One of the first questions to the panel at the opening of the 2018 Australia China Emerging Leaders Summit in Beijing earlier this year touched on an issue that has been bugging the bilateral relationship for months. A Chinese delegate told the almost 100-strong room of her personal experience of being asked whether she was a spy when she was studying in Melbourne, and asked what role the media had played in creating this perception. The kind of question that might make a diplomat reach for a glass of water before responding, it touched a nerve that Australians are often sensitive about: commonplace racism.
The Summit was opened by the Australian Ambassador to China at the Australian Embassy and the first panel featured four experts – a senior diplomat, a business leader, an academic and award-winning journalist – fielding questions across a range of topics that have received media attention in the last year. The Summit took place across four intensive days that brought together 35 young Australians and 35 young Chinese from across geographic regions, academic backgrounds and work areas. These conversations take place in environments not limited by time constraints or the formality of diplomatic engagement, and by the end of the Summit are most importantly conversations taking place between friends. The summit is similar to the more senior Australia China Youth Dialogue, which calls itself a ‘track two’ Dialogue. Track two diplomacy refers to an idea that conversations and engagements in a diplomatic relationship, outside of formal channels, are able to add a frank and unconventional value that formal diplomacy doesn’t allow.
While the Australian public has consumed copious articles written on the topic of Chinese influence in federal politics over the past year, there has been little coverage of the positive impact that organisations like the Australia China Youth Association (ACYA) have. The organisation is largely comprised of university students, and the development of close ties between domestic and international students.
It is often these international students who experience Australia first-hand and will bring back personal experiences that shape the Chinese perception of Australia. Current ACYA President, Roger Lee, says that ACYA, “remind[s] us that the Australia-China relationship is much more than just a dollar sign or a market that we should “tap into”. In ACYA, we make people-to-people connections; focusing not on our differences, but rather what we have in common as university students and young professionals — looming deadlines, the struggles of finding a job, etc.”.
Many of the criticisms of Chinese students in media are symptoms of a cause to which these organisations provide a solution to: isolationism. For many international students, coming to a country like Australia, which doesn’t have a residential student culture and where many domestic students continue tertiary study locally, with already entrenched social circles, it can be hard to make local friends. Speaking anecdotally, Chinese international students joke that most returnees have significantly poorer English than was required of them when they arrived to Australia. Although it is normal for international students anywhere to form social circles, especially around shared language, when they number in the tens of thousands and come from a country that mainstream Australia has historically feared, it will attract media attention. As Lee says, “being part of ACYA reminds us that Chinese international students are not just one homogenous group — they each have a name, a face and their own unique story”.
China is a country vastly different to Australia in terms of culture, history and political system. But for young people, we share more commonalities than ever before: embrace of online communities, technology and concern over shared problems like the environment. So when local ACYA chapters, based out of Australian universities run a ‘dumplova’ day, their potential to provide Chinese students with an inlet to Australian culture and Australian students an opportunity to put a human face to our regional neighbour, is invaluable.
At a time when government-to-government and formal diplomatic relationships may fall upon strained times, it is more important than ever to invest in the grassroots communities that define the Australia-China relationship as more than purely transactional. These communities have the potential to create relationships, and often friendships, that dispel embedded suspicion and stereotypes and encourage collaboration on the real problems that we face as a global community. While the current value of these relationships may be a familiar face and new friend on campus, in the future such relationships may be the difference between a second cold war or an Australia integrated into an ‘Eastphalian’ world order that champions responsible global leadership focused on a diverse, innovative and sustainable future.
Chloe Dempsey is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.