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The Lowy Institute survey findings were released against the backdrop of increasing scrutiny of Chinese Australians have endured increased scrutiny and racism in recent years. Photo: Shutterstock Images

Chinese Australians ask ‘why is the government picking on us?’ after landmark survey

  • Australia’s Home Affairs Department commissioned a survey that asked ethnic Chinese respondents about democracy, politics and the CCP
  • Academics and community leaders say the poll, done by the Lowy Institute, has loaded questions and lumps the community into a ‘monolithic whole’
After findings from a government-commissioned public opinion poll of Australians with Chinese heritage were released earlier this month, Melbourne-based media studies scholar Haiqing Yu noticed one question recurring in the community’s discussion of the survey on social media.
According to Yu, a professor at RMIT, Chinese Australians on microblogging platform Weibo and chat app WeChat were querying the survey – done by independent think tank Lowy Institute – and asking: “Why is the government picking on us?”

Yu, who has conducted extensive studies of the Chinese diaspora and Chinese social media, said many questions in the 33 areas surveyed, including sense of belonging and views on political models, were “misleading and loaded”.

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She cited a question asking respondents to pick which of three statements came closest to their own personal views about democracy. The options were “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”; “In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable” and “For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”. Respondents could also refuse to answer or say they did not know which one to pick.

But Yu said the question underlined the assumption that western democracy was good “and therefore other kinds of political models must not be good”. It was akin to being asked a loaded question like “Have you stopped beating up your wife?”, she said.

“So it is difficult for people to make a choice … it does not leave room for ambiguity, as people can be supportive of [Western] democracy while recognising the authoritarian efficiency of a non-democratic government like China’s ‘in some circumstances’ such as controlling the pandemic,” she said.

Yu also pointed to questions about news sources. Respondents, who were interviewed in English and Mandarin either online or over the phone, were asked whether they used WeChat to get English-language and Chinese-language news. Some 64 per cent said they often or sometimes did and 84 per cent said the same respectively.

But Yu said the question did not clarify the type of news respondents were reading, even though previous studies on media habits of Chinese Australians showed many used WeChat or Weibo for entertainment or social news rather than political news and for diversified perspectives.

WeChat has often been cast by the Australian media as a propaganda tool for the CCP. Last July, a WeChat chat group was said to be the centre of an alleged foreign influence plot involving MP Shaoquett Moselmane, who was cleared of wrongdoing.


Yu’s observations were echoed by several academics and civil society leaders within the 1.2 million strong community of Australian residents with Chinese heritage, which includes those who were born in the country and others who migrated from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia.

Kingsley Liu, the president of the Chinese Community Council of Australia, an advocacy group for Chinese-Australians, said the survey portrayed those with Chinese heritage as a group that “clings to the motherland, rejects democracy, and has less than ‘true blue’ values”, suggesting they were not authentically Australian.

“We are all deemed by the mainstream to be fresh off the boat,” he said. “I cannot even raise a trace of a Chinese accent and yet I stand with my own diaspora to scream silently at the Lowy report.”

Liu said he feared findings from the survey – commissioned by the Department of Home Affairs under limited tender, meaning only a limited number of experts were approached to bid for the three-year project worth more than A$1.8 million (US$1.4 million) – would be used to justify previous and new policies targeting Chinese Australians.

These included surveillance, federal police raids of citizens who do business with China, and the registration of foreign agents, he said.

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The Home Affairs Department said findings would be used to “analyse the sentiments of key cohorts in the Australian population in order to enable the development of effective public policies that promote social cohesion”.

“Promoting social cohesion is supported by research which analyses the sentiments of key cohorts in the Australian population, to enable the development of policy,” a spokesperson said. “Responsibility for the views, information or advice expressed in this report are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lowy Institute or the Australian government.”

The department also said it had been funding the Continuous Survey of Australia’s Migrants, which analysed the employment situation of migrants since 2009 but that survey, unlike the one by the Lowy Institute, did not question respondents on politics or specifically their views about the CCP.

Jason Li, president of the Chinese Australian Forum, a non-partisan community organisation aimed at raising political awareness among Chinese Australians, said that although a survey was crucial to understand the community, the Lowy survey had lumped the entire ethnic Chinese community into a “monolithic whole”.

Beijing Foreign Studies University’s Dan Hu, who teaches China-Australia relations, agreed the poll had “homogenised” ethnic Chinese in Australia.

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“They are, after all, a diverse group and should not be assumed to hold similar opinions, particularly when questions are centred around the People’s Republic of China,” Hu said. “And when was the last time an Australian migrant group was asked how much it interacted with its embassy, community and cultural organisations?”

Tony Pun, the national coordinator of the Australian think tank National Chinese Australian Leadership Group who has been lobbying for better China-Australia relations, said he would have liked to see findings for the same survey conducted for other migrant groups in Australia.

The Lowy Institute described the survey of 1,040 self-identified Chinese Australians as one the largest of the community ever undertaken. It also ran a simultaneous poll of 3,000 non-Chinese Australians to compare their views with those of Chinese Australians, although it did not give the ethnic breakdown of respondents in that poll. The institute did not reply to a question about why it had not further delineated respondents in the poll of Chinese Australians according to cultural background.


Chinese Australians have been subject to increased scrutiny and racism in recent years, after Chinese business and investments in Australia expanded amid a property boom on the east coast, where many wealthier Chinese migrants and residents have been accused of inflating house prices.

The relationship between Canberra and Beijing has also deteriorated following allegations of Chinese government interference in Australian politics. Canberra also excluded Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G networks and lobbied other countries to do the same. Meanwhile, Chinese Australians or Australians with ties to China have been accused of being pro-CCP.

Australian politician Eric Abetz last October questioned the loyalty of three Chinese Australians when they refused to “condemn” the CCP. The trio were giving evidence during a parliamentary inquiry regarding the participation of diaspora communities in Australian public life.

Within the community, there have been concerns that the Lowy survey findings would fuel more racism and further stereotype Chinese Australians as a homogenous group linked or loyal to the Chinese government.

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The week the survey was released, local Sydney councillor Kun Huang received a letter insulting his Chinese name, blaming him for the Covid-19 pandemic and for buying up property in Australia. It also bore death threats to him and “all Chinese people”.

The day after the Lowy survey was released, the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute released a separate report saying the underlying causes of racism had not been addressed.

Australia would need to embrace “Asian-ness” as an integral part of “Australian-ness”, the report said, and if this did not happen, anti-Asian racism would persist.

The report, authored by Qiuping Pan and Jia Gao, social sciences academics who have studied Chinese migration, said that despite Australia’s intentions to be part of the “Asian century”, the country of nearly 26 million had not managed to “accept and embrace the idea of an Asian future and the reality of Asianisation” because it still perceived itself as a Western nation.

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“Australia’s anxiety over its location in a populous non-Anglo/European region has led to ‘psychological distance’ rather than affection towards Asia,” the report said.

“In addition, a sense of superiority is ingrained in the Australian psyche and attitudes towards its Asian neighbours, which sustains the idea of Asian immigrants as ‘outsiders’ within Australian society.”

Liu of the Chinese Community Council said even as the government claimed Australia was “the most multicultural country in the world”, the Lowy survey was a “colonial thermometer” that had overlooked the nuances of the “complex interplay of people in rich relationships developing between Western and Asian groups” in Australia.

“[The Australian government’s] multicultural principles are getting forgotten in the mix of the new cold diplomacy,” Liu said.