On 5 June, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism advised its citizens to avoid travelling to Australia due to “a spike in racial abuse toward Chinese and other Asians.”
A few days later, China’s Ministry of Education warned Chinese students to undertake “good risk assessment” when considering studying in Australia, also citing “incidents of discrimination.”
These announcements may indicate Beijing’s concern for citizen welfare, but the Australian Trade and Tourism Minister, Simon Birmingham, whose meeting requests have been ignored by the Chinese embassy for a few weeks, has called these warnings “unhelpful.”
This comes after China imposed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley, and blocked imports of beef from four major Australian exporters.
Tourism, education, and trade are three key channels that form the foundation of Sino-Australian relations. Nevertheless, in the past month, China has indicated its willingness to block these channels, in an exercise of coercive pressure that seeks to rattle Australia’s diplomatic integrity.
While there has been an increase in incidents of racism experienced by Chinese and other Asian people in Australia, it is questionable that this renders Australia an unsafe destination for Chinese people. In fact, Dr Delia Lin, a Chinese Studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne, said that China’s warnings are “pretty meaningless because nobody can really travel at the moment.” Instead, they are more about punishing Australia than protecting Chinese citizens.
China’s official newspaper, the Global Times, identified three key reasons behind China’s sanctions and warnings.
In April, Australia led the demand for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. China’s state-owned media dubbed this as “a purposeful effort to smear and stigmatise China.”
In May, Canberra condemned the introduction of new security laws in Hong Kong, which empower the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to override laws made by Hong Kong’s legislature.
In June, a new security test on foreign investment in Australia raised the bar for overseas investors, many of whom are Chinese.
Theoretically, these recent diplomatic manoeuvres are in line with Australia’s values of fairness, democracy, and national security.
Nevertheless, they have clearly angered the CCP, who are retaliating through coercive policies. As a result, Sino-Australian ties have become particularly tense and fractured.
Can Australia afford a deteriorated relationship with China?
Currently, certain Australian universities rely on international students for up to 36 per cent of their revenue, and Chinese students make up more than a third of international students in Australia. If China continues to advise its students against studying in Australia, Australian universities would be projected to lose over $12 billion in Chinese student fees over the next two years.
China also remains Australia’s largest trading partner and source of short-term tourists.
By lobbying for an independent inquiry into COVID-19, Australia asserted the international community’s need to understand the origins of the pandemic that has irreversibly shaped the world. However, China’s recent policies punish Australia for leading this inquiry, and are an attempt to waver both Australia’s commitment to the value of truth, and the legitimacy of diplomatic institutions such as the World Health Assembly.
Unfortunately, this attempt may work. In Australia’s present state of economic uncertainty, it is projected to face its first recession in 29 years. It is therefore conceivable that, in this current climate, Australia may not be able to afford to suffer prolonged hits to its tourism, education, and trade.
Thus, in the recent months, the CCP has demonstrated its capacity and willingness to strike Australia while it is most vulnerable. China has also once again re-affirmed its non-tolerance for international criticism, and its absolute commitment to State sovereignty.
But what about individual activism?
Similar to the economic and diplomatic constraints that disincentivise Canberra’s outright criticism of Beijing, individual activists in Australia also face barriers to voicing their disapproval of China and its policies.
Drew Pavlou, a former University of Queensland (UQ) Philosophy student, has been given a two-year ban by the university’s disciplinary board, predominantly due to his anti-CCP activism, and “clearly satirical stunts”, according to The Guardian.
He is a vocal critic of the CCP, as well as his university’s ties to China: UQ houses a Confucius Institute, appointed a Chinese consul-general as an adjunct professor, and its Vice Chancellor Peter Høj received a $200,000 bonus in 2019, partly due to his success in “sound and strategic positioning in China.”
China is deeply embedded in Australia’s tourism, education, and trade sectors, and the CCP is closely tied to many Australian institutions, such as UQ. Just as Australia faced retaliation for calling out China on the diplomatic stage, Pavlou’s anti-CCP activism has led to his suspension and incited scores of death threats.
In fact, the very Global Times article that warned Chinese students against studying in Australia, denounced Pavlou as an “anti-China rioter” who makes Chinese people “concerned for their safety.”
Despite this pushback, Pavlou has continued with his activism. He has appealed his suspension, and recently organised a vigil at UQ in memorial of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
It is not clear however, if Australia will go down the same path of maintaining its commitment to its values. In the context of increasingly tense Sino-Australian relations, Australia may soon succumb to mounting pressure from the CCP to stay quiet.
Nuria Yu is a politics and Asian studies student at the University of Melbourne and a volunteer for UN Youth Victoria. Nuria has a particular interest in diplomatic mechanisms which can be used to address human rights issues in East Asia.