Australia Debates Chinese Student Activism

A former diplomat warns that the flow of Chinese students is a "two-edged sword" because it could lead to Beijing-inspired political protests -- a scenario others paint as farfetched.

November 27, 2012

The large number of Chinese students flocking to Australia represents "a two-edged sword" because of China's willingness to mobilize them for political purposes, a former Australian diplomat has warned the country's leaders.

In a speech, Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to China, cited the Beijing-inspired attempt by thousands of ethnic Chinese, mostly students, to prevent any demonstrations over Tibet during the Olympic torch relay in Canberra in 2008.

"This action regrettably made the presence of tens of thousands of Chinese students in Australia something of a two-edged sword," he said. "It cuts one way to the benefit of the students and Australia. But it left an unfortunate question mark over whether China might seek to cut it the other way and again seek to use ethnic Chinese here in this or other ways in some virtuous China cause."

FitzGerald, a historian by training, said he was not seeking to "impugn the loyalty of Chinese Australians" and that with the right kind of bilateral relationship, Australia could talk to China about this issue. "But we must not again have a situation like that externally manufactured counter-demonstration in 2008," he said. "China, of course, has a right to its views, but not to projection of these views in a way which infringes our rights in our country."

FitzGerald's speech marking the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and China was published last week by the Australia National University's China in the World center.

He said the torch relay affair represented "the biggest challenge" yet posed in Australia by "Chinese exceptionalism." This attitude, though rejected by many Chinese, arose from "a moral certitude which is global in perspective."

Like U.S. exceptionalism, it assumed "a virtuous or righteous position for themselves exclusively, in relation to other countries and social systems."

In the torch relay affair, the issue was not Tibet, but that "China believed it had the right in support of its view to mobilize ethnic Chinese to try to disrupt and interdict, in Australia, the exercise of an Australian democratic right to peaceful protest .... China would not allow such an act on its own soil," he said.

Christiana Liang, a Shanghai-based member of the Australia-China Youth Dialogue and recent graduate of the Shanghai International Studies University, did not agree with FitzGerald's "plot theory" that the Chinese government was "the dark hand" behind the 2008 counter-demonstration in Canberra.

"Overseas Chinese students are young, bright and educated enough to voluntarily find a way to have their voice heard by the world, (be it) love and support for their home country at troubled times or denunciation against (misdemeanors) initiated by separatists," she said.

Jeffrey Sheehy, Australia president of the Australia-China Youth Association, said the 2008 mobilization of Chinese students was "concerning." But he said "the idea that Chinese international students are an army awaiting mobilization on orders from Beijing is far-fetched and fanciful."

Sheehy, who has just finished studies in Chinese and law at the University of Queensland, stressed the importance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics for Chinese. "The Olympics was a momentous event for China, so I can understand why Chinese students felt it was their patriotic duty to counter the 'separatists'," he said. "At the same time, though, Australian laws must be respected.

"Australia must respect that the Chinese value the human right to development, while China must respect that Australian law upholds civil and political rights to protest.

"The (torch relay) incident is another reminder of the need to build personal relationships and cultural bridges so that when 'prickly' incidents occur -- and they will continue to occur as our two countries come closer together -- we can talk at a personal level to each other, and understand each other's point of view."

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