese feel like “collateral damage” amid the escalating rhetoric, Lo said.

“They are concerned about how they are being portrayed, in terms of their reputation and their branding, but also the trust and confidence that their fellow Australians have in them,” he said.

Many Chinese-Australians recall the 1996 maiden speech of right-wing firebrand Pauline Hanson, who said that Australia was in trouble of being “swamped by Asians.”

Labor candidate Yang said that elected leaders need to be “careful” with their language.

“Once the community is divided it is very, very hard to heal,” she said. “I don’t want to see Australia going down that path again.”

Perhaps inevitably, both parties have found negative campaigning an easier way of connecting with Chinese-Australian voters.

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