City of Sydney councillor Robert Kok has been responsible for organising the city’s Lunar New Year festival for the past 12 years, and to his pride it has gone from a humble street exhibition to an international event attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, making it one of the biggest such celebrations outside China. Getting the support of Asian community groups in Sydney and promoting it throughout the Asia-Pacific region has been key to the festival’s success, greatly boosting tourism and revenue for the city. But in August this year, at a time when anti- China sentiments in Australia were at an all-time high, the Malaysian-born Kok found himself the subject of an article on the website of national broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) titled “City of Sydney councillor Robert Kok advising ‘pro-Beijing’ group linked to the Chinese Communist Party ”. The article pointed to Kok’s appointment as an adviser to the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC). Kok’s three-year tenure with the ACPPRC ended at the end of 2018. Kok’s case, and others like it, highlight how there are increasing reports by mainstream media outlets, politicians and others about Australians purportedly working as Chinese agents at the behest of Beijing, with no proof that they actually do. In the eyes of some analysts, this is an outcome of deteriorating relations between Australia and China and an increasingly outspoken Australian defence-security-intelligence league that is fast dominating public discourse about national security threats. As it continues, people like Kok are speaking out, trying to seek recourse to what they see as unwarranted shaming rooted in racism and rampant nationalism. The ACPPRC came under the media glare two years ago when one of its former chairmen, the Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo , was banned from Australia after he was found by the government to be “amenable to foreign interference”. The government issued him a letter with the finding and cancelled his residency visa while he was in Hong Kong . FUELLING SUSPICION Founded by Chinese and other Asian community organisations in Australia 20 years ago, the ACPPRC says it promotes the peaceful reunification of China as well as economic and cultural exchanges between China and Australia. It once listed former Australian prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke as honorary patrons, and some of its earlier members were also part of the inaugural Sydney Lunar New Year Festival 24 years ago. The ACPPRC has been accused of having links to China’s United Front but it maintains it has no ties to the Chinese Communist Party and does not list itself on the Australian government’s foreign influence transparency register, where individuals or entities acting on behalf of a foreign principal self-declare to that effect. It’s jumping at shadows, hitting targets that mostly can’t respond Hamish Mcdonald, former Asia foreign correspondent The ABC article said Kok’s position was revealed only after its reporter asked the City of Sydney to publish its “register of interests”, a new requirement of local councils in Australia showing councillors’ other positions, titles and investments. The City of Sydney had been tardy in publishing the register, as had a slew of other councils in the greater Sydney area. Kok declared the position on time last September, council documents showed. The allegation by the ABC caused problems for Kok professionally and personally. He said his family, friends and business contacts expressed fear about being targeted and he struggled to sleep. “This article came out of nowhere. It was a shock and still is,” Kok told This Week in Asia . “My honorary advisory role with ACPPRC was made out like it was a recent discovery … it then follows with links to Huang whose supposed intentions and subsequent predicament have nothing do with me or the festival.” “It is very upsetting. Firstly, I am an Australian who migrated to Australia over 30 years ago and spent more time here in Australia than Malaysia, where I was born,” said Kok, who is 50. “This article and its headline made me feel vilified because of my cultural heritage. “Others upset by this have asked me, if I, a Malaysian-born Australian who is English educated can be smeared for working for the Chinese Communist Party, who is safe?” Raid on Australian MP Moselmane highlights insecurity, says analyst Tony Pun, who is seen as a leader in Sydney’s Chinese-Australian community, said Kok had always been circumspect about his role with the ACPPRC, which he said was a position offered to Kok by virtue of his role as the chair of the Sydney Lunar New Year Advisory Group. Kok was one of nine advisers to the ACPPRC, some of whom are current public figures but do not have Chinese ancestry. Pun said many Asian community organisations tended to seek Kok’s presence in some form as a way of gaining publicity, and that it was a normal thing for political figures to give “face” to the leaders of such organisations by agreeing to be their “advisers”. “To suggest Robert would go further than be the traditional role of adviser is absurd. Robert is soft-spoken but firm on public matters and it would be difficult to convince him to do anything that would be in conflict with his council duties,” Pun said. MULTIPLE TARGETS Kok is not the only one who has woken up to being the centre of a media article. In May, Richard Yuan, who founded the Australia China Goodwill Association, was startled by a call from a reporter for the broadcaster Seven Network. Several hours later, an article about his China-Australia medical supplies donation drive was published on the Seven Network website. The article claimed that Yuan had attempted to sell a shipment of medical supplies to Australian government agencies for a profit – even though Yuan had told the reporter that he and his business partners at the association had bought the goods to donate to medical groups and local communities. Yuan said he had intended the donations as a gesture of “goodwill” because he and his partners had grown weary of accusations in the local media that Chinese people in Australia were depleting the country’s mask and personal protective equipment (PPE) resources by shipping them to China at an early stage in the initial coronavirus outbreak, even though Australia was free of any infections at the time. ‘You Chinese virus spreader’: after coronavirus, Australia has a racism outbreak Yuan sued for defamation, and Seven Network reached a private settlement with him, publicly apologising in June and retracting the report online. “The story has caused me significant harm,” Yuan told This Week in Asia . “It has damaged my reputation considerably. It has painted me in a negative light and made a lot of people lose confidence in me. I have been brought into public hatred, ridicule and contempt, which has caused me to lose friends and professional connections.” Yuan said he suffered depression and insomnia following the story, while his children were bullied at school. “As a proud Australian, I do not deserve this and neither does anyone in the Australian community.” The only other Australian who is publicly known to have successfully defended himself against such media attacks is the billionaire property developer Chau Chak Wing. A 2015 article by what was then Fairfax Media and is now part of Nine Network accused Chau of being involved with a group that bribed a former UN official in 2013 to promote their business interests with the United Nations. The article also suggested Chau was “an agent of ... the Chinese state”. Chau’s lawsuit commenced at the Federal Court in 2018 and he won his initial case and an appeal, with an Australian federal court saying the article used “sensational and hyperbolic language” and was “derisive and disparaging, if not, at times, sneering and contemptuous” towards Chau. The case, which was only decided in February 2019 (and appeal overturned in March 2020), lifted the lid on the motivations behind the growing trend of media stories slanted against Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians, which are often based on unnamed sources. ‘The barbarians aren’t Chinese’: Australia’s foreign relations bill faces local backlash The courts in Chau’s case said the reporter in question “took glee” in attacking Chau while presenting “outlandish and paranoiac statements or theories” about Chau as evidence. “Most significantly, however, I have serious doubts about the honesty and reliability of at least one aspect of the evidence concerning a supposed confidential source of information. As will be seen, I doubt that that confidential source existed, or that if the source did exist, that he gave [the information which was claimed],” Federal Court Judge Michael Wigney said in February last year. Chau went back to court this month for another lawsuit against ABC – the same newsroom that reported on Kok – and Fairfax for defamation over a broadcast in 2017 that accused Chau of “betraying his country” to serve China. INTEGRITY QUESTIONED Many other individuals working in public service or are known commentators on Australia-China issues have also had a hard time fending off suspicions and faced questions over their integrity and loyalty. They include South Australian MP Jing Lee, Chinese-Australians Gladys Liu and Jennifer Yang – who both ran as candidates in the federal seat of Chisholm in Melbourne – and other Australians not of Chinese descent, including the members of the prominent Australian think tank China Matters. Allegations of their links to the CCP are often not backed by concrete evidence. In Australia, Asian ethnic minorities make up roughly 13 to 14 per cent of its 25.6 million population with 1.2 million people identifying as having Chinese ancestry, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australia’s increasingly lockstep alliance with the United States , which is mired in a raging rivalry with China over trade, technology and the South China Sea , has fuelled coverage of alleged Chinese spies and foreign interference in domestic affairs, observers say. There has also been a rise of sinophobia, which has roots not only in the former White Australia policy – which for seven decades sought to ban all but white immigrants to the country, and was only fully phased out in 1973 – but in the fear that Australia will be flooded with Chinese migrants and workers who will take local jobs and homes and threaten Anglo-Australian hegemony, research has shown. Material used to justify spying allegations often includes photos of Chinese-Australians or Asian-Australians having a meal or attending a function at a Chinese community event. On October 14, things stepped up a notch when Australian Senator Eric Abetz – who is of German descent and whose great-uncle was a Nazi – demanded that three Australians of Chinese ancestry publicly condemn the Chinese Communist Party during a parliamentary inquiry into Asian diasporas. The three Australians condemned it as a “loyalty test” and “race-baiting McCarthyism”, referring to the American era in the late 1940s and 1950s when individuals were accused, without evidence, of treason or subversion, usually relating to their alleged membership in the Communist Party. Former Asia foreign correspondent Hamish Mcdonald, who now writes a column about the Australian media’s coverage of Asian affairs on the John Menadue public policy website, said the media frequently took the line that “they are protecting Australian sovereignty and identity” when they put out reports on China’s alleged interference. “Australia’s defence establishment has been locked onto the US since the Pacific War, and its armed forces are now practically embedded with the US military … historians have likened the US alliance to a state religion,” he told This Week in Asia. “It’s jumping at shadows, hitting targets that mostly can’t respond. “People are getting painted as fifth columns, sell-outs of the national interest,” he said, adding that it was now “a time of rising suspicion and widespread harassment”. Mcdonald said it was worrying when articles or broadcasts by Australian media outlets painted a picture of Australia being held in the clutches of the Chinese Communist Party, but worse, he added, was that they showed little faith in the strength of Australia’s own institutions. Former New South Wales Supreme Court judge Michael Pembroke told ABC Radio in October that the pervasive anti-China sentiment in Washington or Canberra was being “fuelled by a nativist fear that a new world is coming into being, one being shaped in distant lands and by foreign people, that American leadership is under threat”. “Well, I think all of those things will actually happen. But fear is the corrosive that searches for blame and results in denial,” he said. Activists like Erin Chew, convenor of the advocacy group Asian Australian Alliance – which speaks out about racism and other matters related to the Asian Australian community through public workshops and campaigns – have also become targets, rather than China. News Corp newspaper The Australian published an unsigned op-ed entitled “Coronavirus: Erin Chew bashes the discrimination drum”, which accused her of being a racist herself and outlining how China is also racist. Chew was shocked at the vitriol that was unleashed against her on social media following what she termed was a “hit piece”. “When you speak out against the anti-Asian/Chinese sentiments in Australia you are automatically accused of being unpatriotic to Australia and somehow loyal to the [Chinese Communist Party],” she said. “If what you’re saying doesn’t fit in the narrative of taking anything and everything China down, it will be targeted by media outlets.” NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT? Australia, however, did have reason to be concerned about foreign interference from China, especially given its more “active” diplomacy, said Dylan Loh, assistant professor in foreign policy at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “The presence of Chinese influence campaigns have been found in New Zealand , Australia and Singapore for example. In that way, from a national security perspective, acting and being seen to act is important. Could this sometimes result in overreaction? Sure, the case of Wang Liqiang is instructive,” he said. “But on the other hand, it was also easy to dismiss and minimise issues of foreign interference using racialised arguments. “What is clear to me is that Australia is trying to play catch-up in addressing this problem of foreign interference. When you try to address something belatedly but rapidly, I think invariably, there is a possibility of over correction.” Wang is a confessed Chinese spy who revealed himself on a TV programme while seeking asylum in Australia. Intelligence officials later said his claimed spying activities – on Hong Kong and Taiwan – were not “at a level that would attract any interest from Australia”. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak in February, Mike Burgess, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), said the country was facing an “unprecedented” threat of foreign espionage and interference”. “It is higher now than it was at the height of the Cold War,” he said in a speech in Canberra. Burgess also said there were cases of academics and scientists infiltrating Australian universities to collect intelligence. Georgina Downer of the geopolitical risk advisory firm Tenjing Consulting, whose father was former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, said concerns of foreign interference from China had been growing over the past 10 years, leading media outlets to pursue stories on suspected cases of interference. “Of course, in a free society like Australia where freedom of the press is a fundamental component of our liberal democracy, it is expected that journalists will conduct their own investigations into individuals or organisations who might be breaching Australian law,” she said. ANTI-CHINA NARRATIVE China observers such as former foreign minister Bob Carr, former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby and Labor Senator Kim Carr have called out the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which is funded by the Australian and foreign governments, as one of the architects of the anti-China and pro-US and cold war narrative that underlined these media reports. Other drivers are academics and government backbenchers like ex-soldier Andrew Hastie and Senator Abetz, who call themselves the “wolverines”, a group trying to fight off “communist influence” and support politicians such as Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, who has a strong stance on border control and cutting immigration. Mcdonald said their work was possible because media often accepted “leaked” information, particularly journalists working in the Canberra press gallery. “A lot of time this is fed to them by government departments and think tanks that also have a vested interest in looking like they are spotting dangers and alerting us. Sometimes it’s selective leaking, sometimes just instant quotes. ASPI is one source. The Home Affairs Department, which now includes several federal security agencies, is a steady leaker,” Mcdonald said. Lawyer Ian Cunliffe, who was deputy to the secretary of Australia’s first royal commission into intelligence and security in the 1970s, which looked at whether ASIO had targeted innocent people, said the Department of Home Affairs under Dutton had been stacked with “hardline China hawks”. The presence of ASPI has coincided with a time when the quality of Australian government’s external relations is poor. Chinese-Australians hunt white men who hit Asian delivery rider “The ASPI is also heavily implicated in this decline. It is very much a tool of the US military and industrial complex and of the Australian Departments of Defence and Home Affairs, and it plays their tune,” he said. The establishment of ASPI right at the time when Australian media and universities declined in their roles as sources of thoughtful analysis, meant it has instead become a source of commentary on China-related issues, Cunliffe said. Justin O’Connor, a professor in Cultural Economy at the University of South Australia, was stunned by the sudden cancellations of defence, military, tech-based collaboration research programmes with China at his university. He said there were backbenchers in the Australian parliament with military-security-intelligence ties who are “controlled by Peter Dutton’s super-ministry” that promotes strong borders, xenophobia and authoritarianism. “What is scary is that this has moved from the usual far-right ideologues into the mainstream,” he said. RAISING AWARENESS The problem for those at the centre of the media’s attention – Kok, Yuan, Chew and Chau among others – is that legal remedies are limited, and the onus is on the victims to seek reparation for the damage to their reputations, said Greg Barns, a human rights and criminal defence lawyer who practises in Melbourne and Hobart and is the former director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. “One of the difficulties for people who are on the receiving end of anti-China media, either directly or indirectly, is that the legal protections are weak,” Barns said. “While there are criminal offences in most states and territories in Australia outlawing racial abuse and dealing with inciting racial hatred, there have been very few cases which have made it to court. In fact, many individuals are too frightened to complain to authorities.” Referring to claims against China Matters in June when its tax-deductible status was stripped due to “alleged links to the Chinese Communist Party”, he said: “The motive behind the Australian government action could be argued to be racist, given that similar actions have not been taken against similar organisations that are linked to, say, the US or Indonesia.” Barns said there was now an awareness of the need for legal reform to make it easier for targeted individuals and organisations to sue for damages. “The intentional infliction of harm by governments or individuals on individuals and organisations should form the basis for a legal action. That is, if it can be shown that the action taken was done for malicious or racist purposes and it has caused loss of privacy, loss of reputation and other harm to the victim, then it should be actionable,” he said.